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.