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POSTCARD MEMORIES: Where have all the old phones gone?

Columnist recalls early telephones, long before the days of digital

I was passing from the back entrance to my kitchen and I looked at my kitchen phone and thought of all the phones that have gone into history.

Fortunately, I still use my phone. Guests cannot believe it still works. So, it gave me great pleasure to be able to hang up my old phone again and actually be able to use it. In the ’70s, I had Bell Canada send it away and ‘modernize’ it. You use the old transmitter and receiver, but you open the front and there is a ‘dial’ to ring the number.

Many years ago, we did not have telephones as they are today. In 1854, Antonio Meucci constructed telephone-like devices. In 1861, Johann Philipp Reis constructed the first telephone, today called the Reis telephone. 

In 1874, the essential idea of the telephone formed in Alexander Graham Bell's mind. 

Circa 1950s

When I was young, they talked about how it would be nice to be able to see who we are talking to. As we know today, we can do all that via computers and cellphones.

Our first phone

We had a box phone on the wall. You would lift the receiver and then push a button on the side of the box and turn the crank, and you would hear the box say, “Number, please.” You might say, ‘Get me the McNairs,’ and the central operator would pull a wire and connect it into a large box, which they called the switchboard. The box in their home would ring and you would answer it. Our alert ring was one long, two short. This is how you knew there was someone calling your house.

The party line

Oh, yes, the party line. Nothing was a secret back then. You may have had up to 10 people who would hear your ring along with you, and if they were curious, they would lift the receiver as soon as the ringing stopped and could hear your ‘private conversation.’ Everyone knew when a baby was expected to arrive, and if it was anywhere around the arrival date, everyone would lift to see if the grand arrival had come.

Sometimes it was quite annoying.

Example: There were two houses across the road from each other at Steele’s Corners, 14th Concession and Highway 11. Mrs. Gardner was telling a friend that Mrs. Steele always lifted her receiver when the Gardner phone rang, so they set up a little intervention. Now Mrs. Gardner could look out her front window and into the front window of Mrs. Steele’s house, where her telephone was on the wall.

The friend phoned Mrs. Gardner at the designated time and as Mrs. Gardner lifted her receiver, she saw Mrs. Steele lift her receiver. “Mrs. Steele, please get off the phone. It is for me.”

Mrs. Steele said, “I’m not on the phone,” and hung up. She wasn’t so quick to listen for a time.


The switchboard operator was usually known as 'central'. Brookie Sutherland was central in the Bradford area for years, and central knew everything that went on in town. If you wanted gossip and a central flapped her lips, you would find out a lot of things. Talk about privacy.

Mrs. James Bateman (Vira) was in Bradford getting ice cream for David’s birthday party when the fire trucks headed west toward Bond Head. Back then, the kitchen stove and the furnace would be heated with wood, and with a house full of boys, any mother would worry when she saw the fire trucks leave Bradford, so the conversation went this way.

Vira: “Can I use your phone, Mr. McTavish?”

McTavish: “By all means.”

Vira: “Brookie, please connect me to Armstrongs” (farm across road from Vira and Jim’s)

Brookie: “It’s not your place, Vira.”

Vira: “Thanks, Brookie.”

Vira hung up and went back to shopping.

Everyone looked after everyone back then. You knew your neighbours, respected them and what was theirs, and were willing to help out in a second. Now we are lucky to even know our neighbours.

Children of my generation did not have cellphones to keep them amused. We had bicycles and toys for inside and outside use. We had friends who would go fishing or just playing in the sandboxes. We were, for the most part, healthy and happy doing fun things. Now we see kids sitting or standing, texting their friend who is standing right beside them, and don’t get me started about having friends over who stand around checking their phones every two minutes.

Where did the old phones go?

The late Lorne Harvey (Bond Head, northeast corner, 5th Concession and Highway 27) told me he had two of the old box phones. I asked where he got them. He told me he was heading down a road one day around the time the new dial phones had been installed and there was a man standing in the ditch with a fire going. He asked what he was doing and the man told him he had the job of burning the old wooden phones. Lorne expressed the wish to have a couple, and the man said, “Well, if my back is turned and you happen to take a couple, I would never know.” So, that is how Lorne got his phones.

He took them back to the farm and strung a wire from the house to the barn. Lorne and his wife, Jackie, could keep in contact with each other that way. It saved them running from barn to house.

One night, they were nestled in their bed and the old telephone started to ring. They jumped with a start and wondered who was in the barn. Lorne dressed and headed to the barn. When he opened the door, there was the bull. He had broken out of his pen and was hitting the phone box with his head. I guess he was calling for his food, or wanted to commence his duties as the family bull.