In early 1940s war-time Britain, very few well-off families had phones - or were 'on
the phone' as it was called. There were
public telephones, and shops or businesses might be encouraged in an emergency to let
valued customers use their phones.
domestic phones in the 1940s
Domestic phone from the early 1940s.
There was no choice of supplier for phones, and everyone's 1940s phone
was identical to everyone elses. These phones were supplied as part of the whole
deal of 'being on the phone'. ('Candlestick' phones from before the
war were still in use in some businesses and better-off families.)
The 1940s phones were black and made of Bakelite (an early plastic). They were in two
parts, the handset and the base unit.
The handset was just the right size and shape for
speaking directly into the mouthpiece while holding the earpiece to the ear.
Although these handsets might look cumbersome compared with today's phones, they were
comfortable to hold and had clear sound reproduction. Any lack of clarity was
normally due to the line rather than the phone.
The base unit held the dial. There were ten dial holes, each
showing reference letters and numbers underneath.
The telephone cable
The base unit was connected to the handset and the wall socket with a rather
ugly long brown cable, known as 'flex' - see the photo above. This consisted of three strands of wire, insulated with
cotton or some other fabric and loosely platted together. It seemed second nature
to fiddle with it while on the phone and to put one's fingers through
it, separating out the three strands. It frayed dreadfully, but no-one seemed particularly concerned.
A later phone, with the option of several colours, and
a neat, coiled cable.
Phones which became standard some years later had much neater coiled, plastic-covered
cable which extended when stretched. The design was also rather more elegant
and colour was an option.
It is possible that customers had to pay for these replacement phones, as
my parents kept their old-style phone way into the 1960s when the phone company
exerted some pressure to make them change.
The location of the house phone
During the 1940s and into the 1950s, being on the phone was regarded as a
luxury by ordinary families. Even then, there was only one phone in the house.
It was set up in a fixed position which was invariably in the hall or passageway,
to provide the easiest access from every room. Consequently there was no privacy
from other members of the family. My friends and I developed our own language
for talking to each other privately. My mother could not help but overhear and
it drove her to distraction. She called the language 'hager-pager' which was
really quite apt as it involved saying 'ag' after every consonant and before
every vowel. We actually became totally fluent at it.
Some decades later domestic phones became more portable because they could
be moved around and plugged into sockets around the house. These first plugs
were robust affairs, which served their purpose well.
lines shared with neighbours - party lines
My father's work wanted him to get onto the phone as soon as he returned
from the war. However, everything was in short supply then, so there was a waiting
list for phones. Then when we did eventually get one,
we had to share a line with neighbours.
Shared lines, also known as party lines, caused all sorts of problems. When we tried to use our
phone we frequently found someone else talking on it. The accepted polite thing
to do was to immediately 'put the phone down' (ie return the handset to its cradle),
and then wait a while before trying again. Similarly when we were talking on
the phone, clicks on the line would indicate that a neighbour was trying to
make a call and could therefore hear what we regarded as our private conversation.
With polite neighbours, another click indicated that they had heard that we
were talking and were no longer listening in, but it was disconcerting and it
disrupted the flow of the call.
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.