Landline Phones Find New Life With Nostalgic Fans
First came the rhinestone-encrusted rotary. Then the cherry-red lips. After that, the cheeseburger.
By last summer, Chanell Karr had amassed a collection of six landline phones. Her most recent, an orange Trimline originally made as a promotional item for the 1986 film “Pretty in Pink,” was purchased in June. Though she only has one phone — a more subdued VTech model — hooked up, all are in working order.
“During the pandemic I wanted to disconnect from all of the things that distract you on a smartphone,” said Ms. Karr, 30, who works in marketing and ticketing at a music venue near her home in Alexandria, Ky. “I just wanted to get back to the original analog ways of having a landline.”
Once a kitchen staple, bedside companion and plot device on sitcoms such as “Sex and the City” and “Seinfeld,” the landline phone has all but been replaced by its newer, smarter wireless counterpart.
In 2003, more than 90 percent of respondents to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they had an operational landline in their homes. As of June 2021, that number — which includes Internet-connected phones and those wired the old-fashioned way (via copper lines running from a home to a local junction box) — had dropped to just over 30 percent.
But like record players and VHS tapes, landline phones are being embraced by nostalgic fans who say their non-scrollable and non-strollable nature is an antidote to screen fatigue and over-multitasking. The crescent shape of many phones’ receivers, users say, is also a more natural, comfortable fit against a cheek than the planar body of a smartphone. And with a non-cordless device, one must commit more to the act of conversation; the phone call becomes more intentional.
In January, Emily Kennedy, a communications manager in the Canadian public service, started using an old Calamine-lotion-pink rotary phone from her father’s office as a way to detach from her work in social media.
Ironically, it was on Twitter where Ms. Kennedy got the idea. When Rachel Syme, a staff writer at The New Yorker, tweeted in January about a landline phone that she had hooked up via Bluetooth, Ms. Kennedy was one of many who replied saying that Ms. Syme had inspired them to set up one of their own.
“Having my old phone as an object in my house is an identity signal that I like a slower pace,” said Ms. Kennedy, 38, who lives in Ottawa, Ontario.
Like Ms. Syme and many other modern users of analog phones, Ms. Kennedy doesn’t have her landline copper wired — so it doesn’t have its own number — but uses a Bluetooth attachment to connect it to her smartphone’s cellular service. (In other words, when she’s connected, she can take a cellphone call on the landline.)
Matt Jennings has worked at Old Phone Works, a company in Kingston, Ontario, that refurbishes and sells landline phones, since 2011. Now its general manager, Mr. Jennings, 35, said that in the past two years, customers’ demand for candy-colored rotary phones from the 1950s and 1960s has skyrocketed.
“About a year and a half ago, it absolutely exploded,” Mr. Jennings said. “Over the past six or seven years, we might get one or two orders for them, and now it’s probably one of our primary sources of revenue.”
Of what has motivated the recent desire for landline phones, Mr. Jennings said, “It’s a return to basics.” He added, “You can’t really go anywhere with a corded phone, you’re basically stuck within a three-foot radius of the base. You can have a real conversation without being distracted.”
Rachel Lahbabi, 37, noticed a similar surge in interest after she started selling landline phones online through her Etsy store, Robert Joyce Vintage, in early 2021. By that October, they had become some of the most viewed products she offered, said Ms. Lahbabi, who lives in Charlotte, N.C.
“The ones I was putting up were just going so quickly,” she said. “I thought, ‘OK, people are clearly looking for this, so I should really focus on this trend.’”
Pink phones shaped like lips have been particularly popular among her customers, Ms. Lahbabi said, as well as models that are clear or neon. Also in demand: Garfield phones.
All of these styles, she added, “are probably similar to a phone they had when they were younger.”
Across Etsy, there was a 45 percent increase in searches for Y2K and ’90s phones and a 26 percent increase in searches for rotary phones in 2021 compared to 2020, said Dayna Isom Johnson, a trend expert at the company.
“Talking on a landline is kind of like going to see a movie in the theater, versus watching it at home where you have distractions,” said Nicole Wilson, 32, who has two rotary phones at her home in Manhattan: a pink Princess and another model that’s baby blue.
Ms. Wilson, a director of sales at Upfluence, an influencer marketing platform, also says that landline phones offer a reprieve from her screen-heavy work. She purchased her first phone in 2019 and started using it after watching a TikTok video that explained how to connect it to her cellphone using Bluetooth.
While many who have recently acquired landline phones are using them with newer technology, some prefer a more traditional approach.
Janelle Remlinger, 37, got a landline phone for her home in Plymouth, Mass., in December 2020, after a storm disrupted cellular service in her area. She wired it to her modem, but when Ms. Remlinger lost power for eight days during another storm in October, she began searching for a more reliable connection.
“I’m working on getting an authentic, real, old school landline piped in through the wires,” Ms. Remlinger said.
As appealing as landline phones may be, even their most ardent fans recognize it is basically impossible to use them exclusively.
Alex McConnell, 30, a personal banker at KeyBank in Fort Collins, Colo., has a Western Electric rotary phone wired to copper lines at his home. On Feb. 14, he did not celebrate Valentine’s Day, but the 146th anniversary of Alexander Graham Bell submitting the patent application for the telephone.
“I prepared a meal with ‘Bell’ peppers and ‘Graham’ crackers,” Mr. McConnell said. “Then I made a circular cake that I used blue icing to put the Bell logo on, and the original patent number for the telephone.”
His landline phone is not only more reliable than a cellphone, he said, but also encourages him to memorize friends’ phone numbers, which he considers a form of intimacy.
“Since I actually have to dial my friend’s phone numbers, I find it really does help me connect them to memory,” Mr. McConnell said.
But even he cannot avoid the call of modern life.
“My secret sorrow is that I do have a cellphone.”
All Consuming is a column about things we see — and want to buy right now.