I’ve been writing a series of books set beginning in the late 1960s. The first, Catch It Spinning, was published recently. One of the fun things for me in writing in this era is to remember some of the ways that world was different than the one we now inhabit.
In 1968, in the middle of my high school years, a telephone was just a telephone. It was a communications instrument hard-wired into the wall, or if you had extensions in various rooms, as my parents did, into several walls. Electricity was supplied to the phone through the wires, so even if the power in your house went out, you could still use the phone, assuming the central telephone office still had power.
When you wanted to call someone, and teenagers did that frequently even then, you usually went through a gatekeeper, mostly the other teen’s parents. If someone was using their phone, you got a busy signal. You had to wait until their line was free. Or possibly they took their phone off the hook, accidentally or on purpose. Not everyone was aware that there was a way around this scenario. I found out by dating a boy whose mother worked as a long-distance operator. You could call the operator and ask to have the line verified or interrupted. The operator could actually go in on the line and hear if there was conversation. If so, she would tell the person inquiring that the line was in use. If nothing was heard, the phone could be reported out of order and a repairman would be dispatched to that location.
Another option was that the line could be interrupted by declaring an emergency. The person declaring an emergency was supposed to come up with a reasonable explanation such as “I’m in jail and this is my one phone call.” If the operator deemed it an emergency, she would go in on the line and advise the parties talking that she had an emergency call for number 432-1234, and ask the parties to hang up to receive the call. Then the inquiring party could make their call.
If there was no one at home, or someone just didn’t answer their ringing telephone, you had no recourse other than calling later. At that time, you could let someone’s phone ring for hours though, so if you thought they were ignoring you, you could annoy them at length. The good-mannered rule of thumb was to let the phone ring ten times, in case the party was in the shower or unable to get to the receiver quickly. I wouldn’t think of getting out of the shower now to answer my phone even if I heard it ringing.
We got an Ericofon like the one pictured above when I was a kid. It was fun and very space-agey. But for practical purposes, it was a little heavy for the long phone calls I made when I was a teenager, because the dial was in the bottom. Plus, ours was in the kitchen where anyone could hear your very private conversations. Better to hide out in the parents’ bedroom where you could close the door and sit on the floor by one of their twin beds. It was easier to cradle the receiver on your shoulder using their rotary phone when you wanted to talk to a boy. The conversations that went on for hours could probably have been condensed into ten minutes if you deleted the repeated stories and dead air. The point was that you talked to him for hours, not that either one of you had something significant to say.
If you wanted to call someone you didn’t know well, you looked up their father’s name in the phone book. Everyone had several phone books, depending on how many extensions you had. These were supplied by the only telephone company in town. Almost everyone’s father’s name was in the phone book, although you didn’t always know the name of the father of the classmate you were calling. You looked up the last name and called every phone number associated with it. Then it was a game of “Is this the residence for Susie Snodgrass? No? Then do you happen to know Susie Snodgrass and what her father’s name is?”
When you were out shopping, sometimes you had to use a telephone. There were payphones near every store, on street corners, sometimes in clusters. These were usually in phone booths with folding doors. Often payphones had been vandalized and were not working. Sometimes the dimes just got stuck in the coin slot. But when they worked, it was a handy way to get mom to approve a purchase you wanted to make at a store downtown, or tell her you missed the bus. Again.
Another thing that was different about the phones then is that people could transmit emotion using them. Happy people would often play with the coiled cord connecting the receiver. Angry people could slam the phone receiver down and make a loud noise in the listener’s ear. Try that trick with your Android.
Phones came in different colors. For a princess phone in your bedroom, you might choose a coordinating color with the carpet or bedding. The Ericofon came in several bright and neutral shades. Your phone could make a fashion statement in your home or it could also make a statement that you didn’t care about that.
What a phone wouldn’t and couldn’t do was tell time or give you the forecast. There was a number for that you could call to hear a recorded message. It couldn’t give you any games. There were plenty of board and card games at home. It certainly didn’t connect you to the internet since that wasn’t invented yet. No email. No social media. No podcasts. No audiobooks. No online banking. No calculator. None of the other zillion applications you have on your palm-sized device. A phone was for making calls. And as a teenager, you had to wait your turn.