It was rare for anyone to call us by phone but when they did if they were from out of town it became a thing involving others. From their place they rang their local telephone exchange and asked to be connected to Camperdown 232. The telephonist replied, “Connecting to Camperdown”. Our local telephonist ( one of the many women employed in the job) would pull out a weighted cord, and connect it to a port housing our number. Our caller needed just three numbers – 232 – to enjoy the service of calling our home. It rarely rang – maybe – once a month.
Our family practise was to make eight calls a month. The first call was to the taxi. Each week Mum would book a taxi to take us all off to church. On Thursdays Mum would phone the grocers Moran and Cato. Before doing this she would have prepared a list of the necessities she needed. The list may have read something like this.
8 oz of tea,
1 Lb Plain Flour
1 Lb Self Raising Flour
8 Oz Sunshine Marie Biscuits
1/2 Lb Brockoffs Crisp biscuits
1 Lb Butter
1 Lb John Bull Oats
2 Oz Vegemite
8 Oz Sultannas
8 Oz Weetbix
1 packet Kraft Cheddar
1 packet Pattie Pans
1 bar of Solvol
1 Lb Sunwhite Rice
1 26 Oz. Bottle of Vinegar
1 bar of Velvet soap
(It really didn’t matter. The list was simple but when she rang she had specific things in mind. The grocer did not sell fruit and vegetables and if you wanted meat you needed the butcher, not the grocer).
List at the ready she walked to the hallway, where the phone lived – bolted to the wall. She reached up and took hold of the ear piece. She stood in front of the phone and twirled the magneto handle, listened, and spoke.
“Camperdown 75 please.” (A little wait and then she would recite her list. A few hours later the grocer came with a box of the goodies she ordered. (None of it appealed to a hungry young boy).
At the end of her call she replaced the ear piece on the carrier at the side of the wooden Oak box that was our telephone.
Most of the household communication was by letter but once a year Dad would contact a brother in Duns Scotland and they would share a minute or two talking. After that time the operator would interrupt the call and enquire , “Your time is nearly up. Do you want to extend the call for another minute?” Frequently thrift determined the call would cease. On the second, the operator would disconnect the lines and the call ceased.
The Post Master General ran the operations for the Federal Government. Homes were connected to the network of copper wires crisscrossing the country, wired to their insulators on poles, and stretched across the countryside five metres from the ground. If you didn’t like the PMG you had no alternative. An army of PMG workers spent the day fixing broken lines, telephones, and exchanges because all the emergency services depended on the system working.
(In writing this I am reminded how the telephone lines ran beside the railway line between towns and sidings. As a steam train passenger, in my experience, smoke from the engine would blow past the window, the train clickedly – clacked as each wheel ran over the joints in the line, and the telephone lines would fall and rise between each post in rhythmic movements. The whole effect was mesmerising.)
It was years before it was commonplace for homes to have desk telephones. For few homes were large enough to accommodate an extra telephone table and chair. In time phones became smaller, smarter, and they came in a variety of colours with a single hand piece – to listen to – and capture the speaker’s voice. The off site operator disappeared and the home owner was able to dial directly from the phone with a rotary dial connector to anywhere else.
When more people connected the number of lines multiplied each year. To save time – people kept a teledex of the numbers they most frequently used handy to save them searching through the phone book for them.
As a teenager I didn’t call my friends on the phone. We had been trained to consider the cost of a call. My sisters didn’t make calls either. I was in my fifties before I had a mobile phone. It was provided as a work tool and as the book – keeper monitored the usage it was limited to essential calls regarding appointments.
The ubiquitous use of phones is relatively new. One surprising thing is how quickly they become redundant. Last year Samsung took over from Apple as the most popular phone. Today I read China’s Huawei has eclipsed them. It seems only a few years since no one had anything but a Nokia.
The modern Miss or Mister could not imagine anyone using a fifty year old phone except as a stage prop in Arsenic and Old Lace like we did.
Certainly Alexander Graham Bell must be restless in his grave if he ever thinks of what he unleashed.