The telephone has become such a part of our daily lives that we take its many advantages for granted. But collectors of early telephones know full well the limitations of those early devices and that’s part of the charm that collecting them offers.
“We’ve all used them at one time or another and some of us can’t stay off them,” said Paul R. Wiltfong of Olathe, Kan., who buys, sells, restores, repairs and converts phones to work on today’s systems at www.oldtelephone.com. “These things that are common in everyday life are what bonds us. Most people buy old phones to use as kind of a connection to the past.”
Courtesy of www.phonecoinc.com
Howard R. Fease of Whitinsville, Mass., owner of www.andhowantiques.com, sees dual reasons for the popularity of collecting old phones.
“Many people remember certain phones from when they were younger and now want one,” Fease said, “and also some people wish to have rooms contoured to certain time periods and phones of that period are a practical choice.” In most cases with vintage telephones, he noted, people are “seeking them for the décor, fun and pleasure of owning one.”
Generally, the image of the crank-operated wall phone, encased in a wooden cabinet, is the image most people have of an antique telephone. However, since its invention in 1876, many styles have been made by plenty of manufacturers.
Cathedral top picture frame wooden phone.
Courtesy of www.phonecoinc.com
For instance, early telephones were made by Reis, called the Receiver, between 1862 and 1872. Reis also made the Transmitter, while McDonough made a Transmitter and a Patent Model. Bell manufactured a Liquid Transmitter, and there also was a Gallows telephone. Williams put together a “coffin” telephone.
Columbia Telephone Manufacturing Co. made a Three Box phone in 1894. Western Electric was one of the most prolific manufacturers, making the Fiddleback, Candlestick, Potbelly, Two Box, Three Box, Desk and wall phones.
Some of the types of phones attracting the most attention from collectors lately are firmly rooted in the vintage era of the 1960s and 1970s, according to David Gross of the Phone Source (www.thephonesource.com) in Portland, Maine.
“The princess telephone from the 1960s and ’70s is reminiscent of the teenage era,” Gross pointed out. “And anything rare or uncommon is attracting attention.”
Gross noted that before the breakup of AT&T in 1983, people only rented but never owned their phones. After the breakup, telephone companies either auctioned off or junked many old phones, all of which contributed to the rarity of old and vintage phones, compared with other antiques.
“As a result, old phones are becoming rarer as time goes on and make a good investment, as well as a nostalgic decorative piece,” Gross said.
As an example of an investment piece, Gross cited the most expensive telephone he’s ever sold, a gray Western Electric pay phone from the 1940s in its original wooden crate and with its original straw packing. The telephone had never been put in service and never had been used. It sold for $13,000.
On the other hand, a used Western Electric pay phone from around 1941 in working condition would sell for around $800 or more, said Damon Atchison of St. Louis, Mo., an antique and vintage phone collector.
General price ranges for telephones, Atchison said, fall in yearly categories. For instance, 1910 to 1920s phones go for $100 and up; late 1920s to 1930s phones, $80 and up; 1940s phones, $50 and up; and 1950s, $15 and up. Pink princess phones from 1960 run between $20 and $200.
Atchison believes that the market for antique and vintage phones has followed the general antique market in direction.
“Phones selling for $1,000 in 1995 may now sell for $300 or less,” he said. “Furthermore, there are fewer collectors out there as more people are going to cell phones and are less enchanted with a dead piece of equipment in their house.”
As to the availability of old phones, Mary Knappen of Phoneco Inc. in Galesville, Wis., (www.phonecoinc.com) said that collectors seem to even out because as some become disinterested, others become interested. And, she noted, “Lots of people are restoring older homes and want to furnish them with period phones.”
Knappen said the supply of antique and vintage phones continues to be strong, as she has 85 different telephones from 1892 through 1978 available, along with parts and accessories. But the items she sees as attracting the most attention from collectors are silver dollar pay phones and pre-1900 telephones.
“People are fascinated with them and they are a good investment,” she noted.
Last year, Knappen sold two silver dollar pay phones for $9,000 each.
Fease of www.andhowantiques.com said that the most common phones collectors seek are the candlestick telephones, as well as round-based or oval-based, steel Western Electric phones. However, he added that collectors run the gamut of the telephone’s history, from the late 1800s into the 1970s.
Wiltfong of www.oldtelephone.com has handled unusual telephones in his years of collecting. The most expensive set he’s sold was a Strowger wood wall set that sold for $9,800.
But, he maintained, the ones that he finds most interesting are the wood telephones called fiddlebacks.
Ericsson, Coventry, England candlestick phone. Courtesy of www.phonecoinc.com
“These phones have the transmitter mounted to the back board with no box above it and bells under the shelf below,” he pointed out. “I recently bought one called a Monarch, which had a picture frame around the transmitter.”
So no matter whether your taste in antique and vintage phones runs from one of the early wooden varieties or the later princess type, most collectors are pleased to own a piece of American history and inventive ingenuity.
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