From 'Candlestick' to 'Lucy': The telephone tells a national story

Sunday, Jan. 25 marks the 100th anniversary of the first transcontinental phone service in America. From the moment in 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell spoke the words, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you!” into his “apparatus for transmitting vocal sounds,” the development of phones in the United States progressed at breakneck speed. Industrail designer Henry Dreyfuss created one of the most memorable models in American history with “Telephone, Model No. 302,” on view at the Yale University Art Gallery.
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"Telephone, Model No. 302," designed by Henry Dreyfuss for Bell Telephone Laboratories and introduced in 1937. Die-cast metal, Bakelite, and enamel, Yale University Art Gallery, 1999.124.1

With the ubiquitous cell phone dominating our lives in the 21st century, it’s worth pausing for a moment to remember that it was only 100 years ago that the dream of a transcontinental phone call was realized on Jan. 25, 1915.

The inventor Alexander Graham Bell, based in New York, inaugurated cross-country service for AT&T when he called his assistant, Thomas Watson, over 3,000 miles away in San Francisco.

Not even 40 years had passed since the momentous day in 1876 when Bell spoke the words, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you!” into his “apparatus for transmitting vocal sounds.” From that moment on the development of phones in the United States progressed at breakneck speed.

The original device that Bell used was a precursor to the candlestick model often seen in turn-of-the-century photographs and period movies. It wasn’t until the 1930s that a breakthrough in phone design took place. While Steve Jobs may be synonymous with beautiful, clean design today, forerunner Henry Dreyfuss created one of the most memorable models in American history with “Telephone, Model No. 302,” which he designed for Bell Laboratories.

“Dreyfuss was among the first generation of industrial designers working in the United States,” says John Stuart Gordon, the Benjamin Attmore Hewitt Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG), where the Model 302 is on view. “They were artists, set designers, and illustrators. When the Great Depression came they had to find other jobs. There was a move to integrate art into industry and they went company to company selling their ideas.”

Gordon added that Dreyfuss quickly developed a reputation for being more than just a talented designer, but one who could increase profit for companies.

“It was a new notion that you could boost your bottom line through good design. Dreyfuss promoted his ability to give insider knowledge — thinking about an object from the user end — and not just create prettier objects, but better objects. The Bell telephone is a great example of this,” he said.  

In the early 1930s, Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) announced an invitation-only competition to restyle their handset telephone. The company had begun providing a phone to subscribers as part of their service package, making the appearance and reliability of the equipment integral to their success.

Henry Dreyfuss, photo by Bob Landry

Dreyfuss initially refused to participate in the competition when he was told he could not consult with Bell specialists before proposing a design.

“He said he needed access to engineers, the research and development facility, the factory floor. He needed to see how they were made to make the design better,” said Gordon.

While BTL initially refused him access, it changed its tune after a dismal round of submissions and allowed Dreyfuss to work with technicians. 

Dreyfuss followed Bell repairmen on service calls to see firsthand what people’s complaints were about the phones, where phones were located in the house, and how they were being used. While the servicemen repaired the line he would ask homeowners how often they talked on the phone, whether they liked it, and if the phone was comfortable to use.

“There’s a great story that he had been at a dinner party one night and the next morning he returned to the same house with a service technician. The hosts were probably wondering why he was dressed like a telephone repairman,” said Gordon.

Produced in 1937, Dreyfuss’ Model 302 marked the first time that the mouthpiece and receiver were combined into a single, tabletop unit, removing the need for a separate ringer box. The model was based on a Finnish phone designed by the Ericsson Company in 1929, which had the same low, black body with sides that sweep in, but a very heavy, rectangular handle.

“Dreyfuss saw that there was a lot right with the Ericsson model, but had heard from users that they were top heavy and were uncomfortable to use, especially if you cradled the receiver between your neck and shoulder,” said Gordon.

Drefuss’ solution would be called ergonomic today. He softened the overall design, rounding the corners and smoothing edges, an aesthetic in the 1930s known as “streamlining.”

“It had a more comfortable ‘triangular’ handle that followed the shape of your palm when you were holding the phone. And when you went to cradle it, there was a broad side to rest on your shoulder,” said Gordon. “He’s thinking about how the design relates to the body and how it works being used. This was a new idea. It was conceived of holistically.”

Dreyfuss’ phone was an immediate success and remained relatively unchanged until the 1960s — an incredibly long shelf life by design standards. It graced the sets of popular films and television programs — it’s sometimes called the “Lucy Phone” for its numerous appearances on “I Love Lucy” — as well as millions of modern homes in the first half of the 20th century.

Bell’s new phone was also important to the success of America’s Rural Electrification Program, an arm of the Works Project Administration created by President Franklin Roosevelt. When the act was passed in 1935, about 90% of the population in urban areas had electricity, as opposed to only about 10% in rural areas.

An actor portraying Alexander Graham Bell in an AT&T promotional film from 1926, photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“People were skeptical about taking on electricity. ‘What does it mean that the government is making us take this new utility?’” said Gordon. “Part of the success was making designs that looked really good and were comfortable. You wanted electricity, you wanted ease of communication, you wanted these great designs that look wonderful.”

Not much has changed today. We live in a designed world, though we are not always conscious of the thought behind the products we use everyday. The American decorative arts collection at YUAG comprises nearly 20,000 objects that illustrate the creative life behind the development of such products, among them silverware, furniture, and lighting.

“Some of the stories are really fascinating, like the telephone,” said Gordon. “The stories of why things look how they look are also the stories of what a culture was thinking at the time they were made, its aspirations and dreams. Suddenly the design of a telephone is a story about ergonomics, manufacturers, designers, end users, and the 1930s in America. It’s a national story.”

Dreyfuss’ partnership with Bell lasted into the 1950s. For readers too young to remember a time before mobile phones, the Dreyfuss model gave way to push-button phones in the 1960s, portable “brick” phones in the 1980s, and flip phones in the 1990s. Steve Jobs ushered in a new era in 2007, when Apple introduced the iPhone. What would Dreyfuss think?

Gordon laughed, “He would be upset he didn’t design it himself.”

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