Rotary Dial Telephone

At the top of the stairs in our house on Ovid in Oak Cliff in the 1960s, Mother placed an antique wooden accent table with a small antique mirror, both of which are family heirlooms. This is where she placed the upstairs telephone, which was on a long cord that could reach into any of the three upstairs bedrooms, bathroom, and even a closet or three. The phone I remember best on that table was a Princess phone; however, the phone I have more nostalgic memories of is the heavy old black rotary phone, which is what I remember using when we lived on Mt. Pleasant.

I have the table and mirror; and when my husband Gene and I recently moved, I decided to place them together in the hallway. On top of the table I placed a replica of the old black phone I remember. I looked on-line at authentic vintage phones, but most of the ones I saw looked too worn and dirty, and the restored phones cost too much for this purpose; so I decided to buy a replica instead. It is a working phone, but I do not have it plugged in.

old telephone replica w mirror.png
Heirloom table and mirror with replica of old rotary dial phone

My son Chris, his wife Heather, and their two children Blake and Reagan were here after Christmas for a visit. Ten-year-old Reagan immediately asked about that odd-looking thing in the hallway, and when her mother and I explained to her what it was, she was even more curious. She wanted to know if it worked and how. I told her it was supposed to work but that I had not actually plugged it in to try it yet. I said we could test it while she was here, and the next thing I knew, we were doing just that. This demonstration of how to use a rotary phone was going to be a very interesting and fun exercise, and it would be so simple.

First, I found the cord that came with it and plugged it into the wall jack. One end fit perfectly into the wall jack, but the other end did not fit into the phone jack. After struggling with this for a while, Reagan said, “T-ma, maybe if we unplug the cord from here [handset], it will fit into this one [line].” At first I thought, “Well, that’s not going to work,” but I looked at the labels on the underside of the phone (which I had apparently not done when I unpacked the phone), and it turns out that I had plugged the handset cord into the line plug, and Reagan and I had been trying to plug the line cord into the empty handset plug. So, after Reagan fixed that problem, we moved on to the next step.

Reagan wanted to dial her cousin in California, my granddaughter Ashlee (age 12). They were already on their iPads FaceTiming each other at that very moment, and Reagan’s iPad was sitting right next to the rotary phone, which was only one of the missed photo ops of this demonstration. A few inches away but fifteen hundred miles away, Ashlee sat and waited for Reagan’s call. I wrote down Ashlee’s telephone number on a piece of paper for Reagan, who put the handset to her ear and started dialing. This is a general recap of how this simple exercise went:

Me:  Listen for the dial tone. Dial 1 first. Then the area code. Then the number…Ok, go…Put your finger in the finger hole for each number and slide your finger around the dial until your finger hits the stop….No, wait. Don’t take your finger out of the hole until it hits the stop…You’ll have to hang up and start over. Hang up means set the handset back on the cradle, which depresses the buttons and disconnects…Be sure to dial all the way to where the finger-stop is…Good…Oops. Let the rotary dial go back by itself. Don’t keep your finger in it…Ok, do it again…Well, you waited too long between numbers…You’ll have to start over again …Your finger slipped…Do it again…Oh, the phone moved and your finger slipped again…Keep the phone still while you dial…Oh, me. You’ll have to start over…

We were all three giggling very hard very soon, which also made it difficult for Reagan to complete the task; and poor Ashlee could hear but not see our struggles and was still patiently waiting for her phone to ring. I’m sure she was wondering what the problem was.

This whole demonstration went on for about 30 minutes. Reagan kept having to start over for various reasons. I didn’t remember there were so many things that could go wrong dialing a rotary phone. One problem was that the phone replica isn’t as heavy as the real thing, and it kept sliding and throwing her off. Reagan’s mom Heather was sitting nearby listening to our dialing frustrations. I am certain I heard her giggling more than once, usually after she heard one of my repeated exclamations, “This is my nightmare come true!” (Seriously, I have had many “frustration dreams” about trying to dial a number on a rotary phone in an emergency but misdialing and having to start over again and again.)

“OK,” I said, “Let me see if I can do it” and I started dialing it myself. I couldn’t do it either. I’m not sure why, but it turns out this simple phone would not allow us to dial a long distance number, even if we did it right – a problem that careful dialing would not solve.

So, I told Reagan and Ashlee that Ashlee would have to call us. Reagan gave Ashlee our number, she called, and Reagan answered. That worked like a charm. The cousins talked for a few seconds, then Reagan hung up and happily resumed talking with Ashlee on her iPad.

Besides not having the weight that the original phone had, the replica is not an exact replica. It looks very similar, but the center of the dial is a button that activates a speaker; there are two volume switches on the underside of the phone – one for the ringer and one for the speaker; and there are also two extra holes past Zero/Operator on the finger dial for * and #.

We had fun, but Reagan and Ashlee must be a bit mystified by the so-called simplicity of the rotary dial phone. I am pretty sure that my demonstration did not convince them how easy the original was to use, and they both think their T-ma is funny.

I  hope I never have to make an emergency call on my rotary phone – only in my dreams.