One of my favorite movie scenes is from a movie whose name I don’t even remember. It’s one of those ancient black and white movies that show on PBS in the middle of the night. It takes place in the early 1930’s, in a beautiful mansion. The matron of the house, dressed for dinner in a flowing dress, rushes to answer the phone. It’s an ornate Art Deco contraption. She answers with a most welcoming “Hello,” listens briefly, then, putting her hand over the mouthpiece, she turns and calls out to her husband in the next room “Honey, it’s long distance!” in a voice that expresses wonderful amazement at something marvelous and unusual.
When I was growing up telephones were different from today. They were clunky, generally quite ugly, and depended on qualified operators, and in later years, thick books of names and numbers. When we lived at the pink house I would occasionally call my best friend Mark. We didn’t push a few buttons on a tiny box from our pocket, I had to go to the northeast corner of the living room, pick up the handset and listen for the operator to say “Number please.” Mark’s number was 3024.
One more thing about that number, it was for a specific phone nailed to the wall at their house. I wasn’t calling Mark, I was calling his house. When someone from the house answered, they would go find Mark, if he was in the house.
Let’s compare that to today. I call Mark’s personal phone. He answers. Unlike in the past when I would ask for a person, Mark in this case, today only Mark will answer the phone, and I ask him where he is. Back in the day a phone had a specific place in the home, today it’s closely held to his person.
Today I have no idea what most people’s telephone numbers are. I just touch their name in the contacts list on my iPhone. Telephone numbers have changed, too. Going back to the Pink House, each telephone exchange had a prefix. Ours was CLinton-2. That’s not a typo. In Rochester the prefix was ADams, and there were several options for numbers. ADams-2, ADams-8, ADams-5 and so on. I remember the excitement one year when they changed from named exchanges to numeric prefixes. Most of the entries in the phone book were something like 252-5037, but there were still a lot of numbers like CL2-1216. The next year everything was numeric and we slowly forgot about CLinton and ADams.
Maybe I should explain what “long distance” means. When the telephone company was a monopoly, they would charge extra if you called outside your local calling area, which usually meant about half way to the next large town or city. The rates were high, and the plans complex. Almost as important as distance was the day and time of your call. The highest rates were during the week, during business hours. Prices went down after about eight PM. Weekends were different and mostly cheaper, too; until about five PM on Sunday when the rates went back up. Call your far-flung family before Sunday evening or pay the price of higher rates.
There were a couple of days when rates went on special. The one that comes to mind was Mother’s Day. The phone company wanted you to call Mom, so they dropped the rates all day. It was such a big deal that the lines would clog and it was tough to get a connection.
Which reminds me about overseas calling. Before I retired, I worked with people in Australia, Spain, Belgium, and many other countries. It was no big deal to pick up the phone and call Olga in Barcelona. Not so in 1969 when I tried to call my Dad in Korea. In a lengthy discussion with the International Long Distance Operator I reserved a line for twelve hours later. They were to call me back when a line became available. It didn’t happen.
One more thing, the hardware. There was no choice of hardware. Nothing like the Android / iPhone debates of today. Unless you included the choice of desk or wall mounted phone. In later years there may have been a choice of black or beige for a desk phone. It was a big deal in the sixties when Ma Bell introduced the Trimline phone.
Did I mention that I was a dumb kid? Kind of a nerd. Even then I had to have the latest technology. I knew my mother would love that new Trimline phone. That was her Christmas present one year. Little did I know that her monthly phone bill would go up a couple of dollars for the extra convenience of a cute phone. There wasn’t much money then, but I never heard a complaint about the higher phone bill.