by CAROL McEWEN, for the Sun Gazette
Yes, chatterboxes can be people, but also their phones. In the 1950s, those implements were heavy, black, and immobile – the wallflowers of appliances.
When we wanted to use them, we picked up the receiver and an operator said, “Number, please.” Usually it was a four-digit one like mine: 1331. If we called a party line, which was cheaper, then we asked for 2732 R3. The “R” stood for the number of rings, signaling the correct household.
On boring days, a friend who had a party line and I would listen to the conversations of others on her line. It was like having an extension in other homes; we thought it terribly entertaining.
If the number we called was in use, the operator said it was busy and to call back later.
Phone etiquette of the day dictated that we NEVER called a parent or friend at work, unless for business or if blood flowed. A lot of blood.
Long-distance calls were a big deal, and the rates varied, based on the time of the call. Daytime calls during the week were the most expensive, while the cheapest were on Sunday nights, when we called my sister in California. We often shouted into the phone; we were calling across the country, after all.
Person-to-person calls cost more than station-to-station calls. With the permission of all involved, the operator could charge the call to the recipient’s bill, known as “reversing the charges.”
Operators were no longer needed once dial phones arrived, but our numbers got more complicated. Suddenly we had a prefix. Ours was Tuxedo 2, which we dialed as TU2-1331. And we could get phones in colors! I nearly died of envy when my friend got a pink Princess phone to match her bedroom décor.
Mom quickly replaced our dial phone with a push-button one, for easier use. Meanwhile, phone cords got longer, and so did conversations. As a young mother, I melted more than one phone cord, talking to other moms while I cooked dinner.
When answering machines appeared on the phonescape, everyone vied for the cleverest greeting. Examples: a dog barks, then “Rover says leave a message.” Or a tiny voice says, “Mommy and Daddy are gone and I can’t write yet, so leave a message.” All insufferably cute.
Today, even us Old School types are like conjoined twins with our phones, making us available to all and sundry 24/7. This is progress?
A resident of Arlington for 40+ years, Carol McEwen sells real estate when she’s not imparting deep insights or sparkling wit in this column. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.