Thursday, April 12, 2012

Western Electric Color Telephones (1954)


Good morning! I came across this ad for color telephones in a 1950's Life magazine and you know the first thing I thought of was you guys! Ok, truthfully, the first thing I thought was "Look at all those Bakelite lookin' telephones! They look like candy!". But then I thought of you. :)

Western Electric, which served as the telephone set supplier to Bell Telephone Systems from 1881 to 1995, offered a dazzling array of color telephones for your home in 1954. The "500" model that year was the first to be offered in specific colors. Think of how exciting it would be to switch up your old coal-black model for a a bright pop of green or beige in the front hallway or the boudoir.

I was so interested to see that the models came in monotone, with clear plastic dial:


OR TWO TONE, with a black handset, dial, and number plate. How rockabilly does this little number look?


The wallphone, always a favorite of mine, looks even better with the slim fifties' handle, as opposed to the later, mid 60's chunky handle. Which color of the ones below would you choose for you dream fifties' house phone? I'm leaning towards red, but with the two tone option so the handle is black. It looks weird to just have the faceplate a different color.

Photobucket Photobucket

If you insist on staying Model-T traditional, however, Western Electric also offers you the following options, most of which I've never heard of. The "cut off switch" would especially come in handy when pesky siblings want to listen in on private, teenage conversations between your teenage self and potential dating material! I had a light-up phone in my bedroom in the early 90's, but this "light up dial" on an old model phone is news to me.


And once again your color choices. Good job including "ivory" as a paint sample here, advertising men. I thought something was wrong with the print at first!

Two phone stories from my family:

1) My mom found a weird "rental" charge while looking over my grandmother's phone bill in the early 90's. To set the scene, my grandma was one of those cool, "early adopters" gadget people who had a touch tone cordless phone with call waiting and caller ID in those late 80's/early 90's days when such a thing was the living end of home telephonics. In my Luddite household, we still had pulse dial and rotary phones. My mom was comparing charges for different functions to educate herself in case of the (entirely unlikely) event of our phone services and subscriptions being updated, and couldn't figure out to what one $4 charge referred. Upon calling the phone company, she found out that a 1950's, standard black desk-set phone, which had been stored in a back closet in my grandma's house for the last thirty years, was still racking up a monthly "equipment usage" fee, in spite of the fact that it had not been used since my mom was in grade school.

Did you know (and I didn't until that day in the late 90's) that you used to have to pay for the set, which says, stamped on it, "Property of Bell Telephone Systems", and had an option to buy it sometime later in the company's history when the whole "renting your model" thing became too much trouble? My grandma must have missed the boat on that one, because she was still paying for a phone that was sitting in storage serving no earthly purpose for ye-e-e-ars. I think the whole rental aspect is responsible for telephones back in the day being so heavy duty... you might have the same one last you forty years, but would also have to pay for the privilege! Don't you find this hard to wrap your head around, in the age of dropping your phone in the bathroom sink and having to have it replaced for whatever ungodly sum (even with insurance sometimes!)? Would a simple monthly fee and guaranteed replacement be easier on us all?


2) My dad worked for the company that prepares the phone book in the early 80's, and during his brief stint there scored this exact print (above), poster sized, from 1969, in a large frame, when it was being removed from the office during a renovation. I was always in love with it growing up, and still intend to wheedle it away from him some day in a moment of house-cleaning weakness. Do you see the video phone? DO YOU SEE. THE VIDEO PHONE. Love it.

Were you aware that Saul Bass, famous for title sequences in movies like Psycho and The Thomas Crowne Affair, designed the AT & T logo? The more you know...

Anyway, just a brief jaunt into mid-century phone practices! Which model or color of phone do you covet the most? Do you still have a landline in a bid for vintage authenticity, or have you, like me and everyone else I know, succumbed to the siren's call of cell phones? I wanted to keep the blamed thing but I only ever used it to hang up on telemarketers or call my own phone to figure out where I'd put it. C'est la vie.

See you tomorrow for Photo Friday!


  1. Damn, yo! That two toned one is ooowhee! That's so funny about your grandmother. I remember when people rented phones. My Mom used to pay our phone bill in person and I'd always go with her. To get to the counter, you had to walk through this huge display room of phones. They all had little signs in front of them with how much they were to rent - or to out-and-out buy (which was crazy expensive). I can remember running my hands over all of the receivers and dialing the dials. And wow, they had the Bicentennial phone. The one that's red, white and blue and on a stand. That thing was SO cool! They also had the Mickey Mouse phone where he held the receiver. Also very cool.

    You MUST wrangle that poster from your Dad. We don't have a land line anymore either and got rid of it just because of all of the annoying sales calls. The Mister has an old timey phone receiver that he hooks up to his cellphone.

  2. Hahahaha! You must be reading my mind or followed me around for a spell! I was on the hunt to get a rotary dial desktop phone. We always had a kitchen wall phone when I was growing up in yellow, that we rented too until we could buy it. I always wanted a desktop. So, my husband had his parents send me one for a Christmas present!!!! It is is our den on our giant old oak desk with a typewriter door/drawer. Then I got to thinking I need a wall phone for our basement line-in case we lose power line. I got a shiny black one at the same estate sale with the old diplomas!!! My husband hung it up and now scares the daylights out of me every time it rings through the floor!!! Hahahaha! I would really love a princess phone in baby blue though! That would go in my bedroom. Talking on them is really grounding. You can't wander and multi task or get a crooked neck. They really make you enjoy talking on the phone again, like it was when a house only had one device and shared a party line! I am old enough to remember those. There was something very naughty about picking p the receiver and hearing someone talking on the other side, if only for a moment!

  3. This reminded me of the 'Once Upon a Honeymoon' short from MST3K! It's by Bell Telephone and all centers around promoting colour phones!

    Once Upon A Honeymoon

  4. this is so cool! you always have VERY intresting blog posts. what i wouldnt give for a yellow one!! yellow is my favorite color so im positivley swooning!
    thanks Lisa

  5. Hey! Until '92 I lived out in BFE, Missouri. We actually had to lift the receiver, dial the number we wanted and then let the operator know OUR phone number so that we could be billed. We had a rotary dial, yellow phone exactly like the one pictured. When we moved to town, we got a touch tone and joined the 60's revolution.
    Speaking of the naughty pleasures of listening best girlfriend has a clothing store next to the local bank. Many's the time we listened in to the purient phone conversations the tellers had with their boyfriends over the bank's hand sets. (Those 90's cordless jobs)Somehow the signal bled over and we could hear every detail. I would wander over to buy a roll of quarters and try to match the teller with the debauchery. Sometimes the teller would stare unblinkingly into my eyes and it made me wonder...Can they hear what WE say?

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