I heard on the radio this morning about an 82-year-old who up until two months ago was still paying AT&T $29.10 a month to lease an old Western Electric rotary phone.
Those old Western Electric rotary phones are good. But they aren’t worth $29.10 a month in rental fees.
I’m just barely old enough to remember those arrangements–when the government broke up the AT&T monopoly (the first time, before it rebuilt itself) consumers were given the option to opt-out. They could even buy the phones they had been leasing, if they desired–or they could return them. I actually own two of those old rotary phones. I like their looks, and they’re built like tanks because they were designed to operate trouble-free for decades. At a budget of $29+ a month, Western Electric could afford to build them like that. Under that business model, it was cheaper to build them to last than it was to repair or replace them.
Dialing on a rotary is a bit of a pain, so I usually call out using a modern touch-tone phone. But if the phone rings, and the phone in the room I’m in happens to be one of those Western Electrics, I’m just as happy talking on that as on any modern phone. You can wire a keypad up to one if you need to. More on that in a bit.
Where to get your own Western Electric rotary phone
I have some advice for her: If she wants her rotary phone back, she can get one. They’re considered collector’s items these days, but the phones we used from the 1960s onward aren’t expensive. Look for a Western Electric 500. Expect to pay around $15 for the phone and almost that much to ship it. They also turn up in antique malls rather regularly. If you want a more nostalgic looking phone like you see in old detective movies, look for a Western Electric 302.
The Western Electric 500s often turn up in antique malls as well. Prices vary. Don’t pay more than $30 for one. Even the less common colors usually aren’t expensive.
Going to estate sales in the old part of town is another good way to find them. The key is finding the estate of someone who’s lived in the same house since the early 1980s. Look in your local estate sale listings, especially in pictures of the basement. Often they’ll be in the background of a picture of something else.
What to do if a Western Electric rotary phone won’t ring
There is one drawback to those old Western Electrics though: both of the phones I have came with the ringer disabled. The story I’ve heard is that it cost extra to have ringers on more than one phone, so when people wanted multiple phones, they would disable the ringers to save money.
But it only takes a few minutes and a standard slotted screwdriver to re-enable the ringer if your rotary phone won’t ring.
Open the phone up by loosening the two screws on the underside. Once you remove the cover, inside you’ll find a mess of wires. Locate the red wire near the bell, circled in black in the photo on the right. Move it to the position marked L1, circled in red in the photo on the right. Then replace the cover and tighten the screws.
That’s all there is to it. It really is that easy.
Plugging your Western Electric rotary phone into the wall
Older models of phones often have a 4-prong connector rather than the modern RJ11 modular connector. If the phone you get has the old connector and your house has the newer ones, there’s an easy fix. Pick up a 4-prong to modular adapter to change the connector. The adapter should cost $10-$15, shipped.
If you’re OK with opening the phone, get a spade to modular line cord. Rewiring it is pretty easy. Open the phone, trace the existing green and red wires, and remove them. Connect the red and green wires from the new cord where the original red and green wires were.
What if you need a keypad?
Some phone services require a touch-tone keypad in order to dial out. And often when you make calls these days, you have to select options on a touch tone keypad.
Fortunately, you can wire up a keypad to any phone without making permanent modifications to it. I wouldn’t say these types of retrofits were common in the 1980s, but they weren’t unheard of. My dad put one on one of our phones.
If you don’t mind building something, here’s how to wire a keypad to any rotary phone.
Admittedly, that solution isn’t for everyone. Another option is to buy an AT&T 4-number dialer, The keypad on the dialer is intended for programming numbers, but it also works for dialing out. Use an RJ11 coupler to connect the pigtail from the dialer to your phone.
I’m not a telephone technician, so I don’t know the full story. However…
The bell was powered from the telephone line. Put more than two phones with ring enabled on one telephone line and there wasn’t enough share of the fixed power to ring any bell. In Australia at least the phone service provider would charge you extra for a line if it had extension phones on it, but they would then provide more ring power on that line.
Keeping the phone bell’s power draw constant would have been a way of protecting their revenue due to increased charges on extension lines/phones.
I understand they could also check the voltage on the ring line from the exchange. Less voltage on a line meant more extensions. If the line wasn’t paying for extensions then they had you by the shorts. They could just disconnect the line on the spot.
The easy way out of that was for the consumer to have one central phone with the bell turned way up, and all other extensions with the bell disconnected.
Typically, two wires (yellow, I believe) run from the coil that drives the ringer to the connection block inside the phone. When the phone is on-hook, the AC pulse sent over the line drives the coil, and the phone rings. When the receiver is lifted, the circuit is interrupted and the ringing stops. I think you just piggyback the ringer wires over the red and green (ring and tip) connections and you’re good to go. Wow, it’s been a LOOOONNNNNGGGG time since I played with the old phones.