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Where To Buy A Classic Rotary Dial Phone

Updated on March 15, 2011

Vintage Phone Nostalgia

Anyone over 35 has probably used a rotary phone. I still remember as a child picking up the heavy receiver of my dad's old, green rotary desk phone and placing my child-sized fingers into the rotary holes to dial a friend's number. How hard it was to dial a 0 or a 9, and turn that dial wheel the whole way around! Then there was the buzzing, dragging sound the rotary dial made as it slipped back to its neutral position. The very physicality of making a phone call, dialing then holding a heavy receiver to your ear, jumping at the jangly rattling sound of the ringer is all but lost in this age of cell phones and smart phones.

As phones get smarter and smaller, there's a welcome retro whimsy to seeing a classic rotary telephone. Vintage rotary phones are practically sculptural. See one in somebody's house, and you immediately gain a new data point about the person and probably see them in a different light.

While many true rotary phones no longer work over contemporary landlines, there are companies that make reproduction rotary phones, and others that refurbish classic old phones to work with today's technology, even giving them # and * buttons.

Modern Vintage Rotary Phones by Crosley

Crosley makes repro-rotary phones. These phones lok like they have a classic rotary dial, and they are on a wall cord, but instead of turning the rotary dial, each numbered hole actually has a round touchtone button.

Crosley sells pretty much any vintage style you could want. Old fashioned "candlestick" phones with an ear piece you hold up to one ear? Check. 1950s-style slim princess phone in pink? Check. Charlie's-Angel style heavy desk phone? Check. Antiqued phone with delicate gilded cradle? Check again.

Other "Rotary" Phones

There are companies out there that refurbish old rotary dial phones for modern-day use.

One company, called SparkFun Electronics, actually engineered actual vintage rotary phones to be cell phones. These phones are plugged into the wall, and the receiver is attached to the phone body by a cord — old style. But the phones operate off a SIM card taken from inside a cell phone. These phones cost around $200.

SparkFun has recently gone one farther and created a Bluetooth rotary hone, so you no longer need to swap your SIM card in and out of the phone. These Bluetooth-compatible rotary phones can cost over $300.

Actual old rotary phones are always available somewhere on Ebay, though these may or may not still work.

Rotary and Pulse Dialing Vs. Touch Tone

The rotary dial familiar to us from the 1970s and 1980s was first invented in 1904, though it didn't really enter use in the Bell System, essentially the uNited States phone service, until 1919. The rotary dial worked by sending electric pulses across the line that accorded to what number on the dial you spun.

The first touch tone dialing system, as opposed to pulse dialing, was unveiled at the 1962 World's Fair. Over time, touch tone phones supplanted rotary dials. Some rotary phones no longer work in contemporary phone jacks because those jacks don't recognize the pulse dialing.


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