Stranger Phones

I have to confess to being something of a phone nerd (I am a telephone historian, after all). I love watching shows and seeing people talk, type, and text. While most of the time these phones are of the mobile variety, period pieces let us see a telephonic landscape that doesn’t really exist anymore.

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Stranger Things is a good show, even if it is heavily driven by nostalgia and constructed as a pastiche of the period it portrays. Set in the early 1980s, one of the great details in its set design are the variety of telephones installed throughout the settings the characters inhabit. From the first episode I watched, and the gorgeous shot of Nancy’s “princess” phone, I was hooked. I think I captured a screengrab from every frame that includes a phone (don’t worry, I didn’t include them all here). They are all period (or at least appear to be, a lot of ITT phones look similar and are easier to find in better condition), and although most of them are look like they are in relatively good shape, they do exhibit the kind of variety we would expect to find in the 1980s. While push-button (“touch-tone”) telephones had been available in the US since 1963, rotary dial (pulse) telephones were still very common. I still remember having only a rotary phone until at least the early 1990s.

In these sorts of shows, every shot of a traditional “landline” telephone is more than just a detail. They are a reminder about why characters can’t be in instantaneous communication with each other, why they don’t always know each other’s location, why they have to make plans and look for people, why they knock on doors hoping someone is home. To be fair, Stranger Things subverts this a bit. The government seem to be in constant (presumably radio) communication, and the boys rely on their Realistic TRC-206s.

But the emphasis in the show on telephones offers a window into an interesting moment in telephone history. The show is set in the middle of the breakup of the Bell System. While the breakup had been mandated in January of 1982, it wouldn’t go into full effect until that same month in 1984, when Bell’s member companies were split into the seven independent “Baby Bells” (more accurately, the Regional Bell Operating Companies). Since the show is set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana in late October/November of 1983, telephone service would still have been provided by the Indiana Bell Telephone Company. While Indiana Bell would be operated under the Ameritech holding company after the breakup, because the show is set before the formal divesture, it makes sense for all of the telephones (in appearance, at least) to be Western Electric models without any Ameritech branding. It will be interesting (to me) to see if there are any telecommunication shake-ups as the show moves forward in time.

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The Byers first phone is a standard wall model, yellow with a rotary dial.

Princess

In the Wheeler household, Nancy gets her own phone. It’s a beautiful turquoise princess phone. Nancy seems to be the only character to have this model on the show.

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After her first phone is mysteriously fried, Joyce buys a replacement. The packaging is certainly in keeping with standard telephone equipment from Western Electric and Bell. The box has a label for the “telephone company,” but I can’t pinpoint the packaging exactly.

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The replacement seems to be a beige rotary desk set, 500 type or similar.

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The rest of the Wheeler household favors push-button “trimline” phones. The comparison between the Byers seems to further suggest the socio-economic difference between the families.

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Hard to say exactly if Barb’s mother’s beautiful yellow phone is another trimline. It looks like it, but given the cord, this one is definitely mounted to the wall.

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The Hawkins Police Department features a mix of desk sets. Some are push-button (a 12 button “2500 model” desk set, top) and some are rotary dialed (a rotary key set, bottom).

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Benny makes his fateful call on a beige wall model.

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There are plenty of places where we see phones, but not well enough to make them out. The library (top) and the morgue (bottom) both seem to have rotary desk sets. The bar Hopper visits has some sort of wall model.

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Hopper has a beige rotary desk set at home (pictured here after he has “repaired” it) and a green one at work.

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Mr. Clarke seems to be sporting a stylish red or rust colored trimline, it’s kind of hard to make out for sure in the dim light.

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There is a quick shot of a push-button phone when Joyce and Hopper pay a visit to Terry Ives.

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There are two occasions where pay phones come into play, at school and on the outskirts of the city.

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There are also some weird phones in the show. Lonnie’s house seems full of phones that don’t look quite right, but I can’t see them clearly enough to tell what is going on.

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Where did this come from? That’s a cordless phone Dustin is talking on at the Byers! It looks like it is a Cobra cordless phone. While these did exist in 1983, they were not cheap. It would have cost upwards of $140. And that’s in 1983 dollars. The question I have is where did this come from. Did Lonnie get it when he was doing house repairs?