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The Buyable Past

June 2024
1min read


In one strike, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone made communication the most modern of technologies, wherein electricity chased the speed of sound right up to the speed of light. The phone has remained modern ever since, yet the blindingly fast systems of today can still accommodate the old phones. A cradle phone from the 1930s can connect today to a cell phone on a ship out at sea—via satellite and without a hitch. Most telephones made after 1925 can be used today with their original workings intact. There is a peculiar satisfaction about a technology that moves forward and yet leaves nothing behind.


ANTIQUE TELEPHONE SETS—C. 1877-95. Early phone boxes ($500-$!,000) and threepiece wall models sometimes called “coffin” phones ($2,000-$9,000) attract the most attention, and money, because of their rarity.

EUROPEAN HANDSET—C. 1910-35. Until 1920, American manufacturers rejected the integration of the speaking and listening pieces into a single “handset” device. With no such prejudices, European manufacturers pioneered the design of cradle phones. The results often showed artistry not accorded American phones until the 1930s ($250-$1,000).


WALL PHONES—C. 1900-50. Often made of oak, wall phones originally relied upon a crank for initial power. They also relied upon an operator to place telephone numbers; for use today they can be fitted with dialers, though some collectors sidestep that necessity, using them only for incoming calls ($150-$1,000).

CANDLESTICK PHONES—C. 1895-1940. A veritable icon of the first half of the twentieth century, candlestick phones included rotary dialers after direct-dial systems bypassed operators ($100-$3,500).

CRADLE PHONES—C. 1926-70. An early example of progressive industrial design in America, the first generation of the classic tabletop phone was produced in 1927. Collectible models are made of black Bakelite or colored plastic ($25-$500).

Cell phones are not yet collectible, but those who use them will surely benefit from an advertisement placed by Bell Telephone: “When replying to communication from another, do not speak too promptly … much trouble is caused from both parties speaking at the same time. When you are not speaking, you should be listening.” The year of that ad was 1877. The ever-changing world of the telephone really does not leave much behind.

—Julie M. Fenster

Books Telephones Antique to Modem by Kate E. Dooner (1992).

Web site .

Organization Antique Telephone Collectors Association, P.O. Box 94, Abilene, KS 67410 (785-263-1757).

Museum Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.) exhibit “Information Age.”

Internet-auction search terms With the word telephone , try antique, candlestick , or Bakelite .

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