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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The real reason everyone hates making phone calls today
Network World, September 1st

A recent article in the Atlantic by Ian Bogost blamed the decline in voice calling on design and quality/reliability issues with mobile phones compared to the more mature infrastructure and ergonomics of the classic home telephone handset. There are...Read more

Little-known museum keeps Tacoma connected to telephone history
TheNewsTribune.com (blog), August 29th

Like everyone who works for the museum, Annon and Bartle are retired telephone company employees who worked in an era when the most important aspect of the job was service. ... The phone in question was carried by workers who were testing lines...Read more

HAYES, Hugh George
Marietta Daily Journal, August 28th

Mr. Hayes was a retired Area Manager with Lucent Technologies, a career spanning 34 years with the same company, Western Electric which eventually merged with AT & T and Lucent Technologies. After retirement, he enjoyed traveling with his wife and ...Read more

The Phone Company and the Feds — a Buddy Movie from Hell
Backchannel, August 28th

The Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice was concerned that AT&T was inflating Western Electric's phone prices in order to charge subscribers more, and sued to force the company to divest that manufacturing subsidiary. ... the watchdog...Read more

New Preserve in Hopewell Named `Mount Rose'
Planet Princeton, August 27th

The Mount Rose Preserve was established in April, when a partnership of a dozen public agencies and nonprofit organizations bought the former Western Electric/AT&T property. The land – home to the first corporate park in the United States – was...Read more

Industrial accidents – then and now
Herald & Tribune, August 26th

The SS Eastland had been chartered by the Western Electric Co. to take several thousand of its employees to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. Apart from “the ship [becoming] unbalanced as passengers gathered to watch other boats,” rolling over and...Read more

Memorabilia of Old West performer set for weekend auction
Fremont Tribune, August 22nd

the Weatherby Rifle Co. in California. In Nebraska, he was a machinist at Western Electric. ... To demonstrate, he'd shoot a Fremont telephone directory at point-blank range with one blank in a pistol. The impact would shred a large ... He was an...Read more

Green Line's Fairview Avenue stop: Unassuming street has some interesting ...
MinnPost, August 20th

A building currently serving as offices for CenturyLink – identified by the legend TELEPHONE BUILDING over the front, and an image of an old-fashioned telephone – is at 426 Fairview Avenue North, one block south of University. ... Carved into stone...Read more