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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

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

Posted By on Wed, Dec 24, 2008 at 6:00 AM


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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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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