Is This the Party to Whom I am Speaking?

Grandpa, how do you call someone on this?” My nephew emerged from the basement of Dad’s house with a black rotary dial phone, pushing his index finger into the recesses of its brass metal dial without a resulting beep or flash of light to confirm the number had been accessed. It hadn’t. “I don’t get it,” he whined with all the patience of a millennial-in-the-making.

Dad winked at me and proceeded to explain. “First you had to wire it into the connection block mounted above the baseboard. Then you’d listen for a dial tone, put your finger into the hole for the first number or letter, HOLD it there, and move your finger along with the dial to the right until it stopped against that little piece of curved metal. Yes, like that. OK, now you have to pull your finger out.”

Beaux giggled in delight as the dial clicked its way back to its original position.
“Now do that same thing again for the next number.”

You could see gears of disbelief turning in Beaux’s head. “For EVERY number? ALL of them?”

“Never mind…it’s 1978, why don’t you just use the touch-tone Trimline? Unplug it and take it to your room.”

Article Oct 2015_edited-1Ooh, things had come so far by the 1970s… At that time, I had an oak wall phone with a crank on the side from the turn of the century. No, not this one, the one before. My late ex-husband had modified it so it had a functioning brass rotary dial inside with a light above it. Turning the crank on the side just rang the double bells for effect. We used that Kellogg phone a lot, standing in front of the mouthpiece, leaning in with the earpiece in one hand. There was a conveniently placed slanted spot below the mouthpiece for a pad and pencil, in case you needed to jot down something while you were tethered to it in conversation. It made Trimlines with their lighted buttons—provided there was a 110v. receptacle by the phone jack—seem downright futuristic.

Today one of my college students begged to take an “emergency phone call” while taking an exam, which turned out to be her way of accessing a screen with her notes on it from the review session I held Friday. While she confidently finished her exam, I was imagining her trying to get by in the 1960s, writing tiny notes in ball-point pen on the palms of her hands or inside a gum wrapper.

Of course, she will think she’s fooled me until her graded test is returned to her with suggestions to take an acting class or study old Bob Newhart one-sided phone routines to learn how to speak a believable few lines to no one on the other end; and to have her notes page ready to view, instead of flipping through screens in that motion of the hand that draws patrol officers to pull over distracted drivers.

I had a hard time imagining her tied by a cord to a phone that wouldn’t move more than six feet, sitting at a telephone table designed to hold nothing more than the phone, phone book and an indexed metal address book. That would require sitting still for more than ten minutes and not doing anything else but twisting the coiled handset cable and talking on the phone. Out loud. To a real friend she’d actually met and often spent time with.

During my teen years in West Berlin in the 1960s/early 1970s, I recall spending an hour or two sitting in the hallway next to the telephone table, gossiping with my best friend Linda and doing algebra homework over the phone. During those conversations, the wall clock that previously hung in a Reichstag office would chime the hour and half hours, prompting a groan from my bestie: “Warn a person, will ya’? That hurts my ears!” I couldn’t exactly move away when I heard the gears getting ready to chime. After all, I was tethered to the phone.

The phone fōn (def.): an almost a religious sculpture resting on its own altar in the great hall.

1Article Oct 2015_edited-1Soon I was spending even more time on the hallway phone, with boyfriends. We could never decide who should hang up first. Then the boyfriend’s father would get a new assignment, usually rotating “back to the States.” Enter one of four Transatlantic Cables, not yet even fiber optic in nature. Satellites were too expensive to use for casual calls, so you’d be routed via microwave towers over land that were no more than about 30 miles apart, then into The Cable under the sea, then passed along a few dozen more towers, till you got to talk with someone who didn’t have a lot to say except that he missed you. We weren’t to take up time on the few channels on the cables, although they’d begun a sharing technique via switching, where you’d be flipped over to another couple’s channel when there was a lull in their conversation, then onto another channel when they began speaking again, resulting in ghost-like crosstalk that echoed through the lines. You also had to wait 3-5 seconds for a reply to anything you’d said, or you’d end up talking over the other person. He HAD answered you, but the voice signal just hadn’t made it to your ear yet. “OK, say again, and I’ll keep quiet.” “I love you.” Three more seconds. “Oh. I love you, too. Write soon.” (Yes, WRITE. With fountain pens on vellum airmail paper to save postage.)

Last week I called Linda. She was telling me about a painstaking restoration she was doing on the silver service of the USS Maine (Remember the Maine?) at a museum in—yes—Maine, where she’s a curator who also restores artifacts. A chime rang out. It was the same clock, no less, alive and well and hanging in my stairwell.
Linda just laughed. “It’s OK, I’ll wait, like always.”

But it was noon. This was going to take a while. “You know, this phone isn’t attached to anything but my ear. We can talk while I go check the mail.” Ah, the freedom of the 21st century.

In my antique mall space sits a completely original early 1950s telephone table, fashioned of solid ash in a blonde finish and designed with a built-in hinged chair and hidden phone book cubby. When the chair is swung in, there’s no indication it’s anything but a table.

It will probably find a new home as a laptop/tablet station in a corner of the breakfast area or in a hallway nook—somewhere a pre-teen’s mom can keep an eye on what’s being accessed instead of homework. The phone book cubby stores your device between uses—how forward-thinking. So…a name-brand mid-century modern furniture piece for under $400.00. And it’s just like the one Grandma had in her hallway. Of course, I think Grandma got hers with S&H Green Stamps, the same place she got my Humpty Dumpty cookie jar, now worth over $200.00.

Hmmm. If someone doesn’t buy it at this weekend’s sale, I may have to bring it home. It will be sustainably repurposed, after all. And thus I have a cluttered house.
This little multi-tasking table is a perfect example of the kind of furniture that’s become popular again since 2009, when we began to downsize instead of supersize our living spaces: furniture dedicated to a task, but still somewhat portable. For the life of me, though, I can’t imagine where I’d need to take a pallet-styled Pottery Barn cocktail table with oversized, warehouse-style steel wheels. Maybe to move the telephone table someplace else.

Photo credits:  Kellogg oak wall phone Photo:; Mid-century telephone table Photo: Cycles of Time

DianaKemptonheadshotA professional member of IIDA, Diana earned her specialty LEED credential for Interior Design + Construction in 2013, having earned her LEED AP in Building Design and Construction in 2006. She worked for Del Webb Corporation designing semi-custom interiors, and spent thirteen years with a local builder supplier before returning to work as an independent designer. She also operates an antiques dealership and teaches sustainable design, space planning, materials and estimates, and color theory at the college level. In creating livable interiors, she is particularly sensitive to not allowing our high-tech lifestyles and the interior walls of our homes to divide us from one another, and has been focusing on Mid-century Modern design in recent years. Diana can be reached at

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