In little over 100 years, the telephone has become a widespread instrument of communication, passing through a variety
of classic designs.
Alexander Graham Bell invented the first viable telephone in 1876 and merged forces with rival inventor Thomas Edison in 1880 to form the United Telephone Company. The British Government realized the potential of the telephone and, by 1912, the Post Office had acquired the private
telephone companies. Britain's telephone system was then run as a monopoly until the 1980s.
Early telephones had no dial and the user had to connect through the exchange for their call to be routed. The telephone which Bell demonstrated to Queen Victoria in January 1878 was known as the 'butterstamp'. It was wall-mounted and the transmitter and receiver were contained in a baton-like holder that flared out at one end.
The Gower-Bell, one of the Post Office's first standard telephones, was also
wall mounted, with two flexible listening tubes. The use r spoke into the mounted sounding board ~ hue holding the tubes to his ears.
The skeleton phone, introduced in 1895, had its innards on display. It was nevertheless an elegant
table-top phone and was so successful that it remained in production for almost 40
years. It had a central turret that held the induction coil and four curved supporting legs which formed the magnets for the hand
generator. The baton-shaped handset had a circular earpiece at one end and a large curving
mouthpiece at the other. This rested on an ornate brass cradle of candelabrum style.
Private operators decorated their instruments with gold transfers but Post Office ones were
plain black. In the early 1900s, the 'candlestick' or 'daffodil' hone was introduced. This had a simple
upright column topped by a round mouthpiece, and a cylindrical earpiece held in two grips alongside the column. The user spoke
into the mouthpiece and held the flared baton receiver to his ear. Later versions had a dial fitted to the base. Post Office instruments were
black while the National Telephone Company's models were nickel-plated.
The hand combination set, known to the Post Office as tele 162, and better known to the public as the handset telephone, was introduced in 1929. It was shaped like a flattened pyramid with the handset resting on top. The user spoke into one end of the handset and listened with the other, as with modern phones.
It was the first phone made of plastic; the first models were in mottled brown Bakelite. Black soon became standard, with jade green, Chinese red and ivory available by special order. Later, a sliding celluloid tray was fitted to the base. Known as a 'cheese tray', it contained information on the new subscriber trunk dialling and a list of dialling codes.
In 1936, an in-built bell was fitted to the 332 series. These phones were a little squarer than
tele 162 and also heavier. The helpful 'cheese tray' slide was retained.
Both skeleton and candlestick telephones remained in common use until well into the 1950s. Elegant early skeletons with elaborate transfers on the japanned legs are now highly prized collectors' items.
Old telephones are not readily available. However, specialist dealers can be found at larger antiques fairs, and phones occasionally turn up at smaller auctions. Only very early and collectable phones will be found at fine art auctions. You can sometimes find telephones at flea markets and car boot sales, but these are usually more recent models in black. There are a few shops specializing in old telephones, so scan the ads in trading papers and magazines for the location of these.
Black phones are often dull with age and usage, but slight surface scratches can be buffed up using a polish such as Brasso. Any deep scratches on coloured phones will be difficult to remove.
If you want an old phone in working order then it is best to buy from the experts. They will have modified the phone for use with modern exchanges, or will be able to do so. Some specialist telephone shops selling new phones also offer this modernization service. But don't expect the quality to be as good as that of a modern phone; the design of the phone just isn't up to it.
Bear in mind, too, that there are many reproduction telephones about so buy with care at car boot sales and flea markets, where you are more likely to find these.