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VINTAGRAPH • WPA • WWII • CARNIVAL OF THE ARTS, 1937

Princess Phone: 1983

Princess Phone: 1983

When my mother wasn't doing crossword puzzles, shopping or waiting on the rest of us hand and foot, she'd be on the phone, and sometime after they were introduced in 1959 she got this pinkish Princess. One reason was so she could move it around, specifically to her primary domain, the kitchen. These came with an old-style connector, not the later modular type. I'm pretty sure it had the external ringer, as I remember the sound of the dining room wall resonating when it went off. Another feature gave her something to rail about. "Imagine! They make you use your own electricity to light up the dial!" This replaced our first dial phone (dial came late to Larkspur, and we were still talking to operators until the late 1950s), a full-sized basic black model. Mother didn't want to pay Pacific Telephone for a decorator color, so she bought a cream-colored plastic shell for it - think "skin" in today's lingo. As for the Princess, I remember usually having to hold the thing down while you dialed, and we were forever knocking the handset off the base. I shot this negative by available light - mix of daylight and incandescent - on 35mm Kodak Vericolor. View full size.

TV Ad

IIRC, the tag line on the TV ad for the Princess was -
"It's little, it's lovely, it lights!"

Also available in powder blue

Here's our Princess phone, found at a garage sale. Though the box is beat up, it looks like it was never used. My daughter has claimed it for her home, after she gets out of grad school.

Another secret tip

It's perfectly possible to "dial" a landline phone manually by tapping the hookswitch once for one, twice for two, and so on up to ten times for a zero, with a pause between digits. The system is quite forgiving, and as long as you keep a reasonable rhythm while tapping out the digits and the pause is at least ten times the time between taps, the call will go through.

This gets very tedious for a ten-digit number, of course, but back in the Good (?) Old Days local numbers in small towns could be as few as five digits, or even four in a few cases. Lots of people used to know the possibility, but I fear that in the modern age of universal touch-tone the knowledge has been lost. It might be useful in an emergency.

Most phone-system computers (not cell phones) still allow pulse dialing. If you can get a dial tone but the keypad or dial doesn't work, you can get help by tapping out 9 - 1 - 1 that way. When the 911 system was first proposed, there was a serious suggestion that the emergency number be 111 for just that reason -- it's easier to 'tap dial'. The phone companies turned that down because a '1' as first digit was an important signal, used for other purposes throughout the system.

Overextensioned

My near-skinning was over my home-brewed phone in my workshop. The place where I stripped the wires and tapped in under the crawlspace shorted out one day while I was at school. Came home to find it had been "repaired", and my parents threatened with being charged for use of an extension line back several years, to when the line was last inspected. Thank God for Vodafone!

As for Trimlines, I've threatened the same "fix" in our house!
At least once a week, a cordless goes missing, and we seem to need new sets of them nearly every year.

And yes, you can still get the long coil cord! I think I've even seen them at Dollar Tree.

Deadly weapons

I saved a comic strip from 1997, in which the main character watches someone use an already pretty small cell phone. His observation: "I remember when people were beaten to death with phones"

And in the irony department

My first touch-tone phone wasn't. It looked like a touch-tone, but when you you pushed one of the keys, you heard the telltale clicking of rotary dialing. It has since been replaced with a 2500-lookalike, in Western Electric beige. We just last month converted to FIOS at our house, after several years of badgering by Verizon, but we gave in only when they got desperate enough to get rid of the all the extra charges for doing so. My parents kept the 554 wall phone for ages, I think until well after Bell Atlantic "sold" it to them; they certainly weren't going to pay a premium for touch-tone.

Secret electrical tip: in those older phones, the hook on the dial was a good ground. I remember old kids' electronics books recommending it for use with crystal radios and the like.

Don't make 'em like that anymore

Those Western Electric black phone sets were indestructible. They were also the murder weapon of choice in domestic disputes.

What's that?

I mentioned rotary dial phones at work the other day, and one of our younger employees gave me an inquisitive-dog look and said, "What's that?" I drew him a diagram, and said a good visual is the build-up to the murder in Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder." He wasn't familiar with that, either.

I am now officially "old."

["Hitchcock"? - Dave]

Touch Tone

The Touch Tone phone was shown at the 1964 New York World's fair, where I got to see it for the first time. When I went back to school (Ithaca College) Ma Bell was offering them for a minor charge for a test limited to one "office" (number exchange), $2 including choice of colors. As the charge for a 500 was slightly more, it was a now brainier to get one. The only problem was at AM your phone would ring and Yankee Doodle or something would sound via Touch Tone.

[Brainier both then and now! - Dave]

At the other end of the line

Could it be this lady?

All Things Phones

The original Princess was the first phone with a dial light and was designed for use in darkened bedrooms. It was very lightweight and when the handset was lifted it often moved the base. Later models had lead weights in the base to make it more difficult to bean yourself when answering the phone.

Pacific Telephone, in the mid 60's, used to charge 35 cents per month to turn off the ringer. Their reasoning being that people would forget it was off and make a service call because their telephone was "not working".

I installed many a Princess but don't remember a transformer for the dial light. More likely, it was for the remote ringer.

One thing about those old Western Electric phones was their indestructibility. I still use several "500" sets in my house. My grandmother had one of the first dial sets from the 1930s in her house for over 40 years. The handset weighed about 5 pounds. Good exercise for her!

[Side note: First phone with a lighted dial was the Western Electric 500U, a.k.a. the "mushroom phone." Below, an ad from 1954. - Dave]

Thanks for the update Dave. I never saw one of those illuminated '500' set phones but then most of my PacTel hitch was at an Air Force base so maybe it was something the military wouldn't pay for. I remember the general's houses got plenty of Princess phones though.

Western Electric 500

I love the ladylike way your mom uses the phone. Folks today have lost "phone etiquette." My primary phone is a bitsa Western Electric 500. (It's made from bitsa one phone and bitsa 'nother.) It sounds like a fire alarm when it rings. None of those silly ringtones for me!

In the market for some Trimlines

After continually going crazy trying to find any one of our 4 cordless phones whenever the phone rings, I have a secret plan to install two Trimlines and a wall mounted phone in the kitchen.

I wonder if you can still buy the 20 foot long coiled handset cords?

Meanwhile, that same year

I got my first Touch Tone phone in 1983. It was an O-fficial "Bama" phone, a red and white Slimline with an Alabama sticker running the length of the handset that I'd seen in a catalog from the University Supply Store. I'd mailed them a check and as soon as it cleared they mailed me the phone; total turn around time was about 6 weeks.

I was incredibly excited the day it finally arrived. Came home from work early, actually. But I couldn't CALL anyone on it. I got a dial tone. I could get incoming calls. But I couldn't call OUT. I plugged the old Princess phone back in, got the Yellow Pages out and called some phone repair places seeking advice. The third place I called asked if I had Touch Tone service from Ma Bell. Oops. Nope. Hadn't occurred to me. That was a service you had to sign up for and it cost extra. So I called the phone company, got the service turned on and was once again proud of my new purchase.

I was thinking about that adventure just a couple weeks ago, right after I upgraded to my newest smartphone and was whining about how it was taking 10 whole seconds to connect to the Internet.

Rotary Dial Phones

A few years back, 2004 I believe, I found a black dial phone from that era and hooked it up. I liked it cause it had a nice loud ringer. My 16 year old daughter came over and looked at it, and with all seriousness she asked "How does it work?" She have never seen one before that.

The Pink Version was Hideous.

There were at least two versions of the rotary dial Princess Telephone.

The older model had an external subset and bell ringer which was mounted on the wall, table or baseboard. A shaped weight was inserted inside one end of the telephone instrument to make it heavier, but, it still skated around when dial-equipped.

The subset-and-ringer-on-the-wall version Princess could not be moved from its location on a jack and plug as the subset was required to operate the telephone.

In later years the Princess Telephone had a bell ringer installed inside the set which eliminated the external subset and ringer, and it could be moved from jack to jack.

There were some technical restrictions about using Princess Telephones on party lines.

Power for the dial light was provided from a small transformer which plugged into a nearby house wiring outlet.

If the filament dial light burned out, the company would often mail the subscriber a new light bulb and it was easily changed with a bayonet socket from beneath.

In some large apartment buildings the last pair of wires in the cable up from the terminal in the basement was often used to carry Princess Light voltage to the suites so the transformer and wiring could be eliminated.

Black eyes guaranteed

My parents had a Princess phone, also beige) in their bedroom atop the bookcase headboard (the other was in the "telephone room"-coat closet in the main hall). Anyone who happened to be lying in bed and happened to brush the phone when reaching for something would usually get the receiver landing on their head. There were several black eyes.

That Princess was the one that was used when, for some months during the Cold War, the Russian Embassy had a phone number that was one digit different from ours. Over those months, calls would come in during the wee small hours of the morning for the Russians and Mom would have to get the phone book out and look the number up. I guess someone finally got the right number to the international operators, someone was sent to a Gulag and mother got a full night's sleep. We received no more calls.

It is a wonder we weren't "on a list" for the frequency that we received phone calls from Moscow.

Nearly skinned alive over phone

The land line phone has just about gone the way of the buggy whip and knickers, and the black dial-up land line phone was a 1950's-60's classic few can understand today.

When I was in college (1973) I got a phone for my dorm room. They asked what color I wanted, and I picked blue.
When my father came to visit me, he saw my phone and was livid. I was lectured forward and backward about wasting money and how I was expected not to be monetarily extravagant on his dime.

It took me over an hour to explain to the guy that I had not spent even ten cents extra. All the colors now cost the same. I was eventually forgiven when I came up with proof that there was no monthly color charge. But had I dared to get a Princess, like your mother, or a push button (which did cost something like 60 cents extra every month) I would have been dead meat.

Ahhh! The Princess

I don't know about 1959 but the Princess phone was a godsend to me in 1984.

My family and I had just returned to Canada after several years of military service in Germany. We did the normal things towards re-establishing ourselves, including ordering telephone service.

One day I came home and was startled by an electronic annoying sound. "What was that?" I hollered. "The phone!" the reply. "Not for long!!" my rejoinder.

The following weekend I discovered my joy: a rebuilt Princess phone at a flea market. It had all the modern age electronics and a digital touch pad.

Most comforting it ad a bell ringer. This could be turned down to a softer tone.

Evolution

Not all telephones were inspired designs, as evidenced by your mother's clunky Princess. The word ergonomics wasn't in the vocabulary of Western Electric engineers when they designed that thing and its even clunkier predecessor, the candlestick phone.

Dial phones didn't come to my New Hampshire community until 1964, but we've always had mothers.

[Let's not forget Henry Dreyfuss's Western Electric 500 desk telephone, a masterpiece of functional design that endured for half a century. - Dave]

First Chance

Let me be the first to extend an early Mother's Day Greeting to all mothers in Shorpy-land. I know it's really next week, but shouldn't every day be Mother's Day? Bless them all!

 
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