come here watson, i want to see you


There’s a great article in Salon today called A Fond Farewell to the Hard-Wired Phone, featuring a sweet set of pictures and videos from the design site Imprint of a product our generation will be the last to use. I’ve always had a bit of a telephone fetish – I learned to wire the old ones, and was one of the first of my friends to get a cell phone (even if it never worked, basically, anywhere).

But here’s where past and future collide: cell phones fucking suck. We have become so used to terrible, expensive service that we no longer even complain about it. America is the beaten wife of the wireless industry, and no amount of Fruit Ninja will change it. So we have never let go of our landline anywhere, having learned our lesson from countless dropped calls during important meetings, and more importantly, during 9/11 when cell service ground to a halt.

But if you’re going to have a landline, you have to have at least one “wired to the wall” connection in case the power goes out, so I decided to recreate the phones I had as a kid. Sadly, the one I grew up with in Iowa circa 1976 was “avocado” colored, and I just couldn’t face it, so instead I found a pink one and rehabbed it:


It sits upstairs at the farm and sounds better than any phone I’ve used since high school. And the round number card in the middle is our actual number, based on the old exchanges in upstate New York circa 1948, when all phone numbers used to begin with two letters:


hence, PEnnsylvania 6-5000

I simply took the old phone card, scanned it, Photoshopped new info on it, printed it, and voilĂ ! Instant retro preciousness! I did the same thing with the phone downstairs, an exact replica of the “harvest gold” touch-tone phone we had in our piano room in 1979:


Not to be a Luddite or a grumpy “get off my lawn” piss’n’vinegar old fart, but I feel like there might be something lost when you can no longer see the fragile tether that binds you to technology. Lucy occasionally uses these analog phones, and without being told, she’ll have a sense of being connected by a wire that inexorably links her to the ones she loves. Not everything should be in the cloud, wispy, invisible in the ether.


George and Mary, finally forced to fall in love by sharing a tiny wire

0 thoughts on “come here watson, i want to see you

  1. CM

    “I feel like there might be something lost when you can no longer see the fragile tether that binds you to technology.”
    Love it!
    Those old exchanges are romantic. Many of them have a story to them, or at least a hint at a neighborhood that may not even exist (in name) anymore. I used to ask my older relatives what their first phone number was.

  2. GFWD

    That’s not your number. I was hoping to pontificate on all things bad about John Calamari at Kentucky. Instead, I got a local country club when I called. And a tee time for 10:15 AM today, where I don’t have to pay until the turn. So I’ve got that going for me . . . which is nice.

  3. Megan

    I grew up with a black bakelite rotary dial phone at my grandparents’ house. The dial’s rotary action was so stiff that it hurt your finger. You were screwed if you misdialed a long distance number that had lots of nines and zeroes in it. On the plus side, it was a portable desk model so heavy that it could double as a weapon in the case of home invasion, or of siblings trying to get you off the phone. My brother saved it. It’s one of my favorite things.

  4. Tanya

    My folks still have an old fashioned wall phone where you pick up the earpiece on a “cord” and speak into a horn-shaped device still attached to the wall mount. Two bells are mounted above the horn thingy giving the whole device this sort of Beaker from the Muppets look. But, to be sure, we have definitely saved a corded push button phone for those times when the power goes out, but the phone lines are still working. It feels a bit like having the storm kit with food and supplies waiting “Just in Case.”

  5. Megan

    p.s. At home we had an “avocado” wall-mounted phone (with a coiled avocado cord that was stretched out in one place from people going around the corner to talk in private in the next room); its dial echoed through the sheet rock and could be heard in every room in the house to varying degrees of clarity. I knew my mother by the brisk efficiency of her dial. She’s had that same phone number for 41 years. I’ll miss it if she ever gets a new one.

  6. josie

    You know what strikes me? These phones are hardy. They still work, and sound great doing their job. How many pieces of crap have you bought in the last ten years?

  7. Kelly

    We had a bright red rotary dial phone on the wall, and a party line too, so if you picked up the phone and heard your neighbors talking you waited til they were off. My friend and I still laugh about in high school we’d be on the phone and hear that “click” noise of the nosy old lady neighbors and us saying “Well, I think maybe someone needs the phone, did you hear that? I think *I* heard that….” to give them the hint that WE KNOW YOU’RE THERE MILDRED. My childhood home was abandoned by the subsequent owners, but I bet that phone is still on the wall.

  8. Bob

    We had one of those avocado wall phones, too. You just couldn’t kill those things.
    I don’t know how things were out in the wilds of Columbia County, but if I recall correctly, Hudson didn’t get a three-digit exchange until the late 1950’s; you could get anyone in town by dialing five digits. Or by shouting out the window.

  9. kent

    My friend Harry lived in his grandmother’s house, and they had a black rotary phone at the foot of the stairs near the front door. I believe it was a Western Electric 300, and had probably been in continuous use since the late 1930s (this was in the 1970s).
    If you continue being a wired phone fetishist, you need a WE 300.


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