Things Young People Might Not Know Used to Exist
First published: Thursday June 3rd, 2021
When I was a kid, the telephone at my house looked something like this:
To dial a number, you had to stick your finger into a hole and rotate all the way around to the right. The numbers 1 and 2 were a lot faster to dial than 8 and 9. That's why New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago have area codes 212, 213, and 312. Faster numbers were given to larger cities.
Renting Your Telephone
Before AT&T's monopoly was broken up in 1984, most people rented their landline phone from the telephone company. Incredibly, some elderly people are still renting their phones from AT&T, and have paid thousands of dollars in phone rental fees over their lifetimes.
In the United States and Canada, if you wanted to know the number of the last person who called you, you could dial *69 or 1169 on your phone. This would cost extra on your phone bill.
Apparently, this feature still exists on some landlines.
In the mid-20th century, you had to pay extra for a private telephone line. Many people had "party lines" which were shared by multiple households. Each household had its own ring pattern so you'd know when to pick up the phone. It was also possible, but highly frowned upon, to eavesdrop on conversations from other households.
My mom remembers when her family switched from a 4-party line to a 2-party line in the 1950s.
Before cell phones, you sometimes had to make a call from a payphone. If you didn't have any change, you could call collect, which meant the recipient of the call would pay the cost. You would have a brief opportunity to say your name so that the person you were calling could decide to accept the call or not.
Cheap teenagers could use this to leave a free message. For example, you could say, really quick, "heymomcomepickmeup", and avoid having to pay at all.
Calling to Get the Time
Back before everyone had a cellphone, you wouldn't necessarily know the exact time. Fortunately there was a number you could call that would tell you "The time at the tone" every 10 seconds. The U.S. Naval Observatory still offered this service as recently as 2015, but when I called this evening there was no answer. 😥
The Phone Book
Phone customers used to receive a free physical book that had the private telephone numbers of everyone who lived in your geographical area, although you could pay extra to have an unlisted number.
When you rented a video tape from Blockbuster, you had to rewind it before returning it or pay an extra fee. This took a long time and could wear out your VCR so people bought special machines to rewind their video tapes more effectively.
Gum in Baseball Cards
No one buys baseball cards anymore. Even if they do, there is definitely not any gum inside. But when the Topps company introduced baseball cards in 1951, the gum was the main attraction. Topps only made baseball cards to help sell the gum. Over time, the gum became smaller and the baseball cards larger until, by my childhood in the 1980s, there were 15 cards in a pack and one stick of stale, terrible-tasting gum, which we only chewed out of a sense of obligation. Of the 15 cards, one would be permanently stained by the stick of gum, which seriously reduced its collector value. Topps finally phased out the gum in 1992.
Cars Without Power Steering
You might not know it, but cars in the past were a lot harder to steer. You really had to crank the wheel to get the wheels to turn, especially at low speeds. On the plus side, parking was a great upper body workout.
Power steering was first introduced in 1951, and over time more and more cars included it as a standard feature. Today, there is apparently only one mass-produced car which doesn't have power steering: the Alfa Romeo 4C.
Pneumatic Tubes at Banks
These probably still exist, but it's been ages since I've seen one in action. It used to be common for banks to have drive-throughs where you'd talk with a teller via an intercom. It was possible to put checks or cash (but not too many coins!) into a little capsule, which would be whisked underground via a pneumatic tube into the bank. Then the capsule would come back with your receipt. As a kid, I thought this was just about the greatest thing ever and imagined a world where everything and everyone would be transported via tubes. Yes, I realize this is a common fantasy.
Apparently, pneumatic tubes were also used for mail delivery in several cities, including New York, in the the first half of the 20th century.
Back before the introduction of the automatic pinsetter in the 1950s there were people employed at bowling alleys to reset the pins after a bowler had knocked them down.
Taping Songs on the Radio
Buying tapes was expensive, but you could get music for free by waiting for the song you wanted to come on the radio and then taping it. You could also record over the same tape multiple times, but it would get worse every time you recorded over it.
About “69” thing, a Belo Horizonte man (hahahahaha!) invented BINA, who allow you know who is calling for you, without 69.
As I’m not American, was nice to learn some of them! I think the chew gum one is really nice! Good blog, as always.
Ethaboo, before QM ban you and Chen, or at least for you stop having quizmasterbanningmeophobia, as me, I think you should put his blog at first place on BG lol
Something else that younger people today might not know existed: dialing phone numbers from memory. I probably had 40 or 50 different phone numbers memorized when I was younger, for friends, family members, work, school, the movie theater, some restaurants that offered delivery or take-out, and some other places. I still remember some of them that I haven't used in 30 years. When the Casio Databank digital calculator watch debuted in the 1980s those were a must-have. Made remembering numbers a lot easier.
Of course before that you had switchboard operators who would manually connect calls.
I’m also just barely old enough to remember when phone books were a thing, and I definitely remember rewinding a few tapes at some point in time.
Given my age, most of these oldies reminds me my childhood (I'm French so no Baseball Cards dans mon pays).
Good memories of these days: taping songs on the radio was very funny do to. I miss my old walkman too...
In the UK, you can call 1471 to find out the last person who called you. I also remember Yellow Pages, which were sort of like the phone book for businesses, but I think they stopped them here.
Internet speed and reliability is notoriously bad all over Germany. In this context we often quote Merkel who a few years back unironically said that “the Internet is virgin territory”. From what I understand the country was actually at the forefront in 1981, when there were plans to develop fiber glass extensively. But that was shelved by the next government and copper cables, some of them 100 years old, were deemed sufficient ever since.
As for credit cards, that might be a cultural thing. Cash is still king in Germany. We have trust issues with that money we can’t hold in our hands. I think even our Eastern neighbours are far ahead.
I have 100% done a reverse call to get a hold of my mum when I was out in town before I could drive. We also had a VCR and rented tapes to rewind.
And as for the "Pin Boys" I used to do that as a summer job for the skittle leagues!
Also, pneumatic tubes are definitely still a thing, at least where I live. The bank my family goes to uses them all the time.
Lots of drive thru pharmacies use pneumatic tubing as well as banks still.
In the UK we still have the "speaking clock" (dial 123), it costs 50p for each call.
We also had "Dial a disc" (dial 16) to get a song from that weeks chart played over the phone. Service ended in 1991 I think.
There was also Dial a Recipe, Cricketline(for the latest scores), and Weatherline.
My first car in 1981 didnt have power steering, AC, electric windows or a radio. How did we manage ?
I also deliver to a grain mill occasionally that still uses vacuum tubes to send paperwork to and from the offices and lab, so the driver doesnt have to leave the cab.
My wife still uses the phone book. I delivered phone books around 1984 and made good money doing it for about three days.
In San Francisco, you dialed p-o-p-c-o-r-n for the time.
The phone in the picture looks modern to me. Ours was steel and black with no curly cord.
My brother's first car was a Mercury (1955 or so) with standard steering.l
But I can see there being future generations that have a hard time understanding what it must have been like trying to remember things with just the wetware between our ears without the aid of a mind-machine interface, or who think it's so odd how old people seem to feel that taking pictures of them in any context would be invasive as we've all got cameras built-in to our eyeballs, or who laugh at the antiquated way that we used to choose leaders by letting all of the stupidest people in the country vote for their favorite candidate, whenever we've come up with a better system for doing that. Also when things like seasonal allergies, cancer, color-blindness, dyslexia and down's syndrome get phased out through genetic engineering imagine explaining how infirm we used to be to a kid who never gets sick. Probably comparable to living before/after antibiotics or anesthesia.
Fun fact: I've driven off with the canister by mistake and had to park somewhere and walk it back to the irate bastard who never makes mistakes in life.
Also there's something really satisfying about loading the capsule and having it zoom up the tube.