Candlestick telephones, also known as “upright desk stands,” first gained popularity in the 1880s as the telephone became an important piece of technology for modern businesses. A standard candlestick phone included a base, stem, mouthpiece, and receiver.
The earliest candlesticks had wooden receivers and bases. Eventually, phones were made primarily from nickel-plated brass and Bakelite or hard rubber parts. Most turn-of-the-century candlestick phones came in simple, two-tone combinations of black and silver, like those made by Monarch, Sterling, Eureka, Manhattan, DeVeau, Sumter, Federal, Wonderphone, and Western Electric.
Some candlestick phones had mouthpieces that rotated from frontward-facing to upright, allowing users to adjust them to their most comfortable speaking position. The phone’s heavy receiver, or speaker end, rested on a hooked perch when not in use. Attached to the phone's main vertical shaft, these switchhooks evolved from a pointy U-shape finger to a thicker arm that split into two smaller ones, each ending in an open circle. Candlesticks that retain their original green cords connecting the receiver to the base are the most desirable.
The popular “potbelly” style was named for its beveled stem shape, which included an enlarged central lobe, and was produced by companies like Williams, Wilhelm, Montgomery Ward, Connecticut, Acme, Elliott, and B-R Electric. Other candlestick designs gained nicknames like “pencil shaft,” “oil can,” “rope shaft,” or “Roman column” for their distinctive stem shapes. Common designs made by different companies were often hard to tell apart, as manufacturers were primarily identified by small markings around the phone’s receiver and mouthpiece, indicating the maker, style number, and copyright date.
The majority of early candlesticks had only a single switch for dialing an operator, though some intercom or office phones had additional buttons for calling between locally networked telephones. The candlestick’s workplace prominence inspired a variety of accessories, from “Courtesy Coin Boxes” to writing pads, which attached directly to the stem.
Due to the threat of contagious diseases like influenza and tuberculosis shortly after World War I, telephone producers developed mouthpieces made from glass or porcelain, which were thought to be more sanitary than Bakelite or rubber. These parts could be easily cleaned by unscrewing and boiling them, and employees of large companies sometimes carried their own mouthpieces to work. Businesses also capitalized on the production of white porcelain mouthpieces by printing advertising directly on these parts.
Eventually, round 10-hole dials were mounted onto the center shaft of candlesticks, eliminating the need for calling an operator before dialing out. This rotary dial was patented by Almon Strowger in 1891 and pioneered by companies like Automatic Electric Company and General Electric during the early 20th century. By the 1920s, dials were relocated to the telephone’s base, beginning a shift in telephone design that would ultimately lead to the cradle telephone.
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