My most common caller nowadays is someone announced as Anna Nimmus. What a nuisance she is; she calls me at least four times a day. If I block her number, she uses another one. Wow--what a deep pocket she must have to afford all those phone lines. If I read her ID on the handset's screen, she spells her name Anonymous. But the robot announces her as Anna Nimmus. I ignore calls from Anna, despite how badly she wants to reach me, and hope she'll give up trying to get in touch. Wishful thinking, of course.
The way telephones work and are used is but a tiny example of the enormous amount of change I've lived through as an eighty-year-old. When I was young, my family had one clunky rotary-dial phone--and it was a big day when we got an extension on the second floor of our house. We were some of the lucky ones because we had our own line, not a two-party line we shared with another household. Some of my friends' families had those two-party lines. When making an outgoing call, you picked up the receiver and listened before dialing because the line might be in use by someone from the other household sharing it. Lots of jokes were made about secretly listening to another's call that way, and even books were written with this sneakily invasive method of finding out someone else's business (a murder, perhaps!) as a plot point. Families whose budgets were stretched to the max could opt for a four-party phone line, as well. With a four-party line, you'd hear another household's phone ring at your house, but the ring pattern would be different. You only answered it when it was your ring. Clearly, in the 1940s and early '50s a private line was a luxury that not everyone could afford, and some families had no phone of their own, but used their neighbors' for emergencies.
Fast forward through push button, cordless, etc., all the ensuing modernizations of the family phone. In cities, shared phone lines were phased out by the end of the '50s and several extensions could be found in a typical middle-class home. Now let's visit my grown-woman (wife and mother) household in the late '70s. A family of six that included four teenagers, one phone line and two extensions. One handset was on a table in the upstairs hallway. One handset was a wall-mount in the kitchen. The phone upstairs had the longest cord allowed, a spiraled cord in the same matching green as the handset. The user could have a semblance of privacy by carrying the phone into his/her bedroom and shutting the door. If you shared a bedroom, however, it was hard to keep out the occupant, so the cord also reached into the bathroom, running under a door that could be locked.
It seemed as if there were always others waiting to use the phone, make their plans, gossip with their friends, check homework with their schoolmates, call their girlfriends. Even the parents might need to check in with their friends or neighbors or appointments. One of the most effective and definitely the most annoying ways of getting to use the busy family phone was to lift the receiver of the extension not in use and interrupt the current conversation. If a sibling did so, it could start a furious fight. If a parent did so, it contaminated cordial communication for a period (lasting from minutes to hours).
Recently my youngest son told his seventeen-year-old daughter about having to take turns to use the phone to call his friends in the evening, and how, if the friend's mother answered the phone, etiquette dictated a short, polite conversation with the mother before asking if his friend was home. My granddaughter was incredulous. It was akin to our parents telling us they walked three miles through the snow to school. "You WHAT? OMG, Dad! Really?"
I love my cell phone, how I can text someone, "Can you have a quick chat now?" before calling. What a great way to cut wasting time chatting with someone's mother first. Not that my friends have mothers anymore . . . but I still love my cell. I don't have to ask if I'm catching my friends at a good time. My cell phone counts my steps, serves as a timer and alarm, acts as my photo album and camera, records conversations, holds my library book, becomes my flashlight and magnifying glass, and serves as the best encyclopedia ever imagined. And speaking of encyclopedias, remember the door-to-door salesmen? Don't get me started.