Grandma Says..

Observations and views from a different set of eyes

Life Before Cell Phones

on February 20, 2013


Oh, yes, contrary to popular beliefs or fading memories; there was life before cell phones.  For some of you younger readers, this will be a small history lesson; for my fellow Baby Boomers, it will be a hip and a hop down memory lane.

In the beginning, phones were not slim, attractive or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  Phone conversations required you to yell into the mouthpiece to make sure you could be heard over the miles or when calling your next door neighbor.

Early phone use required a middle man, known as a phone operator, who used what was called a switchboard to connect you to the person you were calling.  Rural areas usually had a woman operator with a first name like “Jenny.”  The Jennys of the world held a place of great honor in the community.  Since she could listen in to phone conversations, she was the “go to” person for local gossip.  She was also the person that you could count on to get a doctor to your house, send a sheriff to chase those trespassers off your land or round-up your neighbors when your barn was on fire.


With the entrance of direct dialing, we waved goodbye to Jenny and only called her when we needed to make a long distance call.  Party lines were the norm now, and the new source of gossip, since you could listen in to the conversations of the other parties on your line.  But, it wasn’t as good as having Jenny; you often didn’t have any idea of who that person was that shared your phone line.  But, many people passed the time by listening anyway.

With the departure of operator assisted calls, we got phones that we didn’t have to crank; the new phones required a one-finger operation to turn a rotary dial.  These are the phones that I remember growing up with.  Believe it or not, I still remember our phone number: EDison5-2612.  Different towns were assigned different names so you could use word association to remember the first two letters of a phone number (park, trees, FOrest).


Now, rotary phones had one major drawback.  Once you stuck your finger in the right hole, you had to make sure the dial went all the way to the right.  If you paused mid rotation, you had to start all over again.  There was no such thing as making a “quick” call with these phones; it took at least a minute or two to dial the damn number.

The phone industry felt our pain and developed the touch-tone phone.  Now, we still had to use a finger digit, but we could do it faster! Answering machines could now be attached to or were built into our new touch-tone phones.  We could record those important phone calls that we missed when we were away from home: bill collectors, your nagging ex or the person you drunkenly gave your number to in the bar last night!  It was a wonderful thing!


With the popularity of cell phones (or the downright necessity of having one, according to some people), the home phone is beginning to slowly fade away.  People have no use for the clunky design and limited features and find it redundant to have a home phone and a cell phone service.  People today cannot imagine waiting until they get home to find out who called in their absence, and you can’t text on a home phone.  God forbid we not be able to text!  What would we do all day?

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this little history lesson or trip down memory lane.  I will leave the history of the cell phone to the younger generation.  I don’t think that I could live long enough to list all the changes in the cell phone industry.  But, I’ll start them off with a picture of one of the first cell phones on the market.

the first cell

Before I forget!  You can still reach Jenny by dialing “O.”  She’ll help you with a call when you find you want to dump the charges on someone else or if you’re only allowed to make one collect call by your arresting officer.  Or, you can reach her by dialing 411.  You’ll find she’s still a wealth of information!


20 responses to “Life Before Cell Phones

  1. Smash says:

    Great post! I’m a Gen-Y kid but I’ve never taken to cell phones. I have one, but half the time it stays in my purse, neglected, and on the silent setting. I love going out into the city to shop or walk around, leaving my phone at home, left to my own thoughts. It’s nice.
    My grandparents had a rotary phone up until the late 90’s. It was a clunky cream-coloured thing but I love rotating the dial…

  2. Animus says:

    I remember the pre-cell phone age a bit. I didn’t get a cell phone until my junior year in high school. I remember before that you use to have to use the house phone to call your friends (so your mom always knew who you were talking to and if you were going to be doing something). I remember my older brother picking up the other phone and listening in to my conversations all the time. I remember once being a bad kid (lol) when I was much younger at a party and calling the operator only to hang up with a bunch of other kids.

    This was the time when you actually had to know people’s numbers by heart, and now half the time I have to think about my own. I have to say that a house phone is definitely a dying breed; I know when I move out I won’t have one (seems like a waste of money).

    Very interesting post!

    • As a kid, we used to dial random numbers and ask things like “Is your refrigerator running…well, you better go catch it!” We thought we were hilarious!

      • Animus says:

        Haha. That’s awesome. Now I see I was just normal then! I was pretty young, I think elementary school. The operator we talked to wasn’t taking any funny business. Pretty sure she called back, or we didn’t hang up soon enough I can’t remember exactly. But I remembered her saying she’d have the police come if we called again! So that shut us down pretty quick and scared the crap out of us.

      • Yup, those operators could be “cranky!” 🙂

  3. TamrahJo says:

    I still have a home phone line, with a ‘tied to the cord’ phone attached because –
    It’s the only one that will work if the electricity goes out and my cell phone battery dies or solar flares incapacitate the Verizon satellite – or a semi crashes into the local tower….
    🙂 Oddly, I’ve experienced each of these at some point – thankfully, not any time when I actually needed to dial 911 – –

    • That’s a very valid point for keeping a home phone! I have a line; but no phone. I was required to have the line for my computer; but I can always hook one up if I need to. But, for the life of me, I wouldn’t be able to tell you the phone number!

  4. i still know my phone # too.. same phone, same house for 35 years… even my grandmother’s #

  5. Ronnie Ann says:

    Nice! Really enjoyed this. I laughed out loud remembering my own party line when I was a wee tot. I loved picking it up and perhaps catching some juicy snippet of conversation. But then, I felt so guilty I hung up. Sad to have an active conscience so young.

  6. Jess says:

    Grandma- do you remember how frustrating it would be to get the busy signal?? Aahhhhh! Thanks for the walk down memory lane!

  7. Aurora says:

    I do remember the old rotary dial phones, we had one on our kitchen wall clear up into the late 80s or early 90s when my parents finally got a cordless phone. That thing was noisy as could be, and there was no making a call without everyone in the house knowing you were dialing out. We never had a party line, but I knew people that did. I remember one morning having to get ahold of my mom to come and pick me up from a sleepover, but the woman on the line kept yacking on and on and wouldn’t let me on to make my call.

    I don’t think I got a cell phone until I was in my 30s, and then at first it was just one of those prepaid ones for emergencies. Now I have a fancier phone, and while it doesn’t have quite all the bells and whistles it is a pretty nice one. Usually I pick whatever is the nicest free phone my phone company is offering when my contract renews. Hubby and I only keep the cell phone. Hardly anyone we know keeps a home phone anymore.

  8. Aurora says:

    Oh and crank calling was a lot more fun in the days before Caller ID. Now you’d almost be asking for trouble.

  9. Shannon says:

    I remember my phone number when I was a kid, from more than 30 years ago.

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