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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

I *Heart* Mid-Century Telephones


So I'm super-excited to show off my new bedmate. Before you get the wrong idea, I'm talking my vintage mid-century telephone. That works. Like a charm. It takes calls, it dials out, and oh how it rings. I missed that old Ma Bell ringtone! The cat is still recovering under the bed.

I've been stalking mid-century phones on eBay for some time, while reading around and assessing some of the trials and tribulations of bloggers who successfully rehabbed an analog. This weekend I came across this baby for $10 bucks at my fave Northfork antiquing stop White Flower Farmhouse and thought why the heck not. Imagine my surprise when I plugged it into a jack and it fired right up.



Don't you love it's chunky styling?


It's a Western Electric 500 series — Bell Telephone's longest running model, called the desk set. Designed in 1949, it came off the production line in 1952 in one color, black. By 1956, a handful of cool mid-century colors were on offer, including gray, pink, red, blue, sage, yellow, and ivory.

David Massey


And by the end of the decade it was available in an array of choices, some of them cool two-tones.

David Massey
The 500 series desk set was a powerhouse phone, designed by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss and built to last. You might know that Bell Labs is renown for tech research, and you can sense all the ergonomic study that went into these phones. The handset is solid and comfortable to hold, both in your hand and when wedged between your ear and shoulder. From what I've read, it's not a bakelite model. Even the earlier 302s weren't all bakelite; they were metal with a bakelite handset. Then metal was needed for the war effort and a hard solid plastic was employed. By post-war all phones were made of thermoplastic called tenite — a hardy material that could be dyed bright colors.

If you're interested in any of this, or want to know how Ma Bell was broken up and what happened to all these phones and other equipment, there's a trove of information at this Bell Telephone fan site. There's even a way to submit questions and get trouble-shooting help if you're trying to get an old analog phone to work with today's carriers. You'll need to first check the underside of your phone for the model number. It's usually marked in red on a label near the ringer.


Despite what you hear about analog not working on fiber networks, I gather the 500 series works with most carriers today. I ran across forums where people confirmed they were working with AT&T and Verison (including FIOS) as well as some other carriers. Even the earlier phones like the 302s from the 1930s can work, apparently, but it may take some rewiring. If you're into vintage or just respect the workmanship of a bygone era, you might find it's worth it.


Next up, I'm going to make a round label for the dial face. I thought I'd be cute and use one of the old Jackson Heights' telephone exchanges, like Olympia or Hickory. If you've seen the old Elizabeth Taylor film Butterfield 8, you'll know what I mean.