Western Electric, the equipment division of the Bell System, was the major manufacturer of telephones and telephone-related equipment in the United States for almost a century. Incorporated in 1872  by Elisha Gray and Enos M. Barton (who got their start together in 1869 in Cleveland), the Chicago-based company manufactured a wide range of electrical hardware, including telegraph equipment, bells, signal boxes, and fire alarms. In 1877, the firm shifted gears to produce telephone equipment for Western Union, but that alliance lasted only two years, halted by a patent-infringement lawsuit filed by the Bell Company. Western Electric tried to get back into the telephone business though the majority purchase of a Bell manufacturer called Gilliland Electric Co., but by 1882, the Bell Company itself had become the majority owner of Western Electric, which, in 1925, spun off all its non-telephone hardware products as Graybar, named in honor of Gray and Barton.

While Western Electric supplied Bell with a variety of wooden wall phones and candlestick styles from the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th centuries, its first major innovation was the model A1, introduced in 1925. The A1 had a round brass base, an aluminum-alloy cradle and plunger, and a handset made partly of Bakelite and featuring both an earpiece and voice transmitter. Although this type of handset technology had been around since the turn of the century and was particularly popular in Europe, the A1 was the first major U.S. cradle phone to incorporate it. In 1927, the company introduced an improved version of its cradle phone called the B1, which was produced in a 102 version (a sidetone handset, in which both the caller's voice and the recipient's voice was routed into the earpiece) and a 202 version (an anti-sidetone phone with more sophisticated circuitry).

In 1930, the company introduced its oval-base D1 model, which is usually referred to as the 202 since the anti-sidetone version of the phone was so common. The 202 was Western Electric's workhorse telephone throughout the 1930s, and many families relied on them through World War II due to limitations on new consumer products (manufacturers like Western Electric retooled to support the war effort). For those customers, Western Electric frequently swapped out the old E1 model handsets on their 202 phones for newer F1 handsets, which were designed by Henry Dreyfuss in 1936 for an entirely new telephone model, the 302.

Initially produced in heavy pot metal and painted black, the 302 was the first widely available telephone to feature a ringer and anti-sidetone hardware housed within the phone’s central mechanism. In 1941, Western Electric switched from pot metal to a lighter thermoplastic body due to metal shortages caused by the war, and in 1942 production of 302 was suspended altogether. After the war, production of plastic phones in ivory, green, pink, red, and blue (the rarest color) resumed until 1954.

The 302 was updated by Henry Dreyfuss in 1949 to create the sleeker 500 model, which was the first phone to incorporate a coiled handset cord, a development possibly adapted from cords used in airplane cockpits. In another breakthrough, the 500 also allowed the user to control the volume of the ringer. As with the 302, the 500 was originally sold only in black but was eventually produced in a range of hues, from ivory to golden yellow to pink, with ads that read “Pick a phone from this garden of colors!” Due to parent company AT&T’s near telephone monopoly, the 500 became the standard American telephone for the next 30 years, when more than 100 variations of its design were made. In 1951, Western Electric was forced to license the model's design to other companies, further extending the phone’s ubiquity in American households.

Western Electric launched its line of Princess phones in 1959, which featured a smaller oval-shape, lighted dials, and a pastel-hued body designed to appeal to female customers. Its Trimline phone debuted in 1965, and imitated the popular Princess model with its slender body, lighted dial, and series of bright colors. However, the Trimline's dial was mounted on the center portion of the handset, a move that further simplified the act of making a call.

In 1984, Western Electric was divided into various components of AT&T. In 1995, the parent company dropped the Western Electric brand entirely.

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Recent News: Western Electric Telephones

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Active mother Gregory persevered through challenges
mySanAntonio.com, March 29th

She attended high school during the day, and at night, Gregory worked as a telephone operator while she was on her own. Gregory died in her sleep March 22. She was 91. While working at the switchboard, ... Gregory became an active stay-at-home mother...Read more

Cards-N-Time: Telephones IV
Shawnee News Star, March 28th

In 1893 the Missouri-Kansas Telephone Company [MKTC] was first to provide telephone service to OKC and enjoyed a monopoly for a decade before the Pioneer Telephone Co. began operation. For a time ... This led to Bell creating Western Electric. It meant ...Read more

Vintage railroad phone added to museum
Monett Times, March 28th

The Wheaton Historical Society and the Wheaton Depot Museum received an antique railroad telephone,, donated by the Arkansas Boston Mountains Chapter Historical Society. Society representative Thomas Duggan, at right, presented the phone to Betty ...Read more

John H. Schmidt, Lucent manager
Baltimore Sun, March 26th

John H. Schmidt, a retired Lucent Technologies manager who served for nearly four decades with the Maryland Air National Guard, died March 20 at Howard County General Hospital of heart failure. He was 80. ... Mr. Schmidt went to work in 1957 at the old...Read more

NUVO at 25: Hammer
NUVO Newsweekly, March 25th

He delegated most all of the day-to-day decisions to me while he spent his time at local coffee shops and at home, barking into his vintage Western Electric black telephone. A few times a week, he'd walk into the office and ask how everything was going...Read more

Eva Lessig
Fremont Tribune, March 24th

Following school, she was employed by the ordnance plant, and worked as a waitress in Grand Island. She then moved to Fremont where she was employed by Western Electric in Omaha for 20 years until her retirement. Eva was baptized and confirmed at ...Read more

Steven G. Mihaylo visits campus to speak on success
The Daily Titan, March 22nd

His experience continued when Mihaylo enlisted in the U.S. Army, worked for Western Electric, then graduated from Cal State Fullerton in two years, taking 24 finance and accounting units each semester, he said. Those three experiences helped him ascend...Read more

A 'haunted' telephone can be all yours Saturday at the Nightingale
Chicago Reader, March 19th

This weekend's event at the Nightingale, "Weird Telephone, only dials one number," will feature an in-person auction for the third phone—a black touch-tone Western Electric—and a sale of some prints of the game's art. Elliott and Kemenczy will also...Read more