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Communication: Old Telephones and Telegrams


Candlestick telephones early-mid 20th century

Woman using a candlestick phone sometime in the 1920s

Woman using a candlestick phone sometime in the 1920s or 1930s, detail from a larger photograph

Candlestick phone with a dial

Candlestick phone with a dial

Candlestick phones were the first type of phones to reach ordinary homes, shops, offices and suchlike, although it was only the more affluent homes that made the somewhat up-market decision to go 'on the phone'. One of my better-off relatives went on the phone in the late 1920s or early 1930s.

The appearance of candlestick phones

Candlestick phones got their name by being tall and narrow, just like a candle in a candlestick. At the time when these phones came onto the market, candles were still in daily use for lighting.

Candlestick phones were in two parts with the mouthpiece at the top of the part reminiscent of a structure remniscent of a candlestick.

The earpiece rested on a cradle when the phone was not in use and lifted to the ear when it was in use.

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 third photograph.

The base of the later candlestick phones held a dial as shown.

Making a call with a candlestick phone

A wall-mounted candlestick telephone

A wall-mounted candlestick telephone

1920s candlestick phone with no dial

1920s candlestick phone with no dial

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 telephone exchange. 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

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.

Text and images are copyright

If you can add anything to this page, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

Photographs by the webmaster with acknowledgments to Milton Keynes Telephone Museum

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