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Do You Remember the Telephone Operator: Capturing Your Telephone Memories

Do You Remember the Telephone Operator: Capturing Your Telephone Memories

Sometimes, writing about our lives can be difficult. After all, we may believe we haven't done anything of note. Genealogists trace lineages, so why write about ourselves? I believe our descendants and families are more interested in something when they have context. So why not write about your experience with something they are familiar with?

Let's take the telephone as an example. Depending on your age, the phone has gone through many changes over your lifetime. Today, a phone is part of a more complex device that offers the internet, an audio/video recorder, GPS, and a camera. That's a far cry from when I was a teenager, and you had to use a pay phone if you were not home, and if you were, you had to share the phone with your family. Private conversations were rare since a pesky younger sibling might pick up the phone in a different room and listen to your plans. And for my mother's generation, party lines meant no private conversation.

TWA Hotel
Photo Courtesy of Gena Philibert-Ortega

So, how has the phone changed in your life? If you consider telephones, there is so much you can write about. Phones have historically been expensive, and at one time, they had to be rented from the phone company. That means that not all of our families would have owned or rented a phone, meaning immediate communications during disaster or emergency would have been limited. 

Photo Courtesy of Gena Philibert-Ortega

My story with the telephone from my teenage years includes details of my dad's work. My dad worked for the railroad and didn't have a regular "shift." He was on the "extra board," meaning that he would be called in to work when needed. Answering the phone meant making money. He lost work that day if he didn't answer the phone. So, in those days, having a teenager who LOVED being on the phone with friends was a problem. We had call waiting, but that wasn't enough to ensure he got the calls our family needed. So my parents spent the extra money to get me my own phone number. I was the only teenager I knew with my own phone number. That allowed me to be on the phone, and my family didn't need to worry about missed calls. Today, having your own phone number isn't seen as that uncommon, but in those days it was.

old-fashioned Black phone
Photo Courtesy of Gena Philibert-Ortega

What's your telephone story? How has technology changed through your lifetime? Some prompts you could write about include:

  • Do you remember your childhood phone number?
  • What did the phone you use look like (rotary dial, buttons, etc.)
  • Did your family have a phone? When did they get a phone?
  • Did you have family who worked for the phone company?
  • What features did your phone have (call waiting, etc)?
  • Who could you call and who could you not call (for example, what was long-distance? What was the cost?)
  • How did pay phones work?
  • What were your family phone rules (no calls after a certain time, how long you could be on the phone, etc.)
  • What phone etiquette were you taught?
  • Do you have any phone stories?
  • What photos do you have of you on the phone or the phone in your home?

What are your phone stories? Please share them in the comments below and share them with your family.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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Regent [RE] 7-6713 while our paternal grandparent's phone started with RHinelander; our country place was on a party line (main house - 1, maid's cottage - 3, caretaker's cottage - 2, converted barn (my immediate family's home) - 4 and the local country club - 5)
We had two rotary phones and one antique phone in New York City
We always had phones
Yes, I worked for Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of the Bell System for three years as a machine design engineer designing machines to make electronic items (such as semi-conductors); I have a tie clip with the Bell System logo, a tie clip with a candlestick phone and a charm bracelet with candlestick phone, push button phone, princess phone, picture phone and cell phone charms
Just a basic phone
Manhattan was a local call; everything else was long distance
Put money in or told the operator that you wanted to make a call (reverse charges or person-to-person)
No written rules but few calls after 9:00. I had the father of my girlfriend yell at me and hang up because I called after 9:00 once
I do not remember being taught any phone etiquette per se
Story 1 - The antique phone had a push bar on the handle that one needed to push to speak. But it also need to be pushed for someone to hear you, So my brother or I could, and did, pick up the phone carefully which enabled us to listen to my parents or whoever was on the phone and they did not know that we were listening
Story 2 - Once, while I was at work at Western Electric, my father called me to ask what a semi-conductor was. I reminded my father that he worked for ITT, a rival company, as a buyer. He replied just tell me what they are. I pulled down my books on the company, including how the old analog switch systems worked, and read two paragraphs. He said that was enough, thanked me, and we hung up.
I have a recent picture of the antique phone; I cannot find the old Polaroid photo of the phone sitting on my desk. I can take pictures of the tie clips or phone charms if you would like those.

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