Boomers Called Long Distance

One key feature of our past year of pandemic life has been the ability of people to connect with one another via video calls through Skype, Apple FaceTime, Google Duo, Facebook Portal and the king of them all, Zoom. According to reports, people from the Boomer Generation have been some of the top users of the technology. Mister Boomer has recently become aware of some journalists expressing surprise at that fact, to which Mister B responds, “What??!!” Why wouldn’t boomers jump on a technology that helps them stay connected to family and friends? Certainly our history shows that boomers — the first television generation — embraced all sorts of communication technology in the height of our era.

For example, take long distance phone calling. It was, like many inventions, not a product of the boomer years, yet it became popular during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. In fact, what was considered the first long distance phone call was placed in the late 1800s. By the 1920s, all areas of the country were connected to long distance lines (though not necessarily every city and town, let alone individual houses). Indeed, in the early days, long distance lines were separate from local call lines. Some areas required the caller to visit a specific location that was wired for long distance calling. All long distance calls were placed through one or more switchboard operators. The lack of availability, equipment needed and manual labor involved made long distance calling time-consuming and expensive.

That all began to change during the boomer years. Direct dialing became a reality in 1951, and by 1960, it was no longer necessary to contact a switchboard operator to place a long distance call. Direct dialing greatly improved access to the average caller for domestic long distance. International long distance through the Transatlantic Cable could be dialed directly to some locations by 1957. However, the entire international long distance system wasn’t completed until 1970.

In Mister Boomer’s own survey of boomer friends, two things come to mind regarding long distance calling in our era: our fathers complained about the cost, and families often used the Collect Call option. For many boomers, like the Mister Boomer household, there were not many reasons to make long distance calls. All of his family lived within a 30-mile radius, and there were no “old country” folks remaining overseas to call.

However, since long distance calling could be zoned within one’s own state, some boomer households had strict rules on when their long distance calls could be made (weekends only, when rates were lowest) and how long the conversation could last (usually less than three to five minutes, since charges increased after that).

It was the 1960s before second or third phones were installed in many boomer households. Bell telephone and ATT had specific marketing campaigns to encourage exasperated fathers to get their boomer daughters a Princess phone in their bedrooms. It’s an instance that clearly indicates how boomers embraced technology in their time.

Long distance calling had another option in the boomer years, and that was Collect Calling. Making a collect call meant reversing the charges. Since the operator was the go-between for the caller and receiver, and both would be on the line at the same time, boomer families constructed elaborate coded systems to relay needed information to a family member without actually having to connect and pay for the call. No one was fooled by refusing the charges, of course, but Mister B did know some fathers of boomers who were quite pleased with themselves for not incurring long distance charges on Collect Calls. For example, a boomer in the Army might be on the way home for leave. The soldier calls home and asks for his father to pay the charges. Once the father is connected and all parties are on the line, the soldier caller might then exclaim that he needs his father to accept the charges so he can be picked up at the bus station at 8:30, but the father, having heard this info, rejects the collect call. The operator then closes the call.

Today, boomers and everyone else regularly enjoy unlimited long distance calling, and can now place free limited-time video calls to family and friends, too. Boomers always did love a bargain, so of course they would embrace the technology. What Millennial mind would think otherwise?

What memories of long distance phone calling come to mind for you, boomers?

Boomers Adapted Their 45s

There are many objects that were commonplace in our boomer years that have either disappeared from view or have taken a back seat at best. A case in point is the 45 rpm adapter. Its shape is immediately identifiable to boomers, yet today it is mainly audiophiles who know of its purpose.

45 RPM recdord adapters
Here are two 45 rpm record adapters that Mister Boomer owns. The first one slips over the spindle to play one record at a time. The second, Hutchinson adapter, is meant to be inserted into the middle of the record. It’s the classic shape people recognize as a boomer object.

The story of how it came into being is an interesting one, and its origins go back to before the first boomer hit the scene. Throughout the early 1900s and into the 1920s, there was only one size of record, and that was a 10-inch disc with a small hole in the center that slipped over the phonograph spindle. The record speed was played at 78 revolutions per minute (rpm), and this became the de facto standard.

Throughout the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, there were two companies that dominated the phonograph market: RCA Victor and Columbia. Each manufactured machines and created record companies to produce the records to play on them. Enmeshed in a competitive battle, each worked to find ways to get one leg up on the competition. In 1948, their paths veered when Columbia introduced the first “long-playing” 12-inch album, played at 33 1/3 rpm. This speed change would require all future phonographs to play at either 78 or 33 1/3 rpm. RCA went a different route and created a new format, which they defined as a 7-inch record with a large, 1 1/2 inch hole in the center. Further, it was meant to be played at 45 rpm. RCA manufactured the phonographs to play their new-format records. Shortly after, RCA introduced the first drop changer spindle that allowed the listener to stack multiple records all at once. The machine would drop each record one after the other to be played. This increased the amount of time that you could listen to music before having to get up and change the records.

By the 1950s, all brands of phonographs had to allow for the possibility of playing records at 78, 33 1/3 and 45 rpm. Since RCA was a major figure in releasing popular music, even if your record player was not an RCA brand, it needed to find a way to play RCA 45 rpm records, too. Over time, other record companies began to produce records in the format, too. Phonograph companies supplied spindles made of metal or hard plastic to fit over their own, but as can be expected, over time the mechanics of it broke down or the spindle was lost. So the stage was set for the Boomer Generation and the dawn of rock & roll to catapult the use of the 45 rpm adapter into an everyday object.

In 1950, the first separate adapter was released by the Webster Chicago Company. It was made of zinc and, once inserted, was nearly impossible to remove without breaking the record. Soon after, companies experimented with various shapes; ideally, the adapter needed to be easily removed and reused, yet be strong enough to play the record without wobble, and help to separate records when they were stacked so the drop function of the phonograph would operate correctly. Eventually, three major styles with a different number of prongs surfaced as viable in the marketplace, including the spiral Hutchinson model many people identify with the boomer era. It was named after New Jersey inventor Tom Hutchinson, a technician at the Walco Corporation, a company that manufactured cartridges, phonograph needles and phonograph cleaning accessories.

By the 1980s, first cassette tapes and then CDs put an end to vinyl 45 rpm record sales, and with it, the need for multiple adapters in every household. Many boomers had dozens of the plastic inserts permanently placed into their favorite 45s, so they could drop them on the record player at any time.

Mister Boomer’s family received their first record player as a hand-me-down from a cousin when she bought a newer model. It was the portable box variety that looked like a small suitcase when closed. Once opened, the center spindle was ready to receive a stack of 45s, as long as you had the 45 adapters in place. Fortunately, those were inexpensive and readily available. The family needed to go buy some records, so they went to the five and dime and bought a package of a dozen records and adapters. That first package that Mister Boomer’s family bought had a 45 rpm by the Beatles in it. Therefore, She’s a Woman was one of the first 45 rpms that Brother Boomer slipped an adapter in and played in the Mister B household.

How about you, boomers? What do you recall about 45 rpm adapters?