Plastic and Party Lines: Love for Landline Telephones

The Lodge House’s youngest visitors have a favorite artifact.

A few months ago, I took a tour of the Lodge House with PPG volunteer and history buff Hilary Davis (read her most recent post here). She told me about an item on display that’s always unexpectedly popular with kids who come to visit our site. The PPG has classic cars, timeless architecture, well-maintained grounds, and radioactive glass. Despite all of that, there’s one thing that never fails to capture a child’s attention and prompt an onslaught of questions.

Brace yourself: It’s a rotary telephone.

Feeling underwhelmed?

Weird, right? But its novelty is fascinating for kids. Many of them have never seen a phone like this before, to say nothing of having used one! There’s no touchscreen, no wifi, and no apps. You can’t take it away from the room, let alone the house. It doesn’t have a charger and never runs out of battery, because there is no battery. All things considered, it could be a different device entirely.

That said, the rotary phone had some interesting mechanics that revolutionized communication and design as we know it today.

Creative Chemistry: They were built out of Bakelite.

Bakelite is a chemical- and heat-resistant synthetic resin that has fantastic insulating properties. It’s an ideal component in electrical devices, for two reasons. Firstly, it promotes safe and sturdy handling of potentially dangerous technology. Secondly, it’s practically invincible to heat and chemicals. What would demolish a smartphone in an instant is small potatoes to a Bakelite landline. No need to stick this thing in rice or replace the screen!

American chemist Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite in the early 1900s. It was a quickly-moldable, highly-resistant, all-purpose material that could be shaped into nearly anything. Lauded as “the material of a thousand uses,” Bakelite solidified its adaptable functionality through its appearance in almost every sphere of life. For example, Bakelite could perform well in automotive and electrical engineering; take the form of telephones and home furnishings; and even dangle from necks and wrists as costume jewelry.

But sadly, Bakelite wasn’t known for its beauty. Its chemical composition didn’t take color or dye well. Eventually, it gave way to other plastics that were both functionally and aesthetically more successful. However, some of these other materials may not have existed if not for Bakelite. So a certain amount of respect is due.

Famous form and function: They were crafted by an award-winning designer.

The first rotary phones featured a separate earpiece and mouthpiece, which meant that a phone call had to be made with two hands. The now-familiar shape of the rotary phone was the brainchild of Brooklyn-born industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. His “combined handset” model, which was an award-winning design in 1929, went on to define the landline telephone for decades afterward. Afterwards, Dreyfuss designed the 300 Model telephone, which made making calls a one-handed experience. The phones on display at the Lodge House might be 302 Models, which were developed in 1937.

Dreyfuss’ design influence wasn’t just restricted to telephones, however. During his career, he designed various products for Bell Laboratories, General Electric, Mercury, and John Deere (among others). In all of his creations, Dreyfuss incorporated the theory of ergonomic design. Human-to-machine interaction became a course of study in the field of industry and design, with many professionals making deep considerations of this “human-equipment interaction.”

No eavesdropping allowed: They often featured a party line.

Fellow Millennials, remember how we used to have to get off AOL because a grown-up needed to use the landline? Now imagine this predicament on a grand scale. Specifically, on a street-wide grand scale.

Party lines used to exist as a way to extend the reach of a single telephone line. A telephone line was expensive to run originally. So to cut costs, telephone companies would install a local loop circuit. In other words, this was a single telephone line that anyone connected to the line could use at any time. If your neighbor had some juicy gossip to share over the phone, for instance, you could do some eavesdropping!

Potential privacy invasions aside – which is more than enough already – the party line had other downsides. First, users had to time their phone calls, because trying to use the phone at “peak hours” could be a hassle. Secondly, you never knew if the call coming down the line was for you or for someone else. And thirdly, there was always a threat of not being able to get a clear line in an emergency.

Want more information about these topics? Check out the resources below.

American Chemical Society (ACS). (n.d.). Bakelite: The world’s first synthetic plastic. American Chemical Society. http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/bakelite.html.

Industrial Designers Society of America (ISDA). (n.d.) Henry Dreyfuss, FISDA. Industrial Designers Society of America. https://www.idsa.org/content/henry-dreyfuss-fidsa.

Kovalchik, K. (2020, September 2). 10 aspects of old telephones that might confuse young people. Mental Floss. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/62876/10-aspects-old-telephones-might-confuse-younger-readers.