The telephone sure has changed

Published 10:16 am Monday, June 4, 2012

Column: Something About Nothing


That was the number. 508 was the telephone number of my dad’s shoe store back in the 1950s. It is amazing that I can remember that number.

Email newsletter signup

To call my parents at the shoe store, I didn’t dial the telephone. To call my parents, I had to pick up the phone, hope that a neighbor was not using the line and then wait for the operator to come onto the line. Sometimes when we would get the operator we would chat because as we lived in a small town people knew their telephone operators personally.

If I visited my grandmother or friends who lived on the farm we had to listen to the longs and shorts of the rings to see if the telephone was for them. They also shared lines with the neighbors. A certain ring was assigned to each number.

In my late teens I worked for a company as a switchboard operator. I would answer all the calls that came into the company and then pass them on to the right person. I was the person who made all the long-distance calls for the people in the company. First I had to pick up the phone to contact a long-distance operator and then give them the number for the call.

Of course we would chat, too, as I talked to the operators many times in one day. Once we were connected I would connect the call to the person in the office that had wanted the call made. I loved that job.

There were no answering machines in those days. We only had human beings to pass the word along. If you weren’t home, you weren’t home. People had to keep calling to reach us. Most of the time there were party lines and people could listen in to other people’s calls although they weren’t supposed to. If you knew one of your neighbors was on the phone, you would pick up the phone quietly, muffle the mouthpiece and listen in. There were no phone secrets in those days. Of course I didn’t do that!

Adults didn’t like chatty teenagers on their party lines, and we got in trouble with our parents and our neighbors if we talked too long. Neighbors weren’t shy about speaking up and telling us to get off the line.

A phone message left on my business answering machine one night took me down memory lane. The reason I was remembering the old phone days was because the message I received would have never have happened even if we had an answering machine back in the 1950s. Or at least I don’t think it would have.

My business phone rang at 10:30 p.m. recently. Normally I don’t answer my business phone that late, but I was curious as to the caller so I peeked at the caller ID. I didn’t know the woman calling so I didn’t answer. She didn’t leave a message. At 10:45 p.m. the phone rang again. I checked the caller ID. Again it was the same woman. Again, I didn’t answer. This time she left a message.

Let me explain my message that is on my answering machine when someone calls. The message tells the caller what business they have reached in clear precise language. It tells them to leave a message if I don’t answer.

Well, this person left a message, and it was clear it wasn’t for my business. It was a message looking for someone she wasn’t too happy with. Since I don’t sell cigarettes or pizza, I knew it wasn’t for me. The message was filled with obscene language. I shook my head and was going to disregard it.

Soon the phone rang again. Now it was after 11 p.m., and I couldn’t get to the phone in time to answer. I decided to call this person back. I explained that they had been calling my number and who I was. The person on the other end apologized and apologized and said they were very embarrassed about the language they used. Yes, they had the wrong number. I wished them a good evening.

A half hour later my phone rang again with no message. Clearly this person’s speed dial did not get changed. The next evening they called ordering a pizza on my answering machine.

You might wonder where I am going with this article. I have a little advice that even I might need to remember. How often do we call someone and not listen to the message left on the answering machine? I do that, too, because I am often busy and stressed when I am calling someone. So tip No. 1: Listen to the recording on the number where you are calling.

Tip No. 2: No matter how angry you are, if you have to apologize for the message you left on the wrong answering machine, maybe you shouldn’t be leaving that same message on the right answering machine. If you feel embarrassed by the message left on the wrong answering machine for a stranger, you might ask yourself why you shouldn’t feel embarrassed leaving that message for someone you know or someone you love.

Yes, in the olden days some of the messages we now leave on answering machines would have made someone hang up on us immediately. However I wonder if we would have said those things face to face before the advent of answering machines. Anonymity occasionally changes our behavior.


Wells resident Julie Seedorf’s column appears every Monday. Send email to her at