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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Donald Marshall Schneider July 23, 1938 – July 25, 2015
Uinta County Herald, July 31st

After returning to Evanston, he began his career with Western Electric and he met his future wife Carol Davis. They were married on ... He enjoyed spending time with his family and always looked forward to his daily phone calls to his sister, Shannon...Read more

Black 'Rosies' of WWII opened doors for others
The Philadelphia Tribune, July 31st

While it seems Americans may be fuzzy about their history, the iconic image of “Rosie the Riveter” — a tireless World War II assembly line worker — seems firmly stamped on the nation's consciousness. ... petition to urge first lady Michelle Obama to...Read more

Thomas H. Morgan — 1922 - July 29, 2015
East Niagara Post, July 30th

After his discharge from service, he was employed by Western Electric. He traveled around New York State, installing central office telephone equipment, and updating and expanding older telephone offices. He left Western Electric in 1951 and was...Read more

James W. Kirk, 84, of Bel Air
Patch.com, July 28th

He began his employment with Western Electric, which became Lucent Technologies. During his time there he held various positions which included rate setter, engineering associate, Industrial Engineer, Supervisor and manufacturing manager (overseeing...Read more

From our archives: Eastland disaster 'exceedingly tragic'
SaukValley.com, July 26th

Office employees of the Illinois Northern Utilities company and the Dixon Home Telephone Co. manifested an extraordinary interest in the disaster which befell the Western Electric company's excursion on the Eastland in Chicago this morning, inasmuch as ...Read more

Paul Domi
Indianapolis Star, July 25th

After 35 years Paul left Western Electric due to the plant closing. He then went to work at Crossroads Industrial Services as a maintenance technician and process engineer working until his recent illness. Paul was a Lawrence Indiana volunteer...Read more

Chicago's Deadliest Day, 100 Years Ago
History, July 24th

Employees of the Western Electric Company, the country's only telephone manufacturer, savored a rare Saturday off and looked forward to a day of fun with family and friends at the company's annual summer excursion to Michigan City, Indiana. Not wanting ...Read more

Old Western Electric land is getting a railroad- themed building, hotels, more
Omaha World-Herald, July 6th

A burst of construction activity is adding another chapter to the rebirth of the former Western Electric campus in southwest Omaha. Helping to freshen up the former plant site is a new headquarters for Omaha Track — a company that grew from a three...Read more