Back in the Day

An old-school telephone is shown. — Submitted photo

In July of 2002, more than ten years ago, my column focused on some of the ways in which we communicated at that time, some of which may still apply today — methods that were unavailable to us in the past. If you are not from back in the day, you should know that we did not have cellular phones, beepers or pagers, fax machines, email capability or the availability of various social media for communicating that we have today. However, most of you did have a home telephone or at least access to one. But the telephone we know today is not the telephone we knew back in the day.

I know some of you are struggling to identify how telephones and telephone services are different today. So let me start with this situation: You receive a personal telephone call while in a room with a number of people and you wish to have some privacy. Today, you simply pick up your cordless telephone, walk into another room or even go outside so others cannot eavesdrop on your call. You could not do this in the past, as there were no cordless telephones. Either you struggled to talk with your hand partially covering the phone for privacy or you told the caller you would call back later.

It was not long before the extra-long telephone cord was introduced. Those 25-foot cords enabled you to take the phone to a nearby room and close the door for privacy. Going to another room to pick up the extension telephone, was not an option. Most homes had but one telephone.

Under the same or similar circumstances, if one receives a telephone call that he or she wishes to share with others in the room, it is rather simple in today’s environment. You simply press the button for speaker so everyone in the room can participate in the call. I cannot recall when speaker telephones were first introduced, but back in the day, I certainly knew no one who had one.

Think about the process of making a long-distance telephone call today: you simply pick up the telephone, dial one, the area code and the number. There is no concern about controlling the length of the call; you need not be concerned that you will be charged for a long-distance call even if the person you are trying to reach is not at home. These were issues, however, back in the day. Back then, to make a long-distance telephone call, you placed your call through an operator. You would pick up the receiver and the operator would respond. You would then give the operator the telephone number of the party you wanted to reach and the type of call you wished to make. You made calls person to person when it was important to reach a specific individual. Otherwise, with the assistance of the operator, your long-distance telephone calls were station to station. Of course, person to person long-distance calls charged a higher rate. Your calls were charged by the number of minutes you used. Do you recall receiving “collect” telephone calls, where the caller was reversing the charges?

What other things can you identify in today’s telephone services that were not around back then? Today, you have call forwarding, three-way calls, conference calls, call waiting, call transfer, voice mail, last number redial and caller ID. I imagine some of you wish that last number redial did not exist today, as personal relationships and even marriages have been negatively impacted by a loved one’s ability to simply dial the last number received. Too often, the last number was an inappropriate call. The caller ID feature is one that many, however, absolutely love; one can duck people with whom they do not want contact and in particular, bill collectors. I must add to this list of features that are desirable, voice mail or answering machines; both may be found in homes today. If you were not around in the past, you may be wondering what one did when a call came in and no one was at home. Quite simply, you missed the telephone call.

Of all the memories of the telephone from the past, it is the “party line” that sticks out in my mind. Back then, if your family had a telephone, it was probably shared with as many as six households.You could have had a private line, but it cost more. You might pick up your telephone to make a call and hear others talking. So how did you know if a telephone call was for your household? Each household was assigned a different ring. You identified your household’s call by the sound or pattern of the ring. Your parents and grandparents can tell war stories about conflicts over using the telephone under this party line system. Just think about this! You must make a telephone call. You pick up the receiver and discover that someone else is using the line. So you politely ask how much longer he or she would be on the telephone. The reply is, “Just a few more minutes.” You try again and the same person is still on the phone. After trying to be as courteous as possible, you would then shout down the other person, if that party would not relinquish the telephone. Occasionally, you would have to become real “ghetto” about things by yelling, “get the [expletive] off the phone.”

Back in the day, not everyone had a telephone. So what did one do if they did not have one? Under this circumstance, you had a cooperative relationship with someone who did have a telephone. Quite often, it was the corner store. It might also have been your neighbor or a relative who lived nearby. Thus, the person trying to reach you would place a telephone call to your neighbor or the corner store. Someone would come to your home to let you know that you had a telephone call. In return, you would give them a few pennies for this favor.

In some instances, you would go out to a pay phone and place a call. Do you remember the pay telephone and telephone booths? They too are things of the past. One of my colleagues claimed his family had a pay telephone in their home. Obviously, he was not thinking, and in spite of his attempt to impress others with his debonair style, he was really “telling on himself,” as he obviously lived in a rooming house, back then. If you lived in a rooming house or large apartment building, there was a pay telephone in the hallway, which allowed no privacy, but was more convenient than going outdoors to place a call from the telephone booth on the street. Back then, the pay telephone had a three-minute restriction. With a pay telephone, you heard a message to deposit additional coins to continue your call. Home telephones also had restrictions. Some of you recall payment plans for unlimited telephone calls. Do you recall your parents telling you to hurry and get off the telephone because there was an additional charge placed on their bill for excessive calls?

Most of us from back in the day had a Princess telephone. Many had wall telephones in the kitchen. All of these were rotary telephones. Also, all of these phones remained connected when you hung up until the other party hung up. You must recall disagreements where one party refused to hang up the telephone, and after an hour the phones remained connected.

Your parents sometimes attempted to control the number of calls made by putting a lock on the telephone. You are definitely from back in the day if you recall telephone exchanges such as Baldwin, Baring, Evergreen, Granite, Cumberland, Victor and Germantown. In meeting a young lady, you knew by her telephone exchange whether she was someone you wanted to pursue. Often, telephone exchanges dictated nice versus not-so-desirable neighborhoods. So, what about banking matters such as transfers, checking account balances, making transfers and paying bills? These activities were not possible with telephones, back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.

There is no doubt that the telephone and telephone services today are much more reliable and efficient than in the past. In the final analysis, however, you could not hide behind the modern technology associated with today’s home telephone and its related services. There was a time when we were forced to communicate in a more personal and direct manner. Openness, honesty, integrity and availability were golden rules when we communicated with one another with those “candlestick telephones,” back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.

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