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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Louise C. Mangion, 96, Western Electric Worker
WHAV News, September 20th

She was born in Haverhill on Sept. 7, 1918, daughter of the late Victor and Anna (Colarusso) Mangion. Louise attended Haverhill schools and was employed at the former Western Electric for many years until her retirement in the early 80?s. She was a ...Read more

Pat G. Collins
Casper Star-Tribune Online, September 15th

Pat returned to Western Electric in Winston-Salem in 1966 and was lead engineer in various capacities including documentation and computer graphics. Pat retired from Alcatel Lucent in 1989. He was always active in all aspects of his church; in Winston...Read more

Club 20 bridges divide in Colorado politics
The Colorado Statesman, September 15th

American Telephone & Telegraph announced a divestiture plan that would spin off seven Baby Bell companies that would continue to offer the basic dial tone, while its manufacturing divisions, including Western Electric and Bell Labs, would emerge as an...Read more

WHAV's Historic and Rocky Road to FM
WHAV News, September 13th

On that day, a switch was unceremoniously flipped on a Western Electric 504B-2 FM transmitter on top of Silver Hill, placing WHAV-FM officially on the air. Those present at the launch would have seen a 42-inch-wide by six and half-foot-tall steel...Read more

Days Gone By
Daily Journal Online, September 11th

A strike against Western Electric, the manufacturing division of the Bell Telephone System, delayed shipment of equipment to the local telephone company and, in turn, delayed the placement of an additional public telephone in downtown Farmington. A...Read more

Alyce Vetick
Fremont Tribune, September 9th

Alyce worked in her early years at the Nebraska Ordnance Plant at Mead, was a waitress, then did setting up and selling photo sessions with Olan Mills. She later was employed at Western Electric, worked part time for the Bennington Public Schools, ...Read more

Retro Indy: Allegheny Airlines crash Sept. 9, 1969 killed 83 near Shelbyville
Indianapolis Star, September 9th

"We were told to cut, seal and box hundreds of body bags and send them to the morgue." Patty Fagel was living just three miles from the crash site and working second shift at Western Electric in Indianapolis. "Word spread around the plant that east...Read more

Museum exhibit highlights communication evolution
Port City Daily, September 7th

A 1950 photo of T.B. Wood talking on a telephone while sitting next to Clarence Wood—one of several items featured in the exhibit, 'Collection Selections: Communication. ... are a manual typewriter, circa 1885, that was used in the Wilmington district...Read more