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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Montana native left legacy in Berks
Reading Eagle, July 3rd

After the war, the Woodwards made their home in Berks County, where Richard was transferred to a new Western Electric plant in Laureldale in 1952. They lived with their three children - Ley, Woodward and their son, Mark - in Lincoln Park before moving...Read more

Museum tells story of state's oil and gas industry
Charleston Gazette, July 2nd

Artifacts inside the exhibit include a factory lab, various hardhats, hot plate stirrers and pouches of pellets manufactured inside the plant. Paul Hoblitzell, president of the museum, was employed by Borg Warner for 13 years. “I was in central...Read more

Parkersburg museum pays tribute to Borg Warner chemicals
Charleston Daily Mail, July 2nd

This summer, the Oil and Gas Museum debuted an exhibit on an additional prominent Parkersburg industry: cycolac production. The Borg Warner Chemicals plant, known for producing an acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic, employed 4,000...Read more

Keeping Your Transmitting Plant Up to Par
TV Technology, July 2nd

It had a receptionist, toilet facilities for both sexes and a large circular elevated catwalk for a 360-degree view of the giant Western Electric 50 kW transmitter located down below. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately as the “bean counters” view...Read more

Darrel Wayne Stonebraker
Muncie Star Press, June 30th

He retired from Western Electric/AT&T as an internal auditor. Darrel was described by many as a "good man" who was caring, dedicated and had a great sense of humor. He was a fifty-eight year Mason belonging to the Whitney Lodge #229, F&A.M., in New ...Read more

C is for Colstrip: Where power plants bring a hive of activity
The Missoulian, June 29th

Western Energy Company workers Matt and Sabrina Neiman take their three children, Pierce, 3, Allan, 8 months, and Paige, 6, on a fishing outing to Castle Rock Lake in Colstrip. The man-made lake draws water from the Yellowstone River 30-miles North ...Read more

ACC accepts land donation for horticulture program
Burlington Times News, June 25th

Its office is on Graham-Hopedale Road near South Church Street, not far from the former Western Electric plant, where there is not much space to grow plants. Snyder said he would spend a lot of the fall planning. While the Covingtons' cattle will be on...Read more

Vet who piloted bomber in WWII dies
Chicago Daily Herald, June 8th

After the war, Horan returned to Western Electric until he retired from the firm's Schaumburg facility in 1981. Horan was preceded in death by his wife, Irene, in 2012. He is survived by his sister-in-law, Elsie Swiatecki; niece, Susan (Michael) Pitt...Read more