The telephones of yesterday


There is a story of a long-ago instrument in every single home that drew the young in every family like a moth to the flame. Did your home have one ring or two? Did you share the line with just one neighbor, or three or four?

It sent feet running when there were four young girls under one roof, and only one telephone. Nothing much was going on in our little world, and we didn’t realize how lucky we were.

The ringing telephone became a contest, and may the sure-footed sister win. It was likely to be a call for Mom, who had many friends, or for Dad, about farm business. But it was never a robot, and it was never an annoyance back then. We would politely take a message and write it down, often hand-delivering that message to Dad by bicycle.


As we got older, that one centrally-located telephone begged for privacy. We had important stuff to talk with girlfriends about, and everyone could hear our business. Even the neighbor on our party-line, an older lady who likely loved a peek into the lives of four happy girls, loved to listen in.

We might talk about highly classified information, like what we were wearing to school the next day, or the new boy who every girl adored, his polite ways and southern accent making waves of silly swooning among the girls in the entire fourth grade.

“If someone picks up while you are talking, that means one of the neighbors needs to use the phone. Be polite, and end your conversation,” our mother instructed us about 10 million times.


The memory my oldest sister holds of the early days is standing on a chair to reach the old wooden box phone. Pick up the hand receiver, swing the crank on the side a time or two, and Carol the operator would ask who you needed to be connected with, and could even advise when that particular person was away on vacation.

If you needed someone but didn’t know their phone number, no need to worry. Carol knew.


It is a modern-day wonder, the evolution of telephones. Dad used to wonder why anyone would have a phone but not be listed in the phone book, preferring to keep their contact information private.

“Why even have a phone if people can’t reach you?” he often asked, perplexed by the very notion.

We had county directories with people’s address, phone number, names and ages of their children. Life in rural America really was an open book. Except if you were 10 years old and your best friend called. My oldest sister begged and won us a longer curly telephone cord, long enough to step from the hall into the only bathroom.

You could follow the cord to the kid, which my parents often did, to say, “I need the phone. Right now.”

Today, pretty much every single person you see has a phone, usually in hand or in a pocket, easily accessible. Only those who know your number can reach you, because there are no telephone books, so it’s like thousands of private lines. We don’t want to be bothered, but there it is.

Gone are the days of begging for a longer cord, stepping as far away from listening ears as possible. Long gone is Carol, kindly helping with every connection. She has been replaced by robots that manage to find private numbers, eager to wreck your peaceful day.


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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.



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