No, the title has nothing to do with Donald Trump. It’s actually a slogan that was used back in the ’80s by AT&T. It was an advertising campaign that encouraged people to pick up the phone and keep in touch.

The jingle popped into my head while I was in the attic going through my collection of old phones. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, I worked at the now shuttered AT&T Phone Centers.

The Phone Centers were these great retail stores created after the breakup of the phone company in 1982. The Feds decided that AT&T had a monopoly on phone service, and subsequently broke up the company into smaller, regional companies called baby Bells.

Back then, everyone hated the phone company. It was such a conglomerate, that in many areas, AT&T did whatever the hell it wanted. There was no accountability and there was no customer service. For AT&T at least, it was good to be the King.

After the breakup, AT&T realized that if they were to compete with the competition, they would have to clean up their act. So the very first thing they did was create the AT&T Phone Centers- stores with first-rate customer service, where you could buy or lease a phone, purchase a business system, or get your current equipment repaired.

As employees, we were friendly, we were knowledgeable, and we were given the power to actually solve a customer’s problem on the spot- no having to go to other departments or run things up the chain of command. It was a great place to work. And while some customers took advantage of our good nature, for the most part, our customers were happy and pleasant to work with.

One of my favorite things about working in a Phone Center, was the old phones that got returned.

Up until the breakup, most people leased their home telephones from the phone company- from AT&T. They paid a small monthly fee, and if anything ever went wrong with the phone, AT&T would fix it or replace it. So, when the phone company broke up, and leasing was no longer mandatory, many people returned their leased phones and bought new ones instead.

The customer mindset at the time was “well, I’ve been leasing 2 phones for $5 a month for the past 20 years, that’s $2,400. And I never had any problems with my AT&T equipment, so if I can buy the same two phones now for $100, that saves me a ton of money.”

Most of the phones that were returned to us were simple and boring (left pic), but at least a few times a month, we would get in some amazing phones- like candlestick phones, or phones from the ’30s or ’40s.

We would remove the phone from the customer’s account, and then send it back to Western Electric, who provided most of the phones to AT&T lease customers.

Some of the returned phones weren’t even ours. Some were made by Stromberg Carlson, FTR, or other competitors to AT&T. We took them back anyway. And since these phones weren’t even in our system, they either went into the return box, or the employees kept them for themselves. They were Twilight Zone phones. They didn’t really belong to anyone.

By the time I left AT&T, I had about six really cool phones. After that, I started collecting from garage sales, flea markets and eventually eBay. I think at one time I had about 25 phones in my collection. But during the past decade or so, I have either sold or given away most of them. I have 5 left.

The two I have pictured (left) are the Western Electric 302 phones. I got them on eBay a while back.

Western Electric was the main company that built the phones for AT&T. If you were a fan of I Love Lucy, the Ricardos had a 302 next to the piano. It was a pretty popular phone for motion pictures and television in the 50s and 60s.

The 302 was a real breakthrough in telephone technology. Up until the 302, desktop phones were multiple pieces. The phone would sit on the counter, and then an equally large box (the ringer) would sit on the floor. The ringer would contain the guts for the phone network, as well as the bells for the ringer. It wasn’t very neat or stylish.

The 302 was the first all-in-one model. It had a much cleaner look and didn’t take up anywhere near as much space.

The 302 phones above are metal and are pre-WW2. During the war, the United States needed metal for war production, so Western Electric switched over to making the 302s in thermoplastic. This made the phones much lighter, and the plastic housings came in five colors, which made the phones really popular.

Pre-1980, most phones were either hard wired directly to the wall, or if you had money, you could get a phone that could be unplugged from the wall and moved to a different room, or even to a jack outside! This was called a 4-prong plug (left).

Most of the phones I purchased over the years had been converted to modular plugs, and the ones that weren’t, I converted myself.

Just for the hell of it, I plugged in both phones, and they worked!

I’d forgotten how lucky we are to have touch tone dialing. It took me about 25 seconds to dial my cell phone number with the rotary dial. In fact, I was surprised it worked at all. I’m in Los Angeles, so it appears that LA still supports rotary phones, or as the dialing technology was called, pulse-dialing. I’d be willing to bet some cities probably don’t support it at all anymore.

I’m going to find a place for one of these in my living room. Just another conversation piece for a bygone era, like manners and patience.

Written by stevemargolis

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