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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Perks 50th
Kenosha News, August 30th

Paul retired from Illinois Bell Telephone Co. in 1994 and has been a member of the Southeast Wisconsin Tavern League for 25 years. His hobbies include weight lifting and making home brew. Pat worked for Western Electric Co., Cicero, and Americana Lake ...Read more

MC Cemetery History Walk is Sept. 27
Mason City Globe Gazette, August 27th

MASON CITY | Elmwood-St. Joseph Municipal Cemetery is preparing for its fifth History Walk on Saturday, Sept. 27, to provide an opportunity to connect with Mason City's history and realize a deeper appreciation for the cemetery. The next meeting will...Read more

Time Warner Cable suffers massive outage nationwide
CNET, August 27th

Many do not remember that back in the day when a POTS (plain old telephone system) was our primary nationwide communication network that outages were fairly frequent, most often caused by severe weather and other natural disasters. In some cases, the ...Read more

Number, please!
Times-Enterprise, August 25th

Thomasville's phone was at Cassell's Drug Store. In 1885, Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Co. installed a switchboard serving about 22 subscribers. It was placed above Reid Bros. Bookstore. J. E. Robison was the first operator, along with C.H. ...Read more

The tale of the two-flat
WBEZ, August 20th

Those came to be called worker's cottages. Related: How the size of the "foreign born" population has changed in the city. As Chicago's big industries grew — Sears, McCormick Reaper and Western Electric, to name a few — so did the population. Soon it ...Read more

George A. Head
Scranton Times-Tribune, August 15th

George A. Head, 89, of Deer Lake, died Thursday at Schuylkill Medical Center-East Norwegian Street. Born in Wadesville, May 8, 1925, he was a son of the late Thomas S. and Ann Beadle Head. George served in the Army during World War II in the European ...Read more

Side Trips: Preserving the History of the Telephone
Maine Public Broadcasting, August 7th

(Sound of phone ringing) "That's the Western Electric Model 302 telephone," Harris says. "That was designed somewhere in the mid-'30s. Some people call it the Lucy Phone because the 'I Love Lucy Show' had a phone like that, though I think theirs a had...Read more

Albert O'Donnell, 83
SILive.com, August 5th

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Native Staten Islander Albert T. (Al) O'Donnell, 83, a bestselling author and sports handicapping expert, retired Western Electric security executive and a former Olympics security director, died July 15 at his home in Arlington...Read more