50’s Nostalgia- Crank Telephones

Back in Time

Back in Time

Until I was 9 we lived in suburban communities with regular telephones. While most telephones in the 40’s were bulkier and had rotary dialing, they can still be recognized as telephones today. When we moved to the country in 1949 we stepped back 50 years in telephone technology. Instead of dialing a number we had to get the attention of an operator who made all the telephone calls. We also had a party-line which meant that eight other households shared the use of our telephone line. If they were talking, then we had to wait until they finished. Basically it was the same as if each of us was an extension in a very large house. It wasn’t a big problem for a 10 year old but it was often a big nuisance for adults. Of course if there was an emergency, you just asked the person talking to let you make a call. Sometimes there might be a disagreement about what determined an emergency. Then too there was always the concern that some nosy neighbor was eavesdropping on your conversation. In those days, in the country, you didn’t have choices. If you didn’t like party lines, it was just too bad.

1950's rural america had crank phones

Party lines were no fun

Rapid Change in Technology

We did see a rapid evolution in telephone service during the 50’s. First we got an actual telephone receiver instead of the wooden box on the wall with bells and a crank. There was still an operator and we still had a party line but using it was simplified. You just lifted the receiver and waited for the voice of the operator. We moved from one farm to another in 56 and sometime shorty thereafter we were given a telephone with a dial so we could actually place calls ourselves. Instead of our old number 875-J-2 which meant that we were the second line on the 875 circuit we got an actual number with an exchange just like in the city. Our number was Madison 3-3269 and we could actually dial local calls ourselves. We were also able to get a private line so we could always make a call.  It was like dying and going to heaven.

Then we got to dial long distance.

In the late 50’s, they introduced Area Codes which didn’t mean much at the time because long distance calls were regarded as a luxury. Our farm was in the Greater Kansas City area which spans two states and therefore two area codes. In the beginning, we could dial numbers in Kansas from our Missouri farm without the area code but when the system was implemented, this was no longer allowed. At the end of the 50’s my rural home was in technological sync with the big city. In ten years I had gone from cranking a handle to connect with an operator to direct dial long distance.  It was amazing.

I would never have dreamed that 6 years later

virtually everyone would have their own telephone to carry with them. Of course, in those days, I wouldn’t have wanted one. How times change.


{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Bill Murney April 22, 2011, 1:36 am

    I remember party lines Ralph, when I started my business in the late 60’s I used an aunts telephone which had a party line.

    It was rare in the UK to have a home telephone until the early 60’s, only professional people had the facility, the majority used public telephones in red kiosk type boxes.

    My first private telephone was in 1969 when we got married and bought our first house. Home phones are dying out now, mobiles now rule the roost.

    A-U-L, UK

    • Ralph April 22, 2011, 7:33 am

      I didn’t know that about home telephones in the UK. We had lots of pay telephones when I was a kid. You needed to call for your parents to pick you up after a movie or at a friends (I lived in the country). You had to have change- something kids never had.
      I read in the paper yesterday that 18% of households in our area don’t have land lines.

  • Hansi April 22, 2011, 3:25 pm

    I don’t remember crank telephones, but I do remember making “crank calls” as a kid. My favorite was to dial a random number and say something like, “Hello, this is the Electric company, is your refrigerator running?” If they replied yes, I’d say “Well ya better chase it”. Great fun, and that was before they had caller ID.
    Hansi’s last Blog Post ..Hansi- the Farting P O

  • Emily P November 30, 2011, 2:05 pm

    Hi, I have a phone exactly like your photo. It was my grand parents. Do you know how much it is worth? Thank you, Emily in Texas

    • Ralph November 30, 2011, 4:10 pm

      I don’t know what a phone like that might be worth. It sure must make a good conversationpiece around the hours.

  • Lois Fischer February 19, 2013, 10:05 am

    What is the value of an old crank phone in mint condition

    • Ralph March 1, 2013, 7:27 am

      I don’t know. Maybe you could Google the question.

  • Timm Holt September 29, 2014, 7:38 am

    I remember crank telephones. My sister and I were always tempted to crack it just to annoy the operator. Our number was 9R40 (4 longs) and our neighbor 9R42 (4 longs and 2 short ring) Our operator was devilish. We’d just get to the phone and she’d add the 2 shorts.

    • Ralph October 6, 2014, 6:06 am

      Our’s was 875j2. Two rings and I don’t recall short and long. You could actually listen in on other phone conversations

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