Saturday 4 November 2023

Family Stories Month - The Telephone

I am so incredibly grateful to be living in a time when technology helps me to stay connected to family and friends. This was especially true for most of us as we tried to navigate living in a pandemic. Many of us found technology gave us a way out of our loneliness, fear and anxiety. We could stay connected to others while living in isolation. We could continue to watch webinars, stream shows, meet friends and family via Zoom. We could message each other and share our worries, knowing someone was on the other side, ready to be a shoulder to lean on. 

But for many of us, technology wasn’t always instantaneous. Remember dial-up? It would take ages for a photo attachment to load to an email. We couldn’t use the phone and the computer at the same time. We were really limited about our use of the internet in terms of megabytes, never mind gigabytes. We paid dearly for going over our limit, or we lost our connection all together until the next billing cycle. 

I remember sitting at the computer one evening, loading a picture as an attachment to an email I was sending to my cousin in Australia. Before I had loaded the photo, he had replied to comment on the one I had just sent! Magic. I could email photos to family in four countries and they felt as connected to us as they would have if we had been living nearby. 

I remember several years ago, in the days before modems, when our computers were still linked to our phone lines, a colleague was having a problem getting online. She asked her son to run downstairs and check to see if the phone had a dial tone. He looked up at her quizzically and asked “what’s a dial tone?” 

Phones, too, have come a long way. There’s the mobile or cell phone. We have gone from phones that looked not dissimilar to Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone in size to phones that carry in our pockets. Actually computers that we carry in our pockets but call phones.


We had a black rotary dial phone forever. When it came to calling overseas, we would wait until Sunday so that we could actually afford the call. It was always kept short because cost was an issue. We had to dial ‘0’ for the operator and then ask for the overseas operator. The overseas operator would come on the line, and we would tell her who we wanted to call and give her the number to plug in for us. Then we would wait until the phone was answered on the other end. There was always a 10 second gap in time. We would shout a sentence into the phone then wait. 20 seconds later would come a reply. Often, though, those 20 seconds felt like eternity so we would end up shouting over the other person’s reply. When Scotland called us, there was always dead air on the line after we said hello. It took a while for us to realize this wasn’t a crank call and we learned to wait out the time it took for the voice to make its way across the cables.  

Our phone numbers actually started with words. The first two numbers were given a word, corresponding to the letters around that number on the dial. For example, 527-XXXX would be Jackson seven, 547-XXXX was Liberty seven and 627-XXXX was Mayfair seven. When someone asked your phone number you would literally say “Jackson Seven XXXX”. And unlike today, when you moved residences, you were assigned a new phone number. In smaller communities where everyone had the same exchange, you only actually needed to dial the five numbers, and could leave off the first two. There was even a phone number you could dial to get the accurate time. 

My aunt in the country had a party line. Three or four neighbours would all use the same phone line. Each household would have a different ring. Long-short-long. Two long and a short, etc. Making a call was often difficult because the phone was often in use by someone in one of the other households. Calling in would result in a busy signal. Calling out meant constantly lifting the receiver to see if there was a conversation happening on the other end of the line. And waiting until there wasn’t one before you could dial out. It was several years before they were able to get their own telephone line. 

We eventually graduated from the black phone to a wall phone. We still had the black phone, but it was relegated to the basement. Our neighbour across the street was ahead of all of us. She had a “long cord” It was about 6 feet long and meant that she could walk around her kitchen while on the phone instead of being tethered to the wall. That luxury seemed frivolous to my parents. 

My aunt up the street was the first to get a touch-tone phone. The ringer no longer sounded like a phone. It warbled. You no longer dialed numbers, but pressed buttons. Upgrading meant she received a new phone number. And by that time, we no longer used a word as the first two digits. We actually said all seven numbers when asked for our phone number. 

Now of course, we rarely use numbers, we just tap a button, photograph or icon. We plug our phones into the recess that used to house the car’s cigarette lighter. Today, we carry our phones with us and although they are portable, we are tethered.


  1. The first black phone I remember had no dial. You picked up the handset and waited. When a voice on the phone said "Number, please", you'd tell the operator the number you wanted to call. She (I never heard of a male operator) would make the connection and ring that phone.

  2. That's fabulous! Thanks so much for sharing.