Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ring, Ring—Bell Telephone Calling

QUESTION: I have one of those large black rotary telephones. Are those collectible now that we have such advanced technology?

ANSWER: You might want to consider holding on to your black phone for a while as they and many 20th-century models are coming into their own as collectibles.

When Alexander Graham Bell spoke those now famous words to his colleague during the first telephone call on March 10, 1876, he had no idea where that would lead us. Today, many people have smart phones that do just about everything except make a cup of fresh coffee, although I suspect they’ll soon offer an “app” for that.

But what about all the phones that came before the smart ones. The long-time standard Western Electric 302 black rotary phone, introduced in 1937, is probably the most well known. Some people have game rooms in their homes in which they install a working pay phone. These workhorses, once owned by AT&T, were meant to last a long time.

When people think of old telephones, however, they usually imagine the Western Electric 102 candlestick-type phone, which went into use in 1927. Today, you can purchase an original for a modest $469 at the TelephonyMusuem online.

In the 1930s, Western Electric produced 202 model with an oval base, and later a sleeker handset, now selling for $289. Both the 102 and 202 models required a ringer, which customers had to buy separately. The large rotary 302 phone was the first to house the ringer in the phone. It was made from metal until World War II and sells for $199, then from plastic, selling for $169, until the late 1950s. Western Electric stamped the date of production on the base of its phones, so it’s easy to tell the age of the unit.

One of the big problems in collecting old phones is that many of the more unique ones have been reproduced, in working order, of course. While the originals sell for as much as $500, the repros sell for half that. Vintage phones from the 1920s can sell for as much as $2,000. So it’s important to watch for reproductions being sold as originals, especially on auction sites like eBay.

And don’t forget the sleek and colorful Princess phone, introduced in 1959, and the Trimline phone with dial in the handset, dating from 1965. Both replaced the stodgy desk phones of the past. Rotary dials continued to be offered even after touch-tone came out because phone companies charged an extra fee for touch-tone service and many customers didn't want to pay for it. The hotter the color of a Princess phone, the higher its price. The more common colors—pink, red, peach, and black—in touch or rotary sell for about $200 each while green, beige, white, aqua and yellow command prices of $150 and up.. The most common Princess phone in ivory sells for no more than $119. Most of the Princess phones require a $30 transformer to light the dial.

Collecting old phones isn’t difficult, but like clocks, you can have just so many in your house.

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