If you are like me, you love all things old and beautiful. Vintage telephones are an item you could buy that would add instant retro beauty and functionality to your home. I interviewed the best expert I could find on vintage telephones to help you all know exactly what to look for when shopping for one of these gems. Read on for a comprehensive list of vintage telephone information, tips for shopping, and tricks for bringing home a working vintage telephone of your very own.
I interviewed Jason Hartong of Hartong International. His Etsy shop sells gorgeous antiques from all over the world, including vintage telephones. Jason shared with me his knowledge gained from years of experience working in the antique industry and earning relevant, advanced degrees. Why he so kindly told me (and you!) EVERYTHING you need to know about vintage telephones, I have no idea, but I am very grateful indeed. If fine antiques are your weakness, head to his Etsy shop. It is a feast for vintage loving eyes for sure.
The earliest telephones were known as candlesticks, standing upright, with a separate earpiece. Telephones didn’t have rotary dials until late in the 1910s. A girl could still use these earliest candlestick types of phones in the home but note that they only can receive a call, not place one. Candlesticks were so well made that it is very possible to find a working one today.
In the 1920’s the styles of telephones changed (hello Roaring Twenties!) and featured the Art Deco (more rounded) styles and the handset that we would be more familiar with today with the receiver and microphone in one piece. Until the late 1930s, all telephones had a separate metal or wooden (oak or walnut usually) box that held the ringer. The telephone rested on a side table or a telephone table while the ringer box was mounted to the wall or a baseboard.
By the end of the 1930s, telephones had become more compact, with the ringer and telephone in one apparatus. Until WWII, all phones were made of all metal insides with bakelite exteriors, which made them very heavy and durable. After WWII, plastic became commonplace and telephones became lighter and not quite as durable. *Sigh.
There are so many styles and manufacturers out there that produced telephones it would be impossible to list them all here but one very popular kind were those produced by Western Electric, which was later called Bell Systems. These phones had a reputation for being long lasting and were the most popular in the North American market. Because of their reputation as being indestructible, telephone companies preferred them over other brands. Furthermore, because they were so popular, finding parts to refurbish a vintage Western Electric/Bell Systems telephone is a fairly simple matter.
Telephones from the 1890s (yes, 18!) and earlier are still available for sale, and readily so. The older the telephone, the more valuable it becomes. An older telephone would be identified as a highly sought after collectible and would be a statement piece in your home. Many times, these really, really old phones can be refurbished with a few simple cord replacements or updates and an adapter if you have digital telephone service. Because telephones were for so long built to last, a vintage lover has a whole host of options and price points to pursue. You can get a retro gem from the 1970s for $20 or a beautifully restored piece from 1910 for $1000.
When shopping you should consider what you want the telephone to be used for primary and where you will display it. If your style is more mid-century modern, go for a 1940s-1970s Western Electric model 302 or 500.
If you love the art deco look, go for the 1920s to 1930s Western Electric 102 or 202 model. Be sure it comes complete with ringer box!
If you are after a Downton Abbey look, seek out a Western Electric candlestick model, also with the ringer box. One of these refurbished models can be gorgeously mounted on the wall but can only be used to receive calls since switchboard operators are no longer in use.
There are many other manufacturers from around the world (mostly Europe) but you will likely encounter Western Electric because they dominated the market and thus their replacement parts are much easier to find. When shopping for replacement parts the cost varies considerably but generally, the older the model the more expensive the parts. Some parts from the oldest models can be reproduced and while they are expensive, they will last forever.
Cords are available for nearly all antique and vintage telephones, including the oldest models with replacement cords with cotton covered wire that look beautiful and will plug into our modern outlets. For phones from the 1950s to the 1980s, used cords are available used in many venues for relatively cheap.
If you scrounge up an old phone from any era, be sure that no parts are physically broken. Cords can be replaced, parts can be replaced if they are no longer working but broken exteriors are very difficult to fix. If you find a very old phone and are willing to put in the legwork to get it refurbished, you can reach out to the Antique Telephone Collectors Association at www.atcaonline.com . They are a wonderful resource if DIY is your interest. They even have wiring diagrams and articles about specific models of phones, including vintage payphones (which would be on my flea market dream shopping list!). If you don’t own a phone yet, they have the Western Electric font for free download to get you inspired. On this site, I learned that the national event for this organization is August 5-6 in Shipshewana, IN, so any Wildflowers in that neck of the woods should definitely check it out!
If you are interested in finding a phone of great monetary value, look for phones that are very old, in good condition. Before the 1930s and models like the Western Electric candlesticks and the Deco models 102 and 202 with E1 handsets are the most valuable and continue to go up in price as they age.
If you just want one to actually use in your home, you can find one that is not that old for 10 bucks at a yard sale and older models for upwards of $300.
The value of a landline: Have a landline in your home is fairly inexpensive and invaluable when the power is out. Having a reliable form of telephone communication is so nice. I know I enjoyed a power outage with a new baby when my husband was away at work for over 12 hours and of course, it wasn’t an emergency situation but it was wonderful to be able to make a call. Landlines are also very, very clear audibly. Because I live where cell service is spotty, I always choose using a landline over a cell as the clarity can’t be beaten. It is because of these reasons that I started thinking about how to incorporate vintage landlines into our homes, and the idea for this post was born. My landline is a red gem that my sister scored for me and I am lucky to have it. If you have a VOIP cable telephone package, our interviewee expert Jason Hartong of Hartong International suggests that you will need a pulse to tone adapter for all rotary dial phones. Some digital phone services don’t supply enough power to make your old phone ring properly. Retro analog technology is here to stay, so support the reliable old copper telephone lines in your neighborhood, given they’ve been there for you since the 1890s!
Terms to know:
Receiver- allows you to hear a phone call and is the part you hold to your ear to listen.
Handset- is a receiver and microphone in one piece
Ringer box/Network- a box outside the telephone connection between the wall and phone. It houses it is known as the ringer and on some models, it is housed internally.
Line cord- a cord going from the phone to the wall outlet.
Modular plug- a modern small telephone plug found standard in North America- the part you plug into the wall.
Plunger- the part of the telephone where the receiver or handset rests and is used to hang up a call. Not to be confused with something that unclogs a drain.
Pulse-to-tone adapter- a device which allows an old rotary dial phone to work on digital telephone service.
VOIP- a form of digital phone service which uses the internet to work.
Landline- traditional telephone service which isn’t digital. Smart to have in the instance of power outages.
Rotary dial- pulse dialing
Dial card- the small area in the center of the phone (rotary or not) where a telephone number goes.
For more information: I can’t recommend Jason Hartong of Harton International enough. The quality and quantity of information he supplied me for this post were phenomenal and the beautiful antiques in his Etsy shop speak for themselves. Contact Jason at inquire@hartonginternational and head to his Etsy shop for some antique eye candy.
For phones of the 1970s and 1980s, Etsy produces a fruitful search if you type in “vintage telephone” and there are many options available at all price points.
I hope this post has you walking down memory lane and recalling the sea green rotary dial mounted on the bathroom wall of your teenage home or the shell pink rotary dial your grandmother used to make all her calls on (both examples from my life). Find a vintage phone because they are practical, long lasting, and beautiful. Happy calling, Wildflowers!