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 “Dropped A Dime”

There are many idioms known from the Boomer Era that have worn well through the ages (“That’s cool” being one), while others have passed into the dustbin of history. One such phrase is, “Drop a dime.” Originally, the phrase was used in police jargon to ask informants to call them about someone’s illegal activity of which they were aware, and conversely, by criminal organizations to describe someone who “ratted” out a fellow member. From there, it spread into general use with a more literal meaning. When you asked someone to drop a dime on you, it was a request that they give you a call. Likewise, if you asked someone to drop a dime, they should call you. Sometimes the phrase could be joined by other phrases, such as “don’t be a stranger, drop a dime,” or “drop a dime and let’s talk.”

The connection between a dime and a phone call was a direct one: a phone call at a pay phone (remember those?) cost ten cents. The caller would literally place a dime in the slot, and it would drop through the phone, signaling with a ding to make the call. Prior to 1950, a phone call was five cents, which makes the phrase a true product of the Boomer Era. This rise to ten cents came about the same time that glass phone booths replaced wooden ones. By 1960, outdoor drive-up pay phones also were introduced.

If a boomer was traveling alone, perhaps for the first time, a boomer’s dad might say, “Drop a dime on your mother, and let her know you arrived safely.” He might also offer that dime to his child. The phrase was used by both generations with the same understanding.

The idea of always needing a dime to make a call was an important lesson to learn for growing boomers. Not only did boomers need to keep in touch with parents and potential dates, but even emergency calls needed coins before 1968, when the law Congress passed the previous year initiated the nationwide 911 system. This led some boomers to update their penny loafers by carrying dimes in the places pennies might previously have occupied.

In 1973, the cost of a phone call jumped from 10 cents to 20 cents, thereby signaling the beginning of the end of practical usage of the phrase.

Mister Boomer didn’t have much occasion to use the phrase himself, but heard it spoken among neighborhood kids and occasionally by his father. Yet Mister B was known to go to a phone booth to drop a dime on a girl he wanted to ask out. That was infinitely better than having to use the phone on the kitchen wall.

How about you, boomers? Did you use the phrase, drop a dime, or did someone ask you to do so?