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I Collect telephones.

My collection consists of mostly American phones from the second half of this century, but I'm trying to get more international pieces. I especially like designs that are different (subtly or radically) from what I consider standard American fare.

Several years ago I had a great job working at an independently owned Radio Shack ® in Northeast PA.  Every time it would rain people would come into the store with dead apparatus (The Power CO and the local TelCo are both notorious for lousy service, high rates, and crap coming down the wire.)  It occurred to me that as a child (when the phone company was THE PHONE COMPANY) I recall the dial tone being out of service maybe twice, and that we never had a problem with the telephone itself. Now I've been using the same two phones that were in my Mom's house since I lived there, and aside from physical damage that I did to them they're both still working fine. 

I generally try to hit the flea market and the yard sales, and (in that part of the country) old phones turn up all over the place for a couple of bucks apiece. I love design, and pulling these babies apart revealed the incredible design talent and manufacturing prowess  that the phone companies could bring to bear on the problem.

If you would try to make a piece of equipment like the Western Electric 500 set now, it would probably cost about $300. The phone companies (most notably Ma Bell) were able spend that much (or the equivalent) because they supplied the equipment to the customer as part of their subscription to telephone service, and recouped the cost of manufacture and maintenance over the entire term of service (forever). The quality of manufacture of domestic telephone equipment plummeted following the breakup of AT&T in 1984.  Consumers were allowed to purchase their own phones and use them with the service supplied by the phone company.

Rather than being made to withstand all but the most extreme conditions, consumer phones were made to be - cheap. Electronic technology makes it possible to manufacture good sounding lightweight telephones in a vast array of shapes and colors very economically. Today's telephone equipment uses none of the precision machined components that were the hallmark of the phones of yore. The only problem is that they're cheap little pieces of crap, and they break every time they fall off of the night stand or lightning hits 3 miles down the road.  But that's OK, you can always go buy another.

When I started buying phones my only criterion was that they were stamped "property of" the local phone company.  I've loosened that a bit, and now will pretty much buy anything that catches my fancy (and fits into my (limited) budget.)

I was going to make these pages the definitive resource on all of the pieces in my collection, but once I realized the magnitude of that project, I decided to scale back. I have come across a really excellent general history of telephones at

Everything you want to know about the Bell system, including history, stories, and photos is at

Mike Elmore has a web site with a lot of telephone schematics:

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This page last updated: January 3, 2005

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