The home in 50 objects #16: the telephone

The modest device pictured here represents the domestic phone at the peak of its powers. It is sleek and colourful — well, two shades of green, at least — where handsets it replaced tended to be clunky and black. It oozes, too, a quiet sense of triumph. Alexander Graham Bell patented his telephone in 1876 but it was only about a century later, when this model was popular, that the majority of British households had their own.

It offered access to such services as a morning alarm call — not automatic, but from a live operator. This was initially free and resulted in public protest when a small charge was introduced. With scant information of name or address, you could also have someone in “directory inquiries” spend a lengthy time with you finding the number you wanted.

Otherwise the phone was used for little by way of conversation. For that reason, or so he said, the family of a 1960s school friend of mine had theirs removed after a few months, though I assumed that since he lived in Hoxton, then a very poor London area, his family could not afford it. In a better-off neighbourhood a half mile away, my family shared a phone with my grandparents, a so-called party line.

Idly chatting had not caught on. The phone was an expense and anything remotely like a long-distance call, which usually meant an emergency, had to go through an operator.

The early part of anyone’s telephone number corresponded to the first three letters of whatever “exchange” area they were part of; in my case, in north London, CAN for Canonbury. If you lived in King’s Road, Chelsea, it was FLA for Flaxman, which the local exchange was called for no obvious reason.

Postmaster general Tony Benn decomplicated matters in the late 1960s by introducing the all-number number. Now you could phone long distance without an operator and, he added, that even included calls abroad, to places like Los Angeles.

He faced criticism, however. In a TV debate, Peregrine Worsthorne,
a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph who died this month, told Benn that people mourned the loss of their old numbers, and didn’t want to phone places like Los Angeles.

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The microchip, insinuating its way in from the second half of the 1970s, would spell the end of the home telephone’s golden age. Mobile devices — “poser phones”, for who on earth would want to discuss their business loudly on the street — took hold by the late 1980s.


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