Outside of the New Kids on the Block, nothing has gone from the center of the universe to non-entity in my lifetime like landline telephones. In the 1980s and 1990s entire industries sprung up around teenagers and phones that now feel as far removed from present day as radio serials (which actually are about as far removed from the mid 1980s as the mid 80s are from today). There are people old enough to vote who grew up never having a landline in the house.
This week on 80s Baby is Landline Week. All this week I’ll be covering aspects of 80s and 90s telephone culture. Today I’m tackling the phones.
(Many of these images are from Wishbookweb, an incredible collection of old catalogs).
My parents’ kitchen had some version of this phone dating back before my birth until the early 2000s. There was nothing fancy about the phone; you picked it up and dialed, and then a couple of minutes later you yelled at one of your sisters for picking up the one in mom and dad’s bedroom. Ours was always wall mounted and usually beige.
Every aspect of the thinking behind cartoon character phones makes perfect sense except for why you’d want to use one to make phone calls. It’s a no-brainer for the manufacturers: you have a beloved property, so you should use it in every possible iteration. This was Jim Davis’s M.O. with Garfield from the beginning. Even in Cartoon All Stars to the Rescue Garfield was a lamp. It would be interesting to do a poll now to determine whether younger people actually know Garfield from cartoons and the comic strip, or as a character used on greeting cards, calendars, t-shirts, etc. I think for a lot of them the answer would be the latter. It tracks for creators to license the properties, companies to produce these phones, and people who love and want to surround themselves with Mickey and Garfield to buy them. The only disconnect is that if this was your only phone you actually had to use it, so you’re walking around your kitchen or living room with Garfield’s back plastered to your ear.
Fake Pay Phones
This design manages to combine two things that people under 25 are unfamiliar with. My sister had this exact phone in her bedroom. I think that the design appealed to teens in the suburbs who didn’t encounter pay phones on every street corner and saw them as an exciting piece of urban life rather than a place to piss. Since this was my older sister’s phone I never once got to use it.
LA Gear Shoe Phone
What if we made a shoe phone? You know, like in Dragnet? What do you mean kids in the 80s didn’t watch Dragnet? Then why did Dan Aykroyd turn it into a movie in 1987? No seriously, why did he turn it into a movie? Who could have possibly been the target audience? I guess the answer was “somebody” because it made money, but we’re losing focus from this nonsensical shoe. LA Gear is yet another thing that was popular in the 80s and 90s and is virtually unknown today, this entry one ups the previous one by bringing together three foreign concepts for young people. I do love the detail of the air pockets on the shoes. Also without this LA Gear shoe phone we may never have gotten the Sports Illustrated sneaker phone and this bit from the 2005 NBA All Star Game:
Telephones are these plastic devices used for communication, but did you ever stop and think about what’s going on inside that plastic case? Well now you can find out, because this phone is see through! I have always been a sucker for transparent things. It gives you the satisfaction of seeing the inner workings of something without having to actually learn how it works. I still have no idea how a phone works, but check out the wires!
The Sports Illustrated Football Phone
The Rolls Royce of 1980s novelty phones. In 1986 a marketing manager at Sports Illustrated came up with the idea of a lifetime, to design a phone in the shape of a football and offer it as an incentive for subscribing to Sports Illustrated. The idea was a bombshell, and immediately caused subscription sales to skyrocket. And why wouldn’t they? Could you even call yourself a real football fan if you didn’t make all of your important calls on a phone shaped like a pigskin? It turns out I couldn’t because even though my dad subscribed to Sports Illustrated from 1987 until around 1993 we never received a football phone with our subscription. We got all manner of sports blooper and year in review tapes for which I will be forever grateful, but you can’t make phone calls on a videocassette.
Would man caves even exist if not for the Sports Illustrated Football Phone? Can you imagine a nation full of unfinished basements and husbands who spend their weekends interacting with their wives and kids? Thankfully you don’t have to, because Sports Illustrated came through when we needed them most.
Did you own a novelty phone as a child? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.
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