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Bill Cotter

An early 10-button pay phone

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Those robot questionairres ("press one for billing, press two for complaints, press three to leave a message") were really impractical until those touch tone pushbuttons came along.  Now they're the bane of life.  "I just want to talk to a live PERSON!!!"

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I would like to get my hands on that 1967 Montreal Bell Canada metro telephone directory. What a centenary time capsule that would be.

And those push button phones also spelled doom for operators.  Once the font of all urban knowledge, they could give you the correct time (local and five time zones away), urgent weather updates, quick connections to the police and fire departments and even provide travel directions.   They taught phone users how to direct dial ten digit long distance calls. The knew how to maneuver a collect call and they could monitor party lines especially when little kids broke into calls to play pranks. They could handle emergency situations and were doing 911 type of work long before anyone even considered the 911 concept.  They provided change when a call came in under the expected time and they credited calls whenever a caller dialed a wrong number.  This was a rather popular amenity during a time when people would be  charged for time used even if a wrong number had been inadvertently dialed.  These operators were real people who could even provide street directions because they generally lived  right in the community.  Many built careers of thirty or more years and were the face of Ma Bell.

Press the Zero button on any land line or cell phone and see how far you go before you realize you're not going to receive any assistance at all.

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Mid sixties is when my family took yearly summer vacations to Lake Winnipesaukee. Sometime before then would come the evening when my father would announce that he was preparing to make the long distance phone call to the owner of the lakefront cabin at his home in Concord, NH to ask if we could rent the property. He would then explain to me the distinction between a “station to station” and “person to person” call, and the concomitant pricing considerations.

When the time was right for reduced evening rates, he would pick up the heavy black bakelite receiver, dial, literally dial, the operator, and bellow his intention much as I imagined Abraham Lincoln did at Gettysburg, as mom and I looked on in awe.

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Well said, Jim.

I remember when phone calls were so expensive that my parents had a way of letting our grandparents know we had arrived back home safely from a trip.At first they would make a collect call to themselves, which my grandparents would decline. Later I think it evolved to calling and letting it ring once then hanging up. I remember when my uncle was there as well and they were trying to decide who would be the one ring party and who would be the two ring. I suggested my mother was the older so she should be #1, and everyone agreed it was a brilliant plan. Fun memories.

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My sister worked for Illinois Bell, so of course we got Touch-Tone.  How long did they charge extra for it? I think it was decades, even after it was costing them extra to maintain pulse-recognition.

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I had almost forgotten about person-to-person, station-to-station and collect calls. I love Bill and Xl5er's memories.

My memories are quite similar.  My mother would have us call whenever we travelled and to call collect but ask for ourselves.  This way, when I did this she would say I was not in but would know I had safely arrived wherever I was going.  It cost nothing.  New York Telephone HAD to know all about this ploy because I'll bet millions of people did it.  

If I correctly recall rates dropped at six and again at eleven and then there were the lower weekend rates.  We were all trained to call at those times.  

I cannot remember the last time I heard someone say "give me a ring" or "hold the wire."  And it has been forever since I walked by a pay telephone and checked to see if there was any change left in what was called the "coin return bucket."  Actually, I miss doing that.

I will add one more memory about Party Lines.  Holy crap they were hilarious.  My family has a house on a small Upstate NY lake.  There were maybe thirty cottages or cabins on the lake when I was a kid almost sixty years ago and those who had phones were on party lines.  My father was an MD so we had a phone.  I remember listening in on all sorts of calls when I was very small and it was raining and I had to stay inside.  I heard some bizarre conversations.  Just last year, we finally ditched the party line and were the very last to be still using that service.  Grandfathered in, were were paying about 20 bucks a month (no long distance).  But the small cabin is jointly owned by extended family and all have cell phones.  The last remnant of a party line in this area disappeared last December when we shut it off forever.

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According to my sister, Bell employees (at least of our generation) were big fans of Lily Tomlin's "Ernestine."  While she skewered the monopoly in an exaggerated way, it was true that Bell had very high standards of service, but also with precise limits of what they would do for a customer. Regarding service standards, I recall my sister saying that the service reps were trained to answer calls precisely after the second ring, as this was both prompt and gave the caller a chance to hang up if they realized they had dialed wrong. Offices were staffed with enough reps that someone would be available to answer after two rings.

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On 12/28/2017 at 4:11 AM, Jim said:

I would like to get my hands on that 1967 Montreal Bell Canada metro telephone directory. What a centenary time capsule that would be.

And those push button phones also spelled doom for operators.  Once the font of all urban knowledge, they could give you the correct time (local and five time zones away), urgent weather updates, quick connections to the police and fire departments and even provide travel directions.   They taught phone users how to direct dial ten digit long distance calls. The knew how to maneuver a collect call and they could monitor party lines especially when little kids broke into calls to play pranks. They could handle emergency situations and were doing 911 type of work long before anyone even considered the 911 concept.  They provided change when a call came in under the expected time and they credited calls whenever a caller dialed a wrong number.  This was a rather popular amenity during a time when people would be  charged for time used even if a wrong number had been inadvertently dialed.  These operators were real people who could even provide street directions because they generally lived  right in the community.  Many built careers of thirty or more years and were the face of Ma Bell.

Press the Zero button on any land line or cell phone and see how far you go before you realize you're not going to receive any assistance at all.

My wife's aunt worked as that kind of operator for AT&T in the Wheeling, WV switchboard. 

Explained why Wheeling was a hub, the kinds of direct connections from there to Columbus, OH, Cleveland, OH, and Pittsburgh, PA.  Gave stories about life before the rotary dial was introduced to American household. Then told me how the the day the new machines went online for the rotary dials, and where she was when it happened. 

She was able to retire in the late 80's as an operator. 

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