Antique Telephones > The Basics of Telephone Collecting

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So you've just bought an antique phone - congrats. You may be have questions: Will it work? How old is it? Am I nuts? This page will get you started... good luck, and enjoy!

Top information sources

Books on antique phone collecting

Types of antique phones

  • Wood phones. Early wood phones (1876-1900) were hand crafted in small shops, often made from walnut or other valuable woods. They usually have multiple 'boxes' to hold batteries, a hand-cranked magneto to signal the operator, and a transmitter. Later wood phones (1900-1940s) were mass produced and are more commonplace.
  • Candlestick phones. Designed to sit atop a desk with wires to a box below to hold electronics (ringer/bells and magneto). Early candlesticks (1880s-1910s) had no dial - the operator would connect your call. These candlesticks were luxury items, highly styled out of nickel-plated brass, and produced by dozens of manufacturers. Later candlesticks (1920s to 1940s) were mass-produced by larger manufacturers.
  • Desk sets (1920s to present). These are the most numerous phones, ranging from gorgeous art deco sets like the Kellogg Masterphone series, to the ubiquitous 500 set. Made of bakelite, plastic, or metal.
  • Pay phones. Also known as pay stations, these range from the very earliest wooden 'silver dollar' coin collectors to the classic 'three-slotter.'
  • Other. There are numerous other categories of collectible phones (novelty phones, European phones, wall phones, intercoms, etc. Check out the phones on eBay for an idea of the many types of collectible phones


Most common antique phones

The most common antique phones are those that were produced in the greatest quantities, such as the Western Electric 202, 302, and 500 sets and the Automatic Electric AE40.

Who collects antique phones?

Several thousand people around the world collect antique phones (and related items like signs, switching equipment, accessories, and paper). Collectors range from teenagers to 80-year-olds, from ex-telephone company employees to people who never worked in the business, from people who make money working on phones to weekend warriors. They all think something about antique phones is cool - the history, the technology, the design and looks or just the thrill of the hunt for a rare flea market find.

What do collectors look for in a phone?

Each collector has different objectives, but here are some of the attributes collectors generally value:
  • Completeness. For example, a phone which has its original cord (such as the green cords on old candlesticks). Since the phone companies leased phones and were constantly rehabbing and upgrading them, many phones do not have all their original equipment.
  • Condition. Cracks or chips in the bakelite, for example, or damage to the original finish or paint job can detract dramatically from the value of a phone.
  • Authenticity. Reproductions of parts and entire phones, often hard to distinguish from the original, abound in telephones as in all antique categories.
  • Scarcity. On older Western Electric dial phones, for example, most dials do not have letters and numbers stamped on the fingerstop (e.g. 2AB). The ones that do are much scarcer and also make a more pronounced clicking sound.
  • Uniqueness/Rarity. Some prototype phones were made in such limited quantities that only a small number of examples survive.
  • Attractiveness. The richness of the color on old colored phones, for example (bakelite tends to fade over time when exposed to sun), or the patina of the nickel plating on an old candlestick.
  • Does it work? Some collectors care about this, others don't. Some collectors will pay more for a phone which has been restored to working order; Others feel that anything that has been done to the phone in as-found condition decreases its value.

Will my antique phone work?

If it's in good shape, and still has the original four-prong plug (or a modern plug or even a cloth cord with leads on the end), there's a good chance it will work, or can be made to work with a little tinkering. Plug the phone in and see if you get a dial tone. If you do, try dialing out, and then dialing in to test the ringer. If everything's working but the ringer, unscrew the phone bottom and see if the ringer's been disabled with cotton or by unscrewing a wire. If you don't get a dial tone or can't dial out, you'll need to do some detective work. See 'how to learn more' above.

What's my antique phone worth?

As with all antiques there's a wide range of values for antique telephones, depending on rarity, condition, attractiveness, and many other factors. To get an idea for antique telephone pricing, check out these saved eBay searches, or go to an upcoming phone collectors show (TCI, ATCA) and look around.

How do I clean and repair my antique telephone?

Carefully! Most Bakelite or plastic phones can be cleaned with some mild soap and warm water or 409. If you have specific issues or want more detailed advice consult the TCI list on Yahoo Groups (you can ask a question or search the archive). Ditto for repairing phones. there's a lot you can learn to do yourself, and there are collectors who specialize in doing repairs for a fee should you want some help (see links page).

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