The 19-Year-Old Hipster's Ironic Gift of Choice: Rotary Phones From the Johnson Administration

Pink phone.jpg

By Joe Eskenazi 

The Partridge Family bus notwithstanding, not everything about the 1970s trumped today's world. Everyone wore polyester - and smoked - a combination that could very well turn you into The Human Torch. And yet, after one lit himself ablaze (or, as both my parents managed to do, independently, immolate the back seat of the car via a poorly tossed cigarette) you could count on your call to the paramedics going through. Clunky as they are to the modern eye, Sgt. Pepper-era phones were built to last.

Those young enough to have never watched childhood images of themselves placed beneath the dial of the rotary phone cartwheel to and fro as they placed a call probably don't remember this, but, prior to about 1980, one didn't buy a phone - you leased it from the phone company. In many ways, telephone technology has pushed the limits of human imagination; we're fending off commercials these days for products that are higher tech than the stuff Kirk and Spock used on Star Trek. But, now that phones are a standard consumer item, planned obsolescence has kicked in. If manufacturers figure you're going to upgrade in a year or two, there's no need to build a phone that'll last much longer - in fact, it'd be counterproductive. Not so in the olden days. Rotary phones were constructed to outlast their owners, and many of them have. Dotting the antique and curio stores throughout the city, they've taken on new lives as exotic vestiges of a bygone age.

The salesman at one such shop in the Mission told me that the average age of his rotary phone customers is just 19 or 20 - folks young enough that even the term "dialtone" is archaic. Depending upon their rarity (and perverse beauty) these rotaries range from $25 to thousands of dollars - and, so to better catch the eye, most antique stores stock them only in Atomic Age hues such as turquoise or Pepto Bismol Pink.

In my brief, unscientific observation of what young hipsters gravitated toward once they crossed stores' thresholds, here are the most popular models: Princess phones, Candlestick phones, Mickey Mouse, and a rotary wall phone with a chalkboard attached to it, all the better for note-taking (sorry, no photo available!).

A natural skepticism of any item a hipster deems cool seems to be a healthy response (literally, in the case of those tight pants - sooner or later some hipster is going to suffer gangrene and die because his pants cut off blood flow to the lower body). And yet, one could do worse than a rotary phone, a testament to just how well-engineered a device can be when quality and durability are the only factors in the equation. Who knows - maybe those very phones will be attracting the gawking hipsters of generations yet to come.


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