I Give Up, What's a Rotary Dial Telephone?

Rotary dial telephone, circa 1954
My Dagnabbit Contest is over and winners were notified. Thanks to everyone who entered. Please continue to leave your comments regarding missed memories.

Time magazine recently published "Top 10 Things Today’s Kids Will Never Experience". That sent me thinking.

When I was growing up in Marshall, Missouri my grandmother and her lifelong friend talked every day using an operator-assisted telephone. A real person connected them. I was with my grandmother in the early 1950s just after her new rotary dial phone was installed. The first person she dialed was her friend. Afterwards, my grandmother said, “If I hadn’t gotten her I never would have used that thing again.”

A bathtub for your thoughts
Author, poet, and photographer Marilyn Smith volunteers to guide elementary school children through historic Wommack Mill, the oldest building in Fair Grove, Missouri. Corn and oats were ground into animal feed, grain flour, and cornmeal at the mill from 1883-1969.

On one tour, a girl pointed to an old-fashioned metal bathtub with handles on the ends hanging on a wall and asked, “What is that?”

"I explained how water was drawn from a well and heated on a stove and that all the family members took a bath in the same water, often on Saturday night," Marilyn said.

"But what if someone went, you know?" the girl said.

"I told her they continued taking their baths. Her facial expression revealed she felt the whole situation was yucky.”

Consider these
My grandparents grew up when horse-drawn buggies were dominant and reliable transportation. My parents grew up with automobiles. My brothers and I grew up with airplanes. My children grew up with space travel. My grandchildren are growing up with virtual travel via handheld electronic devices.

In ninth grade I was the only boy in my typewriting class.

When I met my wife-to-be she was a long-distance telephone operator who talked with callers. (Imagine that.)

I learned to drive in a 1954 Chevrolet with three-speed manual transmission. The shift lever was on the steering column.

As a youngster I sat with my grandparents in their car on the public square. We watched people walk by as we ate Dairy Queen soft serve. (Now that’s entertainment.)

My first experience with color television was a black-and-white fitted with a glass cover that had one row each of red, yellow, and blue tinting.

We had an icebox in our kitchen when I was growing up. Mother put a card with a large black 5 or 10 printed on it outside the kitchen door so the delivery man knew how many pounds of ice to leave.

And these
In 2009, Wired.com listed "100 Things Your Kids May Never Know About" in the areas of audio-visual entertainment, computers and video gaming, the Internet, and "everything else".

Since 1998, Beloit College has issued an annual Mindset List to show a view of the world from the adolescent consciousness. College officials Tom McBride and Ron Nief wrote a book, The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Text Messages, covering the last 130 years.

Indiana’s Department of Education has made teaching cursive optional and encourages schools to focus on keyboarding (typewriting to us old fogies).

Controversy is ongoing whether elementary school children should learn multiplication tables (I learned ‘em, dagnabbit) or use calculators.

My grandchildren will never know the simplicity of a manual typewriter and the magic of carbon paper, the pleasure of owning a collection of 45-rpm records and the joy of playing them, or the enduring object lessons and zaniness of Howdy Doody, Buffalo Bob, and Clarabell the Clown.

Photo courtesy ProhibitOnions.

What will your children or grandchildren never experience? 

Win a free book. Dorsey Levell and I will give an autographed copy of our Dumb Luck or Divine Guidance to the first five persons who correctly identify the actor who often used dagnabbit in his movie roles. Email your answer to waynegroner@yourmemoriesyourbook.com. I will contact the winners for their postal addresses and permission to post their names on my blog.


  1. What a fun blog post! Just a couple of days ago, guests around our dinner table were talking about escapades with old-fashioned manual typewriters, and how electric typewriters changed the experience so much. And now look how far we've come! Such details are rich details to include in our memoirs. Thanks for the fun read.

    Linda (p.s. I cannot remember who used "dagnabbit" ..... might have to get back to you.)

  2. Thanks, Linda. I remember feeling as though I had been transported far into the future when the IBM Selectric typewriters came out. Whatta concept!

  3. "Gabby" Hayes is a good guess!
    I spent a good part of my life building Selectric typewriters and then repairing them.

  4. Those round typing balls were state-of-the-art technology, John. Some of the machines may still be in use.

  5. I read your blog and wanted to answer the question you posed about who used the word, "dagnabbit." If I remember correctly, it was an actor, named Walter Brennan. He played the character of a crusty old codger in western movies.

    I grew up in the small town of Independence, Missouri. I remember farm families coming into town on Saturday afternoons. The men came to get their hair cut at our one and only barber shop, with its wooden statue of an indian chief with arms crossed, and standing next to the door of the shop. The men would spend most of their time sitting on the hood of their trucks, talking to each other while their wives, in hair curlers, shopped at the dime store. While attending high school, I worked Saturdays at the dime store selling records. The farmers loved their country music. The young farm boys hung out at the corner drug store, laughing and whistling at cute girls that walked by. The first time I remember hearing this minced oath was from those farmers.

  6. Great story, Mary. I can see it happening like a scene in a movie.

  7. Oh my, it took me two reads to get it about the bathtub with the handles hanging on the wall. In truth, I never saw one of those, though I have friends who grew up using them.

    What fun that you wrote about these things. I wrote a similar post a few days earlier, and there is zero overlap. There's no shortage of nostalgia items!

  8. Sharon, would you believe my family used one of those tubs about the time I became a teenager? We lived out in the country, had no running water, and filled the tub twice a week when we went to town. And that's the truth.

  9. Wayne, thanks for sharing your great information. I teach memoir writing in Bakersfield, CA, and in Coos Bay, OR, and am always looking for new ideas and insights. I will be returning soon. Cheers,
    Annis Cassells, www.thedaymaker.blogspot.com

  10. Good to hear from you, Annis, and glad to have you aboard.

  11. Bathtub, continued ...

    My great-grandfather lived in a tiny four-square adobe house on a forty-acre apple orchard in Farmington, New Mexico for a short time. When he predictably lost interest in farming, my grandfather bought the place from him. I visited a few times before amenities were installed. I suspect Grandad limited his bathing to visits with his children though he may have made use of the irrigation ditch on occasion. He always smelled like stale cigars and that could have masked other odors. We never visited long enough to need a bath while there, and I don't recall seeing a tub.

    I do recall the kerosene lamps, wood stove for cooking, bucket in the well, and NASTY smelling outhouse. Seems like there was a hand pump in the sink, but that might have been added later. My grandparents modernized the place before they moved in to live for several years after my grandfather retired. He bought it from Grandad for $800 and sold it about twenty five years later for a pile of money, keeping the gas rights which supported my grandmother in fine style for another thirty years. The purchaser had no interest in farming. They mined all the gravel underneath and abandoned the property, leaving a pit maybe forty feet deep and larger than a dozen football fields.

    For all I know, my only remaining Uncle may still be collecting on those gas rights.

  12. The picture of the rotary dial phone set me thinkin'. Why is the cord coiled? NOPE! Lightning! Yea, LIGHTNING! Lightning would go through the straight cord and BANG into the hand set. Lightning WILL NOT go through a coil, (if it's big enough)so they coiled the cord. I was a Radio & TV engineer for 35 years, the feed line to an AM tower is small water pipe (1/8" to 1/2"), between where this pipe leaves the building (at the glass bowl insulator - feed through) and the tower, is a 6" to 12 " coil in it, that STOPS lightning right there. My Grandfather worked for Ma Bell in the 50's and 60's and that is where I learned that trick.

  13. Dear Anonymous;

    I've been in the phone business since 1977, and I think your explanation is baloney. Handset cords are coiled to avoid having a long twisted mess. A high voltage surge from lightning goes through the copper wire, and doesn't "care" if the copper is in a coil or straight.