Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Ringing Force in Societal Evolution

Sepia Saturday - This week's theme inspired me to complete my telephone story. For ease, I have included the first part, again, here with its conclusion. As for the theme – how much have TIMES changed, do we NEED clocks anymore… all those thought-provoking ideas (I may be watching too much Mad Men!) If you read to the end, I promise this will make sense!

It seemed to be a rite of passage, a way to assert independence and communicate with the outside world. The telephone. Its evolution seems to be a symbol for the generations of family who walked this Earth during my lifetime.  An impetus for social change, it symbolizes the mindset and cultural transformation of each generation. Purposively, I use the present tense, as it seems that each day brings a step in another direction as we communicate with others. 
The siblings with a later version of the phone I remember.

One of my earliest memories is fear of the curious apparatus in my grandmother’s living room.  I can’t place my age when I first noticed that black handset sitting on the wiry stand, but even today I shudder, just a bit, with the memory of my grandmother’s rare scolding. Drawn to the mysterious object, I picked it up, only to hear the words, “Central, number please.” Grandma was right there admonishing me to “put that thing down” and extolling me to never touch it again.  The strange voice I had awakened from the peculiar contraption frightened me. It was something beyond my understanding, as were my grandma’s unusual harsh words.                        
As I reflect on those first phones, I am sure to my grandmother and many others like her, they inaugurated a welcome sense of freedom. So many women of her generation never drove; rather they relied on their husbands to transport them from place to place. Through those telephone lines, recipes could be exchanged, gossip could be shared, and feelings and worries had a receptive ear at any time during the long days at home. Female bonding took on an enhanced role, thanks to the phone.                     
Time marched on and that sole telephone in both my grandmother’s home and our home now sported a dial. The boxy phone mounted on the kitchen wall would ring and was answered by the mindlessly polite requirement, “Hart residence, Kathy speaking.”  Those were the days when you could pick up that beige receiver to call for the time and the female voice would nasally recite the hour and minute. You relied on the phone book and few ever used an area code. In fact, the first two numbers were often a word. In our town, we said Canal for the initial numerals 22. My grandmother’s number began with Hudson.  While today we struggle with remembering our own cell number, I can still effortlessly rattle off my best friend’s number and my grandmother’s number. They are deeply ingrained.    
Sometime in my high school years, the Mad Men of advertising lured me with the image that I could be a princess.  Along with most girls, I longed for the sleek dial phone with the coiled cord, so captivatingly crowned, the Princess Phone. It was a status symbol and sitting next to a bed, provided independence from parental ears.
That sleek blue Princess Phone. I remember well the day it was installed in my bedroom. I was royalty. No longer a prisoner to the wall-mounted beige box in the kitchen, I could now close my door and dial Katie, Rita, or Pam.  Of course, my ears were always on alert for the telltale click signaling someone, usually my sister, had picked up the other phone. This became a skill, perfected like an artist’s craft.  An accomplished stealth could slowly and almost silently release those knobs to discover the innermost secrets of the speakers. Oh, the sibling fights and parental questions! These continued with our race to answer the ring with the shout, “I’ll get it,” a phrase that was destined to disappear in my lifetime.
            This was an era when the phone book was kept next to the phone, the busy signal an annoyance, especially to parents, and the ring was universal. This slowly transformed as my daughter grew. No longer were we chained and stationary. We could walk and talk. The dial with the phone number displayed in the center, disappeared. We punched buttons and raised the antenna. For my daughter the dial became a perplexing contrivance.  At a church dinner, Jenn asked to use a phone that was tucked away in a corner of the musty social hall. Returning to the table with a puzzled look, she announced, “It doesn’t work.” Never having seen this “old fashioned” instrument, she had been punching the dial rather than rotating it, a story that is told as often as possible in our house.
During my daughter’s growing years, answering machines began the destruction of the busy signal, making one to free to leave the house, even if an important call was expected.  Call waiting birthed the phrase, “the other line,” as we ignored one conversation for another, possibly making a listener feel abandoned and signaling a sense that someone or something else was more important. This only increased with the next rendition of the phone.
Our son was born in the 1990s, the same decade the cell phone began to emerge in American pockets.  It felt like a splurge when my husband rented such a device for me to carry in the car as I traveled across country. But that spurge evolved into a necessity. At first it was merely a family cell phone that we each reveled in carrying, just in case of emergency. But, at home, the landline still reigned as necessary, especially when the family computer circulated its connection tone. There were times when we would be “kicked offline” by a call, sometimes leading to an unfair annoyance with the unsuspecting caller.
By September 11, 2001, the family cell phone had given way to personal devices. My daughter communicated the horror of that fateful day via her flip phone from her dorm at Virginia Tech as I sat helpless in my first grade classroom. Because carrying such a phone was relatively new, policies regarding the use of them at work were almost nonexistent. My daughter continued to relay the mounting terror from her vantage point in front of the television. My mother returned from shopping to hear a message on her home answering machine from my husband who called from his cell phone, a generational image that telegraphed the differences in the way we used communication.
More importantly and sadly, victims made final calls. And then as the hours seared the enormity of the tragedy into our souls, our D.C. suburb was shrouded in silence as overloaded phone networks became still, giving us a needed chance to reflect and mourn. It was almost as if the network had to pause and consider, too.
As the decade wore on, families joined the fast track of communication. Landlines began to disappear.  Computers didn’t need those home phone lines anymore so why should we have them? Our cell phones could place a call to anyone, anywhere. Networks touted their reliability over others. The infamous query, “Can you hear me now?” was a favored shout into the phone and laughed about in our family, especially after our trek through Tibet where we witnessed our guide, cell phone in hand, speak softly to a guide on another mountain. Their reliable network didn’t need the catch phrase that had become a hallmark of our dropped calls and fickle connections.  
A new era was calling. Phones had morphed into one-stop shops with cameras, videos, and texting capability to the point where many actually let their fingers do the talking. We revel in our ability to match ringtones to the personalities calling us. Our phones are the answering machines, phone books, call screeners, and alert systems for news, weather, and our friend’s most intimate thoughts.  
I wonder what the future of the phone holds. Back in the sixties my mother read that one day we would use videophones. Today, my 20 month-old grandson connects my voice and face, thanks to those video calls that are now the norm. (Face)Times, indeed, have changed.
If you’re like me, your smart phone is a necessity, one that can even whistle “Dixie” as the old saying goes. I need not list all the capabilities here, but this week’s theme? Clocks and watches? Sadly, not needed anymore, a young relative informed me. For all the planet’s news, weather, and time, simply tap the app!
So, this brings me full circle back to my grandmother’s admonishment, “Put that thing down.” Perhaps I need to live those words today. My iPhone is always in my pocket, purse, or within easy reach. I feel empty and positively naked when I accidentally leave the house without it. Do I ignore others with my constant checking of that little screen? Most likely and embarrassingly, the answer is yes. There are many times I really should “put that thing down.” My grandmother was smarter than I gave her credit for! 


  1. I enjoyed this post so much. I can relate in every paragraph. The BLACK phone! One heavy monster, surely a lethal weapon. Princess phone -- the pretties phone ever. My first phone #: EXPORT-35443.

    VT - I don't know how you taught that day. My daughter graduated the year before, but I cried for weeks imagining all the poor parents waiting for word.

  2. Thank you for reminding me of some of the joys and terrors of the telephones we hve owned over the years. When I was a child my famiy was unusual in owning a telephone and we often had neighbours popping round to use it !

  3. Your interesting post has reminded me that we never had a telephone at home; you had to use the phone box in the village. If fact it wasn't until the 1970s that we had a landline and only then because my job gave me priority for one. We still have one and the line delivers broadband too.

  4. This is a great post! I came over for your Sepia Saturday via a link, and never expected to enjoy a really great post, too! Wonderful photos...terrific blog post!

  5. Enjoyed this very much. But I must say, I'm jealous that you got the coveted princess phone that I never did. Don't have a smart phone yet and it's probably a good thing as I would surely need your grandmother's admonition. (kathy at

  6. I don't remember picking up the phone and getting an operator, but I do remember pressing 0 to talk to an operator and make long-distance callas, and I do remember calling to get the precise time.
    In my work we sometimes work with firms to do telephone surveys. I think that's largely a thing of the past too. Not enough people have landlines.

  7. You didn't mention it but I wonder if you experienced it in the early days of the big black phone: party lines. When you mentioned gossip, that popped into my mind. It was easy then to listen in on others' conversations and to know who was talking if you knew who had one ring, two rings, and three rings. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  8. What an interesting post! Cute picture too, and it looks like someone just quickly put the telephone back down because Grandma was coming back into the room! My father's mother (kind of my most favorite grandma) because we saw her all the time, sound a lot like your grandmother. She never really talked quietly, ever! One of her favorite lines when she really got upset, was Mercy, mercy me! Once long after she died we were all in the car trying to remember what was it she always said again? Within minutes we were all shouting out Mercy! mercy!

  9. Very interesting post, you are so right, telephones have evolved so much. I remember having only one phone in my childhood, a party line shared with several other families. I can't even fathom such a thing now. Our phone number started with CH and then the number. I wonder what we will have in 20 years?

  10. Such a well written post. I really enjoyed and related to every word. Except that I haven't yet advanced to an iphone. Maybe next year. I can't imagine giving up the old landline either. Especially because I can never remember to charge the cell phone.

  11. Great post, Kathy - isn't it amazing how much technology has advanced in such a short time? Laughed at poor Jenn's dial phone experience :-) Jo

  12. While reading this story, so many memories came up. Each stage in the development of the telephone was also applicable here, even the smart phone. Thanks for sharing!

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