Woman using a candlestick phone sometime in the 1920s
or 1930s. Detail from a photograph in the Milton Keynes Telephone Museum.
My husband grew up in the 1930s and 1940s in rural England where the family
phone was of an older vintage than the family phones where I grew up. The house
was an old one, and it was also rather large. Probably its relative affluence
and its isolation were why the previous owners had made the somewhat up-market
decision to go 'on the phone'. This would have been sometime in the early 1930s
or possibly even the 1920s.
The appearance of the phone
Candlestick phone with a dial, photographed at the Milton
Keynes Telephone Museum.
Candlestick phones were in two parts with the mouthpiece at the top of the
part reminiscent of a candle-like structure. The earpiece was held on a cradle
when the phone is not in use and lifted to the ear when it is in use.
1920s candlestick phone with no dial photographed at
Milton Keynes Telephone Museum.
The base of the later candlestick phones held a
dial as shown on the left.
The earlier candlestick phones, however, such as the one in my husband's
family had no dial, just a disk stating the number of the phone and other information
on making the call. An example is shown in the photograph on the right.
Making a call with a candlestick phone
Where the phones had a dial, local calls could be dialled directly, but longer
distance calls had to be made through the operator at the
To get hold of her, you dialled zero, always just called 'O'. In fact, 'Dial
O for operator' was a stock phrase.
My husband's parents candlestick phone did not have a dial. Lifting the earpiece
from its cradle attracted the attention of the operator - at least that was
the idea. If she didn't answer - which was not uncommon if she was on another
line or chatting, the caller would jiggled the cradle up and down repeatedly.
Once the operator answered, the caller simply gave her the number required.
Once she had got it, she would say something like: "It's ringing for you, caller",
or "You're through". She could if she so wished amuse herself by staying on
the line and listening to the conversation. Callers could do nothing about this,
however much they objected to it.
Disadvantages of candlestick phones
A wall-mounted candlestick telephone, photographed at
Milton Keynes Telephone Museum.
Quite apart from the fact that telephoning through the operator could be
slow and often laborious, the phones themselves were awkward to use. Two hands
were needed: one to hold the earpiece to the ear and the other to hold the mouthpiece
to the mouth. This meant that one part of the phone had to be put down in order
to write down messages. One way round the problem was to mount the phone on
the wall, but it was not easy to position so that its height was right for everyone.
The newer phones of the 1940s
were far more convenient in that both the mouthpiece and the earpiece were in
the same unit and could be held in one hand, so freeing the other for dialling
and taking down messages.
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is © Pat Cryer.