History Through Hollywood: Telephones

The History Through Hollywood series looks at old films as inadvertent time capsules packed with the norms and customs, both quotidian and grand, of a bygone era. Old movies are full of history hiding in plain sight, and you can learn a lot without meaning to, and usually without even noticing.

After all, traditions change, cultural mores shift, and technology races on; what was once commonplace might now seem totally weird. For example, when was the last time you saw a man wearing sock garters? Have you ever noticed that no one drinks wine in old films but instead opts for cocktails? (Find out why here.) And why does everyone have an English accent?

Bringing Up Baby Grant Hepburn movies

Bringing Up Baby (1938) Unless otherwise noted, all images are my own.

This series is also my attempt to explain why old movies can sometimes seem so very different from today’s films. With a little context, a “boring,” and “tame” old film can suddenly shimmer (watch for those cross-dissolves, people!), and something that seems utterly alien can suddenly make sense (why are so many wives going to Reno?)

You can read my other History Through Hollywood posts about sex, speedy romancesdoughnutstrain travelfashiondivorce, and the ever-smoldering cigarettes here, but this entry is all about telephony. Telephones have been a huge part of our lives since the beginning of the 20th century, but the systems, protocols, and phones themselves have changed enormously in the last hundred years.

Easy Living Arthur Milland - 132

Jean Arthur in Easy Living (1937)

So read on if you’ve ever been curious about those constant requests to the operator, the weird system of words and digits that used to represent a phone number, and the joys and inconveniences of party lines.

  • The sleek rectangles we carry in our pockets look awfully different than the telephones in classic films.

There are three different phone designs that you’ll see most often in old movies: the candlestick, wall-mounted, and handset models.

Good News Lawford phone call

A wall-mounted phone and a candlestick model in Good News (1947)

Early telephones made from the 1890s to the 1930s separated the receiver (earpiece) and the transmitter (mouthpiece), and there were no buttons to push as you didn’t dial the numbers yourself, instead relying on the operator to place the call for you. (Once automatic switchboards began to appear, rotary dials were placed on the base of the phones.)

Candlestick models (also known as upright or stick phones) required a ringer box nearby to alert you to incoming calls. Those boxes also housed the equipment that connected your phone to the line.

To start a call, you lifted the receiver from the switchhook (the cradle on the side of the stand), which activated the line. Characters who are in a hurry often press the switchhook repeatedly, making a particularly glorious click. (I love that sound and the crinkling pops and hisses at the beginning of an old film.) Watch His Girl Friday (1940) for a grand collection of telephones and those noises as frenzied reporters call in their stories.

Once the line was activated, you’d ask the operator to connect you, and hopefully you’d be chatting away in no time at all.

Besides candlestick phones, there were also wall-mounted phones that combined the elements of the candlestick phone with the ringer box.

In the late 1920s, the receiver and transmitter were combined to create the glamorous handset phones. But in many films, you’ll see candlestick phones right alongside the newer models.

In films made from the mid-1940s on, candlestick phones have mostly disappeared in favor of handset models that were easier and more convenient to use.

I don’t want to go back to a pre-smartphone world, but there is something glamorous and fantastic about these phones that an iPhone slab just can’t match. One day I hope to have a phone just like this one:

The “modern” rotary phones with those curly cords were introduced way back in 1949, and were essentially the only option until the 1960s when touch-tone phones were unveiled. I can remember a rotary phone in my grandmother’s house, but I grew up with touch-tone phones. And the generation after me probably has no idea how to operate a rotary phone.

via: http://weimarart.blogspot.com/2011/07/dial-w-for-weimar.html

Alfred Hitchcock with his giant prop phone for Dial M for Murder via: http://weimarart.blogspot.com/2011/07/dial-w-for-weimar.html

Then things got even crazier with answering machines, voice mail, call waiting, cordless phones, and caller ID, not to mention cell phones.

You can read more about the history of the telephone here and here. But a lot more than the shape of our telephones has changed.


  • Operator?

If you’ve ever watched an old movie, you’ve probably seen a character pick up a phone and say, “Operator?” before spitting out an odd combination of words and numbers. Then she might say “Yes, I’ll hold,” or “Keep trying, please,” or “I need to place a long distance call to New York.” Sometimes she’ll include the name of the person she’s trying to call, and perhaps the hotel or business where he or she can be located.

For the Love of Mary: Deanna Durbin and Don Taylor

Don Taylor and Deanna Durbin as an operator in For the Love of Mary (1948)

But I bet you’ve never glamorously intoned “Operator? Plaza 5-8349, please,” or asked a faceless voice to get you Ms. So and So at the local bank. The way we dial has changed enormously in the last several decades. Nowadays, manual switchboards are a thing of the past, just like candlestick phones and party lines.

Royal Wedding Wynn phone

An operator connects Keenan Wynn to his twin brother in Royal Wedding (1951)

But before direct dialing was an option, operators ran the exchanges that enabled people to place calls in the first place.

In the earliest days of telephoning, before exchanges, an individual telephone was wired to another individual phone, allowing calls between those two machines but no other ones. This could be used to connect a person’s home telephone with their business phone, for example, but you can see how such a system wasn’t ideal.

In the 1870s, a Hungarian engineer had the idea for exchanges, central offices housing telephone lines and systems that oversee one geographic area.

Operators, who were overwhelmingly female, sat in front of switchboards and plugged different cords into different jacks to connect two callers to each other.

It worked like this: you picked up your phone and asked the operator to connect you to your desired number. If the number you were calling was served by the same exchange and located on the same switchboard, the operator could just plug your line’s cord into the other line’s jack and boom—you were connected.

Major Minor Rogers phone

Ginger Rogers plays operator on the school’s switchboard in The Major and the Minor (1942)

If your desired number was located on another switchboard in the same exchange or at a different exchange altogether, the operator plugged your call into the “trunk” jack, thus transferring it to another switchboard or another office where a second operator took over and made the connection.

Exchanges were first implemented in the late 1870s, and they made it possible for one telephone to connect to just about any other phone. Thanks to exchanges, telephoning became the convenient, ubiquitous method of communication that we know and love. You can watch operators at exchanges in action here:

Local calls were fairly simple, but long distance connections got complicated fast, as they required multiple operators working together in several different exchanges. There were specially trained long-distance operators who only dealt with those calls, which is why you’ll hear characters notify the local operator that their call is long-distance. There’s usually a pause after that as the character waits for their call to be transferred to the long-distance operator.

Royal Wedding 88

Royal Wedding (1951)

As you can imagine, it was time consuming and complicated to make all the different connections that transferred a call from an exchange in St. Louis to New York, for example. Also, keeping track of the various tolls and routes was a complex undertaking, which is why long-distance calls were so expensive to make.

It makes sense why characters in old movies react with such surprise and urgency when they receive a long-distance call, and why making one is reserved for only the most important occasions. When I watched old movies when I was little, I didn’t understand this because long-distance was no longer such a huge deal. For example, I was bewildered when the family in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) is thrown into such chaos by an expected long-distance call from the eldest daughter’s boyfriend.

Meet me in St. Louis Bremer phone call

The long-distance call in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

They assume he is going to propose, because why else would he call long-distance? They are utterly dumfounded when he just chats about the weather! You can watch this funny scene here:

The system of human operators was eventually replaced by automatic switchboards in the 1970s and ’80s, but for decades they kept the country connected. Operators were such a normal part of life that they show up in countless movies, and sometimes takes center stage in films like Telephone Operator (1937).

The Blue Gardenia: Richard Conte

Operators in The Blue Gardenia

Many female characters work as switchboard operators, as in The Blue Gardenia (1953), even if their job doesn’t play a huge role in the movie itself. For example, you can watch Rosalind Russell attempt to be an operator in Auntie Mame (1958) here. It seems alien to us now, but it was a very normal part of life back then.


  • Phone numbers weren’t just numbers.

Why were Lucy and Ricardo reachable by MUrray Hill 5-9975? And why is the Elizabeth Taylor film called BUtterfield 8?

Hit the Deck Miller phone

A phone-themed musical number in Hit the Deck (1955)

Well, early engineers thought that using a word instead of just numbers would function as a Mnemonic device that would prevent misdialing. And they decided that people would do better with four or five numbers to remember instead of seven.

So instead of memorizing a seven-digit phone number, you would memorize a word (the name of the exchange, which was usually taken from the neighborhood or area it served) and then five numbers.

The first two letters of the word were the first two digits of the number spelled on the telephone dial; for example, the phone number “SYcamore 4-3317″ with the S and Y capitalized means that the first two numbers of the telephone number are “79”, so the number is 794-3317.

You can watch this system in action as Keenan Wynn struggles with an operator in a sketch from Ziegfeld Follies (1946):

I’m not sure if the word-plus-numbers system really was easier than just a seven-digit number, but the system was surprisingly beloved. References are plentiful in pop culture: for example, Glenn Miller titled his hit “PEnnsylvania 6-5000,” (which inspired a Bugs Bunny spoof called “Transylvania 6-5000,”) Chuck Berry sang “Los Angeles give me Norfolk, Virginia, Tidewater four ten O nine,” (TW4-1009) in his 1964 song “Promised Land,” and the Partridge Family’s song “Echo Valley 2-6809” referenced the system in 1971. Even The Simpsons got in on it: in the “Mr. Plow” episode in 1992, Homer takes out an ad and lists his phone number as Klondike 5-3226!

Exchanges and the colorful names lasted until the 1960s, when all-number dialing was phased in. The exchange names slowly faded away, though it took until the 1980s for the old system to be completely replaced. The exchange names became a nostalgic reminder of a past age, and many lamented the switch to impersonal number dialing and the new three-digit area codes.

Fun fact: According to The Atlantic, when engineers were assigning area codes, they gave the most populous areas of the country the “lowest click” combinations; for instance, New York was assigned 212 because it required the lowest number of clicks on a rotary phone (shortest distance from number to finger stop).

The next most populous area, Los Angeles, was given 213, and Chicago had 312. Compare that to Anchorage, Alaska, which was assigned 907. Also, to minimize confusion, the engineers tried to place similar codes far apart on the map, which is why Oregon has 503 and Florida has 305.

As with any big change, there was a public outcry when the old system of exchange names disappeared. Stan Freberg expressed his displeasure in 1966 with a song on his Freberg Underground album: “They took away our Murray Hills/They took away our Sycamores/They took away Tuxedo and State/They took away our Plaza, our Yukon, our Michigan/And left us with 47329768…”

And Erica Jong fondly remembered the exchanges she grew up with in a Huffington Post article:

How mnemonic it was to have Audubon and Academy and Nightingale, Hunter 2 in Great Neck and Tremont 2 in the Bronx. There was Plaza 1, 2, 4 etc. and you could visualize your friend in Great Neck or the Bronx or the lower East Side–ORchard whatever for Orchard Street. Villagers were Spring 2. And my high school boyfriend was TRemont something. I am ashamed not to be able to remember the digit.

Although area codes seem normal to us now, when they were implemented they were unpopular. In New York Magazine, Jonathan Schwartz wrote about the difference between a name and a three digit area code:

You could learn about a fella by knowing his exchange. A MOnument fella was up near 100th Street and West End Avenue. You could picture him coming downtown on the IRT, strolling first to 96th and Broadway for the newspapers, passing the Riviera and Riverside movie theaters (both gone). The ATwater girl was an East Side girl, a taxi-hailing girl, on her way to her job at Benton and Bowles. A CIrcle fella was a midtown fella, entering his CIrcle-7 Carnegie-area office with a sandwich from the Stage Deli. And what about a SPring-7 girl, twirling the ends of her long brown hair as she lay on her bed talking to you on te phone? A Greenwich Village girl. A 777 girl is nothing. She is invisible. She is without irony, seldom listens to music.

You can read more about that nostalgia for exchange names in The Atlantic, and learn more about the old system here and here.

Midnight Colbert phone

Midnight (1939)

So the next time you dial a three-digit area code, followed by a seven-digit number, (or, let’s be real, when you select the contact on your smartphone) think of the old days when you would have picked up your phone and asked the operator to connect you to Plaza 5-6258!


  • Most people shared a party line with their neighbors.  

I was bewildered by “party lines,” most famously depicted in the first Doris Day/Rock Hudson “sex comedy,” Pillow Talk (1959). Day and Hudson play neighbors in a New York City apartment building who share a party line, drive each other crazy, and then fall in love through some wild machinations.

The party line is crucial in that film, (Day can never use the phone because Hudson is constantly on it seducing women,) but you come across party lines in many other movies, particularly those set in small towns where the party line is used to transmit gossip.

White Christmas Crosby Wickes phone

Mary Wickes listens in on a conversation in White Christmas (1954)

Party lines were single phone lines shared between several subscribers. It’s similar to how today one house might have three different phones on the same phone line: one in the kitchen, one in the bedroom, and one in the living room, for example. They are all connected to the same line, and if you pick up one receiver, you can hear an ongoing call, and if someone is using the kitchen phone, you can’t make a separate call on the bedroom phone. A party line was sort of like that, but instead of multiple phones in the same household, it linked multiple phones in different homes.

For more, you can watch a 1940s training film for party line operators here:

Party lines were cheaper, because you shared the cost of the service between several subscribers. But it also meant that you had no privacy; any of the party line subscribers could pick up their phone and listen to your conversation.

You can watch Day and Hudson on their party line here:

Operators would create personalized rings for each telephone so that a subscriber would know if the call was meant for her or for another household. For instance, your ring might be one long ring followed by two short ones, whereas your next-door neighbor’s signal was three short rings.

But your phone would ring every time anyone called, so you would be alerted that someone was on the line whether the call was for you or not. You can imagine how annoying that would be—other, less intrusive systems of rings were introduced later as the technology improved.

Easy to Love Esther Williams phone booth

Party lines lacked privacy just as Williams does as she places a call in Easy to Love (1953)

Although they seem foreign now, party lines used to be the norm. Indeed, the majority of phone customers in the first half of the 20th century used party lines. This was especially true during WWII when there were shortages and private phone lines weren’t a priority.

Party lines shared between two and about a dozen subscribers were especially common in rural or less populated areas, but they could be found almost anywhere until the demand for private lines and the technology to support them caused a change. For instance, in Pillow Talk, Doris Day desperately wants a private line, but the phone company is swamped with demand and can’t install hers for a while.

Beyond the lack of privacy, party lines could also be inconvenient because if someone else was using the line, you couldn’t make or receive a call. Party line etiquette dictated that subscribers keep their calls as short as possible, but, as you can imagine, this didn’t always happen. You can watch Day try to institute a schedule for her party line here.

Pillow Talk: Doris Day and Rock Hudson

Usually hogging the line just caused frustration, as it does in Pillow Talk, but there were actually laws passed that required a person on a party line to end their call immediately if another subscriber needed it for an emergency. People were actually charged for ignoring these statutes: for example, in 1955 a woman was indicted after her refusal to end her call delayed another subscriber’s report of a fire. There were also laws penalizing people for faking emergencies in order to gain access to the line. Yikes.

In the 1970s and ’80s, party lines were phased out. They couldn’t accommodate technology like answering machines and modems, and the basic phone line technology had changed, too, and could now support more individual lines. Some rural areas held on longer, (Texas didn’t replace all of its party lines until 1995), but now they’re just relics of a different time of telephony.


  • Answering machines didn’t exist.

I first heard of answering services when I watched Bells are Ringing (1960). It is based on a 1956 Broadway musical, and both versions starred Judy Holliday. The story follows an answering service operator (Holliday) at a company called “Susanswerphone.”

Holliday becomes involved in her customers’ lives as she answers their phones and takes their messages. You can watch Holliday in action at her switchboard here.

Naturally, she falls in love with one of them (Dean Martin), and comic, romantic escapades ensue along with a healthy dash of singing gangsters. It’s a fun film, but the whole idea of an answering service was bewildering. Why didn’t these people just have answering machines?

Well, because answering machines didn’t become common until the 1980s. This was despite the fact that the earliest versions of answering machines were invented in the first years of the 20th century. Indeed, in 1878, Thomas Edison listed ten uses for his newly invented phonograph machine, and #10 was as a proto-answering machine:

Connection with the telephone, so as take that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.

The first answering machines available to the public came on the market in the 1950 and ‘60s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that they became the norm. And before that point, there was no way to contact someone unless a person was there to physically answer the phone.

So answering services popped up. Operators would receive calls, take messages, and then send the messages along to the intended recipient. As you can imagine, this was a popular option for businesses, doctors, and individuals who required slightly more connection to their telephone than the average person.

Answering services still exist, but mostly in slightly different incarnations as call centers and customer service hubs.

And that’s it for this History Through Hollywood. I hope you’ve enjoyed it! If you’d like to know more about some of the movies I mentioned, check out my reviews on The Blonde at the Film, and follow me on TwittertumblrPinterestInstagram, and Facebook. You can find my other History Through Hollywood posts here. As always, thanks for reading!

And for a final phone joke, I defer to Tina Fey’s His Girl Friday impression:



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20 replies »

  1. Lots of fun. Many years ago, I came across an old phone book from the time of my birth that included the exchange name for my phone number. I want to say it was “EMpire” or something like that, but I’ve forgotten. There’s an early answering machine in the 1955 Mickey Spillane adaptation, “Kiss Me Deadly.” It’s rather creepy, and takes up most of a wall of his office. You can see candlestick phones and party lines as late as 1959 in “The Giant Gila Monster” – which makes sense, because it’s set in rural Texas! Also, one feature not mentioned in this article is car phones, although they really didn’t get going until the late 60s, and are often more associated with “classic TV” (Batman, Cannon), than with classic film.

  2. Thank you! How cool that you found an old phone book from the days of exchange names! Thanks for these other tidbits–how interesting to see the various technologies hang around/make early appearances! Thanks for reading!

  3. I never thought that reading about the history of telephones could be so much fun. Very entertaining! And I loved the video choices. A favorite telephone scene : Lou Costello trying to contact the radio station to claim his prize in “Who Done It?”. After several minutes spent in frustration with the telephone operator he finally squirts water into the receiver with a seltzer bottle – and the operator gets it right in her eyes!

  4. I love this! I remember having to explain the concept of a telephone operator to a film class once (we were watching a movie where the character was talking to the operator and one student thought he was talking in code), this is fascinating!!

  5. Thanks for this wonderful post. Classic movies are part of what inspire me to write 20th century historical fiction. They’re not just delightful entertainment but I can also call then research. 🙂

  6. Fun stuff! Two fun bits of trivia:

    The “KLondike” exchange (555-) was specifically reserved for movies and television shows to use. If you put a “real” exchange in a movie or song (e.g. “Beechwood 4-5789” by The Marvellettes), any person who actually *had* that number would get inundated with calls from people who thought it would be “fun” to call….

    I think the last movie to use answering services and answering machines as a plot point was the 1992 thriller “Sneakers”

  7. I just adore this post, thank you. For anyone without first-hand experience of the alpha-numeric system, those old dials look mystifying! Naturally, I’ve started plundering my memory for instances of telephone calls on film, so far coming up with Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale, placing the oh-so-significant phone booth call to Jerry in ‘Now, Voyager’ and Marilyn Monroe’s Rose, telephoning her lover in ‘Niagara’. And, of course, in a small town the telephone operator and the exchange itself can play a significant role – I’m thinking of ‘Bad Day At Black Rock’.

    In the UK, a similar system was in use until (I think) the 1960s, with three letters to indicate the exchange, followed by the subscriber’s number. Perhaps the most famous number, and possibly the most significant from a cinematic point-of-view, was WHItehall 1212 – the telephone number of Scotland Yard. And isn’t it amazing that everyone used to be in the London telephone directory, so that anyone could look up and call the numbers of celebrities of the day?

    • That’s wonderful, thank you for that info! One of my favorite telephone calls has to be the terrifying, practically movie-length call in Sorry, Wrong Number! Thanks for reading!

  8. Regarding move characters frantically clicking the hook and saying “Operator! Operator!!”: I don’t have a cite, but I’ve read somewhere that releasing the hook would activate your line’s light on the operator’s switchboard, to let her know you wanted to make a call. By repeatedly releasing and pressing down on the hook, you could make “your” light blink rapidly as long as you kept doing it. So it was actually an effective way of getting g the operator’s attention.

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