The Western Electric 500

Another year, another cordless telephone/answering machine.

I bought a cordless phone to replace an aging and failing 2.4 GHz model this week. Our luck with modern phones makes me long for the old days.

western electric rotary phone model 500
The Western Electric model 500 rotary phone is as indestructible and reliable as it is iconic.

I like the old Western Electric 500 (also known simply as “The Bell Phone”) because it was specifically designed not to break.We own three. My wife and I both have a habit of picking them up when we see them cheaply at garage and estate sales. I see at least five a year, but I only buy if it’s cheap. Maybe there’s some book somewhere that says a Model 500 in a common color is worth $20, but I won’t pay that much for one.

They’re annoying to use for dialing, of course, since they’re strictly old-school pulse. But we can use the cordless phone when we need to dial, or the green Southwestern Bell Freedom Phone I bought for my first apartment, which somehow still works after 10 years.

When it comes to just answering the phone and talking on it, they’re just like any other corded phone, except the handset is a bit heavier.

The other annoying thing is that they don’t ring, but tonight I found a cure for that. Opening the phone up and moving one wire usually cures that problem. (Follow the link and scroll to the last section of the page.)

How reliable are they?

Well, tonight I opened up the one I keep in my office to rewire the ringer, and I found it was made in 1957. After 51 years, it’s still going strong.

We have one in the bedroom too. It’s a later model, made by Stromberg Carlson under license, dated September 1978. Although it looks just like a Western Electric, it feels a little bit lighter and less rugged to me. Nevertheless, after 30 years it still works fine.

Those are really good track records, in an age when we tend to think of things as nearly indestructible if they manage to last five years.

And I’ll admit I like the retro look they have about them. Although I’m not old enough to remember the days when it was illegal to plug anything not made by AT&T or a subsidiary into your phone jack, these are the phones pretty much everyone had up until 1984, when the government temporarily broke AT&T up. My parents and grandparents used these phones. And when my house was built in the mid 1960s, it was almost undoubtedly equipped with a 500 too, and I’d be willing to bet that 500 served as its primary phone well into the 1980s.

I wouldn’t want to trade everything in my house for 1949 technology, but just like my old IBM Model M keyboards, I definitely have a thing for those heavy old-fashioned phones.

4 thoughts on “The Western Electric 500

  • December 6, 2008 at 6:41 pm
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    i have a phone made in the early ’70’s. It belonged to Ma Bell when they installed it. Some years later I was given the option of buying it or obtaining another to continue phone service.
    Our government did us all a great favor breaking up Bell and then letting the parts be reconstituted. Rich people got richer.
    Bell no longer supplies customers with indestructible rental phones. They now sell throw aways and make money

    “An amazing invention – but who would ever want to use one?”.
    made a call from Washington to Pennsylvania with Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, patented on 7 March 1876
    Rutherford B. Hayes

    • December 7, 2008 at 9:10 am
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      I’m not convinced renting phones was a great deal–I remember the story a couple of years ago where an elderly woman was paying $29 a month to rent her old Bell phone. That’s $348 a year, which buys a lot of throwaways.

      I’d rather have the option of paying more than $10 to own something designed not to break. The market doesn’t seem to support that idea anymore, but maybe that will change if the current DEPRESSION lasts long enough.

      But there seem to be enough old Western Electric 500s to go around for those who want the old quality. Otherwise they’d be selling for upwards of $100, and if I were willing to pay $30-$50 for them, I could probably buy one for every jack in the house next weekend.

      I’ve heard arguments on both sides of the AT&T breakup. From what I understand, by the time AT&T broke up in 1984, it was less evil than it had been at its peak. What I don’t understand is why it made sense to break the company up only to let it reconstruct itself. I always thought competition was supposed to be a good thing, but I guess maybe that means I’m not a good Republican anymore.

      • December 8, 2008 at 3:53 pm
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        I remember the story about the old lady. She was renting after you could own your own phone. Bell gave us the option to buy their phone that we had been using or rent it or buy from outside.
        When only Bell phones were allowed, we didn’t pay rent. That’s why they were practically unbreakable.

  • December 8, 2008 at 8:00 am
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    If folks can’t find them at garage sales, Oldphones.com has ’em. The guy that runs the place knows how to restore them, and last time I checked he even had some with new (old stock) shells.

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