By Paul Schrodt | July 5, 2018 1:43 p.m. ET | Original article here.
Once thought doomed, landline phones are answering the call of people who are sick of mobiles’ spotty service—and the constant pinging distractions of texts and alerts.
THE PIERCING RING of a home phone used to command respect. “That’s how I was raised: When the phone rings, you hop to it,” I heard my mom say recently as we chatted on my new landline phone. She finally got rid of her hard-wired phone because she couldn’t stop herself from answering it, even after it had primarily become a conduit for robotic telemarketing and fraud.
Despite its demotion to a means of harassment, though, the landline refuses to die. According to a 2017 U.S. government survey, about 44% of households still own traditional phones, down from 53% three years before—but still much higher than, say, the share of those buying vinyl records, another cultish throwback.
For many, the reason is pragmatic. Cell service is spotty in large, rural stretches of the country and even the hills of Los Angeles. Rocky elevation disrupts communication with cell towers, which are also often banned in environmentally protected areas. You can rely on a landline when the power is cut, or during an emergency like a hurricane that causes cell blackouts. And cellphones offer no real escape from harassment and distraction; we’re all being beckoned all the time, everywhere—if not by an actual voice on our cellphones, then by texts, emails, swipes on dating apps.
“I never thought I would be this person again,” said Pamela Carroll, 35, who added a landline a year ago after moving to the woods of New Hampshire. Forced to stand in certain parts of her apartment to get cell service, she now solely takes calls on her home phone. It’s a running joke among her friends, but she has no plans to give it up.
That’s because a landline happens to be better at its job. Consumer Reports found in 2013 that modern cordless phones provide sound quality superior to the best smartphones, with minimal interference. “I speak on the phone without distraction. I kind of vibe with it,” Ms. Carroll said, adding that she likes talking to family while cooking or folding laundry, the way she did as a teen in the ‘90s.
That nostalgia for the landline has sparked a niche industry. Oldphoneworks.com brings in nearly $40,000 a month refurbishing and selling vintage handsets to anyone looking for a throwback flourish (the set director who worked on “Stranger Things” is a regular customer). The once-ubiquitous Western Electric 302, conceived by celebrated designer Henry Dreyfuss, now fetches $450. His Princess phone design, a ’60s icon, costs a more reasonable $180.
Mr. Dreyfuss put a lot of thought into handset ergonomics, said Ellen Lupton, curator for Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Unlike a sleek yet slippery iPhone, his 500 series phone (nicknamed the “lumpy rectangle” in his office when it was first crafted in 1949), “wasn’t pretty, but it was designed to rest comfortably against the shoulder and to be a good match for a typical human head. The curly cord connecting the handset to the base enabled people a degree of motion without getting tangled.”
"Away from the pinging of my iPhone,
I remembered how pleasant calls can be."
Mr. Dreyfuss’s attention to detail is sadly lacking in most of today’s desk phones. A welcome exception: VTech’s Retro Phone ($50, http://vtechphones.com), which smartly marries historic and futuristic touches in an altogether useful package. The cordless handset sits atop its base like an old rotary—a nice design twist. Unlike most landline phones, it can also make and receive smartphone calls via Bluetooth. And it feels like a phone should, remaining comfortable long after you would’ve found an excuse to hang up a cell.
His iconic designs have also inspired the cool, streamlined aesthetic of new landline phones. Crosley’s Kettle Classic Desk Phone ($60, http://crosleyradio.com) nods a bit preciously to 1930s art deco style, but its chipper mechanical bell out-charms a digital ringtone. More functional is Crosley’s Wall Phone ($70), which can be mounted in a kitchen as a punchy visual statement—and a convenient way to chat while cooking while your smartphone is charging in the other room.
When I talked to mom, separated from the incessant pinging of my cell, I was reminded of how pleasant phone conversations can be. Her voice came through clearly—no weird echoes or drop-offs. We could actually hear each other, something that shouldn’t pass for a miracle. A half-hour in, I didn’t want the call to end.