Calling All Collectors: Vintage Telephones Amass Devoted Crowd

Large collections, rare phones turn up at the annual Antique Telephone Collector's Assn. spring show

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This 1900 Swedish-American nickel-plated potbelly telephone is owned by Geoffrey Hillestad of Maplewood, Minn.

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More than 100 years ago, a farm family in Riley County, Kan., set up a rural party line that connected everybody in town to a fence wire telephone system.

No telephone poles had been placed, nor was there money to set them. Instead, barbed wire fences served as telephone lines, ending in a grounded connection at each house. The system partly succeeded, but lightning, stray cattle and the occasional open gate could disrupt service.

Homesteaders built arches over gates to create better connections, but phone service remained sporadic. Despite the drawbacks, such homemade telephone lines operated for more than 50 years, bringing rural people closer to the urban world.

Wire fence party lines were typical of the awkward contraptions many farmers devised during the telephone’s infancy. Rural residents were some of the last people in the United States to receive commercial telephone service, but the delay encouraged them to experiment with their own systems.

Many homemade telephones and systems were devised with varying degrees of success in the rural Midwest until large, wooden wall phones became common about 1910 – almost 35 years after the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell.

Today, antique telephones and telephone systems are collectors’ items and remain an important reminder of the early days of telecommunication on the farm.

Vintage telephones and more were on display at this year’s two-day Antique Telephone Collector’s Assn. Spring Show, held in April in Abilene, Kan. Many farm-used phone models were there, including a J.R. Holcomb & Co. string phone manufactured in 1881 and owned today by Al Farmer of Lincoln, Neb. The device works just like a tin can and string: A wire is coiled up in the back of a wooden box to amplify a person’s voice, sending the vibration to the other end of a wire. Sawdust packing is stuffed in the box to reduce excessive vibrations. The string phone often was used from the house to the barn. Some people claim it could be effective up to two miles. Al says although he has never seen it, he has heard a string phone can turn up to a 90-degree angle and still work properly.

Al’s telephone collection began 40 years ago. He says Midwestern farmers especially had a need for communication because of the distance between farm houses, but were among the last to get commercially made phone lines. When Bell invented the telephone, he was issued a patent that initially made it impossible for anyone else to build phone lines in U.S. communities. “Bell had so much demand for business that he concentrated on building on the East coast in big cities,” Al says. “As a result, the Midwest didn’t start getting phone lines until after 1900. Acoustic (string) phones became popular as a result.”

Wooden box phones were the early standard in rural communities. These phones were large, wall-mounted units that used a hand-powered crank to alert a switchboard operator that a call needed to be made. Once the operator established the call, a crude battery made from a mason jar, acid and copper conductor powered the telephone, sending the caller’s voice as an electric signal to the party on the other end of the line.

Randy Benton, a collector from Arkansas City, Kan., collects old single-, double- and triple-box wooden phones. He says most of his phones are bought from other collectors, at auctions or through newspaper advertisements. He supports his hobby by restoring and selling old phones, mostly on eBay.

Randy began collecting because his wife wanted an old phone for their home. They looked for one and found an old double-box phone. He refinished it and the phone-collecting bug bit.

“It takes approximately eight to 10 hours to refinish a phone,” he says. “That means I stain and varnish the wood of the old phone to restore the original deep wood colors and grain.” Depending on the phone, Randy repairs it with parts that he picks up at shows like the Abilene event. He aims to restore a phone as close to original condition as possible. Randy usually will buff, shine or replace all external metal parts, but he leaves the internal parts in their original condition, dusting them only for presentation.

His prized display at the Abilene show was a pair of wooden box telephones, perfectly restored. One was a 1904 Williams Telephone & Supply Co. single-box, oak wall phone. It was not for sale, but was valued between $500 and $600. Next to it sat a Williams-Abbot Electric Co. telephone. Also a single-box, this 1905-1906 model was equipped with four station jacks and associated terminals. Looking very progressive for its time, this phone had multiple lines used to juggle multiple calls.

Poor phone connections often forced people to talk loudly, allowing everyone around the speaker to hear the conversation. The Hushaphone telephone attachment remedied this inconvenience.

“Hushaphones were amplification modules that amplified a person’s voice as they spoke into the phone,” explains Derwood Novak of Milan, Mich., who has been collecting since 1959. “The Hushaphone is considered very desirable with collectors. I’ve seen a couple go on eBay for more than what I’m asking for mine, which is $560.”

Derwood, sporting an old-time handlebar mustache, says his collection includes more than 600 antique phones. He keeps them all at home in what he calls his “museum room.” A picture he carries of the packed room shows wall-to-wall telephone antiques. “Curiosity made me collect, I guess,” Derwood says. “I found my first phones in the trash of the phone company near my house when I was 12. My first one was a Standard Telephone & Electric Co. brand wood model. The Standard has a Milde transmitter, which is very rare.”

The rarest phone Derwood ever had in his collection was a 1894 Lockwood wooden model. “I sold it to a gentleman, but he doesn’t want me to say for how much,” Derwood says. “Let’s just say that it was pricey enough.”

Candlestick-style phones became popular after the telephone industry began to expand. Technology had advanced, with better-designed receivers and smaller telephones available, and as the number of telephone manufacturers grew, so did the variety of candlestick models on the market.

Nick Kleyweg of Sioux City, Iowa, a candlestick telephone collector, says they’re popular in part because of that variety. “Candlesticks are more unique in pattern and style than the wooden box phones, which were built during telephone’s infancy and reflect a more utilitarian need for communicating. Aside from the very nice woodwork that is seen on most high-quality wooden phones, the style is drab.”

By the turn of the century, more than 222 phone companies were in operation in the United States. To separate their phones from competitors’ phones, companies focused on design. As a consequence, people began to buy phones for decorative purposes as well as for communicating. The candlestick became the phone of choice because it could be mass-produced out of cheap or expensive materials, in any shape or size.

Today, though, vintage candlesticks aren’t cheap. “The candlestick phones are usually more expensive because of supply and demand,” Nick says. “I collect them because the big, wood ones are too heavy to carry.”

He’s only half joking. Collectors are attracted to candlesticks in part because they’re small; collectors commonly have hundreds, if not thousands, of phones. “When I started collecting, it was wood phones up to 1900. But then I ran out of room in my house,” Nick explains. “I had filled two full rooms with wood phones and couldn’t go any further. Now I collect the candlesticks.”

Nickel-plated and potbelly candlesticks, which have a fat midsection shaft, are considered the most rare of this model, and those made by Strowger are rarest. The Strowger Automatic Telephone Exchange of Chicago made many different models, but the firm’s rotary candlesticks fetch top dollar today, selling from $3,000 to $10,000, according to condition and rarity.

Most collectors own both wooden box and candlestick phones, though, and collect anything they can get their hands on. John Stambaugh is typical. He has 175 phones – a modest collection by the hobby’s standards – and a broad working knowledge of telephone history.

His love of the phone began when he got his own phone line in his room at age 13. “Some people are artistically inclined, some musically,” John says. “You could say that I’m telephonically afflicted.” FC

Long-distance memories

A Wonderphone, a potbelly, an aqua and a “mother-in-law” are all types of phones that can be found at The Museum of Independent Telephony, 412 S. Campbell, Abilene, Kan.

The museum, which shares space with the Dickinson County Historical Society and Museum, houses a dozen interactive exhibits as well as an extensive photographic and artifact showcase, all dedicated to telling 140 years of telephone history. The story is a tribute to the nearly 6,000 non-Bell phone companies, known as “Independents,” that sprang up all over the nation after Alexander Graham Bell’s patents expired in 1884.

The museum also houses offices of the Antique Telephone Collectors Assn. (ATCA), which has 1,300 members, making it the largest organization of its kind. In 1971, the group held its first members-only convention, and today, annual spring and fall gatherings attract participants from as far as Canada, Europe and Australia.

This year’s spring show, always held in Abilene, attracted 150 members, each toting large phone collections and ready to buy, sell or trade.

The fall national show, held at various locations in the eastern United States, will be Aug. 9 and 10, 2002, in Atlanta. – Scott Hollis