Carl Zeiss Binoculars and Party Line Telephones

My aunt, with binoculars, 1939

My aunt, with binoculars, 1939

The house of my rich aunt and uncle was in Delanco, New Jersey, on the Delaware River across from North Philadelphia, which was still rural back then. (They were the doctor and nurse who delivered me and whose names appear forever on my birth certificate.) Looking across the river, all we could see  were trees and a yacht club.  Visiting them was a treat, and I would run to their glassed-in porch facing the river as soon as we arrived. On an end table by the sofa was a heavy pair of Carl Zeiss binoculars that I held up to my eyes with both hands.  Binoculars were very expensive and were unusual to find in a household.  In the photo on the left, my aunt is holding them proudly.  I have a similar photo of my uncle standing in front of the same rock, holding the same binoculars.  I suspect they were taken on Virginia’s Skyline Drive. My uncle’s photo shows adjoining rocks arranged in a semicircle as in a scenic overlook.

Fast forward about 50 years. My uncle had died, and then my aunt. The executor of her estate had brought in an appraiser who put a value on everything remaining. There I saw the binoculars for only $10. Of course, I bought them and still treasure them.

One eye cup was missing.  When I called the Carl Zeiss company, the spokesman explained a replacement was unavailable because the plant was in East Germany.  I turned an approximate one of wood on a lathe and painted it black.  I did a good job, and you would probably not notice the difference.

When I saw the binoculars at the sale, I almost did not recognize them. They were only 8 x 35 binoculars and far smaller than I remembered (The 35 refers to the diameter of the objective lens, the big one, in millimeters.  Thirty-five millimeters is only about 1 1/3 inch. When mounted, only one inch shows.) I realized they had not shrunk—I had grown. Several years later, I saw the same model in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry’s  famous display of a captured German WWII submarine, laid out on the charting table as if they had just been used by the commander. Achtung! Konvoi auf der port bow! (You can see why I failed a German course.)

Now fast forward to last week. At the bottom of the leather binocular case I found an old business card for Walter O. Roth, who represented the E. C. Walter Mantz company that repaired cameras, binoculars, and microscopes and were located in room 615 of the Jefferson Building at 1015 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. The phone number was WAlnut 2-2498.

It was the phone number that got my attention.  Our phone number at the East Lansdowne house where I grew up was MAdison-something with the same pattern. The telephone exchanges had names, and ours went through the Madison Exchange.

(A telephone exchange was where your call was switched to another exchange that had the number you were calling, usually in a large building.  When making a call, the connection went from your house to your exchange, then to the exchange you were calling, then to the specific line leading to the house you wanted.  After all of that, the line you were calling could be busy or no one answered.  A switchboard operator was required at each exchange.  No wonder phone calls were so expensive.)

I would love to find our old number somewhere on the Internet, but it is not yet there. (The Library of Congress is working on it.) I remember it was a party line and our rings were distinctive. Conversations would stop mid-sentence as we listened if it was our ring or theirs. (Ours was ring, ring, pause, ring, ring, pause.)

When we picked up to make a call, we would sometimes hear them talking, but not often, and we would quietly hang up. We had no idea who they were, but we were lucky to be paired with another household that did not talk much. If we had an emergency, all we could do was politely ask the other party to get off the line for a few minutes. They did not have to. The telephone was not yet thought of as an important link to emergency services, and it would not have occurred to us to use it for that, anyway. More likely, we would run next door for a neighbor’s help.

(When we were first married in 1960, I signed up for a cheaper party line, figuring, correctly, that no one had a party line anymore, and we would be given a line all to ourselves. We had that line for many years.)

I could not even find my old phone number in my baby book, which has all sorts of other trivial information. Phone numbers were just not that important.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
This entry was posted in History, Lansdowne and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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