Before cell phones, voice mail, call waiting, text messaging and email, there was just the lowly telephone: a heavy, most likely black or pastel-colored aparatus (we used to rent them from Pac Bell, back in the 70s), either attached to the wall or connected by cord, with another squiggly chord that would eventually get tangled up and barely allow the handset to reach your ear properly.
We always hated if someone had a "0" in their phone number because "0" took a long time to spin back round the dial. "1" was best for quick calling. Later when push-buttons phones became popular, we received copies of The Pushbutton Telephone Songbook: Volume 1 and called our friends and played push-buttoned versions of "Row Row Row Your Boat" for them on the phone.
When someone called you the bell rang (because it was an actual bell): ring-a-ling-a-ling! And if you weren't home or didn't answer, it just kept doing that until the person on the line hung up. And that was that. The telephone inspired some pretty intense emotions when it came to human relationships and attempts at communication. There used to be this thing called a busy signal and if you were trying to call someone and the person you were calling was on the phone, that signal would blare in your ear. It sounded like this: EHH! EHH! EHH! EHH! EHH! Pretty annoying; not as annoying as call waiting, but pretty close.
We used telephone directories, called Information and the Time Lady, and searched our pockets for dimes and a working phone booth.
Here are some songs from the distant past, all inspired by the telephone. You can sense the seething emotions in these performances. Will she call? Should I call? Will he call back? Why don't you answer? For God's sake, answer the goddamn telephone! Our current technology has not inspired such pop soulfulness.
The Jags - Back Of My Hand, 1979
Tommy Tutone - 867-5309/Jenny, live on "Fridays" 1983
Blondie - Hanging On The Telephone, 1978
Photo credit: John Carson collection at TelephoneTribute.com
Portable Cellular Phone Booth
The Payphone Project - Telephone Booths and Payphones From Around The World
Jim Pallas - PhoneyVents Telephone Art Project