Communication Devices in the 1950s: How Did People Communicate Before Cell Phones?

Updated on February 10, 2020
Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul spent the 1950s living in a suburb of Milwaukee and also on a small dairy farm in southeastern Wisconsin.

Source

1950s Communication Devices

Imagine a life with no cell phone, email, Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. I experienced this life growing up in the United States in the 1950s.

Up until 1957 when my family got its first telephone, most people relied on newspapers, mail, radio, television, and movies for their information. Some received personal messages by telegram, and a lot of information was posted on bulletin boards in stores, post offices, banks, community halls, libraries, and churches.

In this article, I recall each of the major communication devices used in the 1950s, including

  • the postal service,
  • newspapers,
  • billboards,
  • telephones,
  • radio,
  • television,
  • movies, and
  • telegrams

and share how those modes of communication made life different from today.

Postmarked: The post office would always put an ink mark over the postage stamp to show when the mail was processed. In 1950, it cost 3 cents to send a letter first class.
Postmarked: The post office would always put an ink mark over the postage stamp to show when the mail was processed. In 1950, it cost 3 cents to send a letter first class. | Source

Mail

Before the advent of the Internet, "snail mail" was a primary mode of communication. At the start of 1950, you'd pay 3 cents to send a letter first class and 6 cents to mail it by air. If you wrote the address illegibly or wrong, the post office would do its best to correct the mistake for you (a service called "directory service"). You could drop mail in a postal collection box that was picked up every day (including Sunday), and mail was delivered to your house twice a day.

My Experience in the 1950s:

After dad and mom moved to a rented farm in March 1954, our mail wasn't delivered to a mailbox near our property. Instead, mom had to walk to a small church a half-mile away to collect our mail.

When the mail finally started to be delivered to our private mailbox in July of 1954, we still had to walk about 300 feet down a hill to a small road where the mailbox was situated.

I remember receiving a lot of mail from mom's relatives in Marshfield, Wisconsin, about 200 miles away. Every December, our box would be full of Christmas cards and letters with all of the news from the year. It would usually take three days for a letter to get to us outside of Mukwonago from Marshfield.

In high school in 1959, I must have had between five and ten penpal girls in the summer. Back then, there were no online social media sites where you could establish a friendship with a click of the mouse.

Countryside Mailboxes: The "In Box" of the 1950s
Countryside Mailboxes: The "In Box" of the 1950s | Source

Newspapers

In the 1950s, although radio and television were becoming even more powerful sources of information, most people got their news via newspapers. Big city and local village and town newspapers kept us up-to-date on political, consumer, school, sports, and local, state, national, and international happenings.

My Experience in the 1950s:

We subscribed to the Milwaukee Journal and it was delivered to our mailbox every day.

The big Sunday paper was the most welcome and anticipated because it had multi-page sections for all categories of news. I can still remember dad, mom, and I fight for the colorful comic strips and sports section.

Our local paper, the Mukwonago Chief, was delivered once a week. It had mainly social news about the village of Mukwonago. Dad liked to read it for farming news and to see if there were any auctions being advertised.

Billboards and Other Posted Notices

In addition to the advertising found in newspapers, posted notices were used very often for the dissemination of not only advertising but also for notification of community events. These posted notices could be found in the village and town grocery stores, post offices, schools, churches, and community halls.

My Experience in the 1950s:

Dad had a notice advertising his farm auction posted in all of the hardware and feed stores in our immediate vicinity.

After moving to a farm near Honey Creek in 1957, we learned about a fourth of July community picnic by reading a posted notice in our nearby grocery store.

In the 1950s, people would get the word out on public bulletin boards.
In the 1950s, people would get the word out on public bulletin boards. | Source

Telephone

In the 1950s, only 62% of US households had telephones. Not only that, but those phones had rotary dials, which means that if you dialed 0 (the last number on the dial which summoned a human operator), it took an absurd amount time and effort...by today's standards. In 1951, for the first time, direct distance dialing (DDD) enabled callers to dial any other phone in the US without using a human operator for assistance.

My Experience in the 1950s:

Up until 1954, I cannot remember dad and mom having a telephone when we lived in the city. After moving to a farm in the countryside, my family was still without phone service until we bought a farm in March 1957.

In 1957, our first telephone—leased from a telephone company—was big, black, and very heavy. It was hooked up to telephone wires on the road.

Up until 1960, we had a party line where it was necessary first to make sure that no other party was on the line before rotary dialing "0" for the operator. We would tell her the number we wanted to call and then she would connect our call to a switchboard where she worked. When we were on a party line, there was always the chance that a neighbor was listening in on our calls.

Around 1960, we were off a party line and able to direct-dial local numbers. Long-distance calls, however, had to go through an operator.

What Were Telephones Like in the 1950s?

  • Telephones were big, black, and very heavy. They all had rotary dials.
  • Calls were often made with the assistance of a human operator.
  • The phones were physically connected (by wires) to the telephone poles outside, which connected physically to the telephone company.
  • The existence of operators, party lines, and other obsolete technologies meant that we could not assume that our conversations were private.
  • Unlike today, the quality of many calls was fair to poor. Static on the line was a frequent problem.
  • Back in the 1950s, there was no satellite communication. Overseas calls went by way of an undersea cable. It was necessary to book long-distance and international calls. Sometimes you would have to wait an hour for these calls to be connected.

In the 1950s, phones were mostly big, black, heavy things with rotary dials.
In the 1950s, phones were mostly big, black, heavy things with rotary dials. | Source

Radio

Up until the mid-1950s, radio was the most popular way to receive news and entertainment, other than newspapers.

My Experience in the 1950s:

The first radio that I remember, in the early 1950s, was part of an entertainment console, one unit of furniture which also held a 12" black-and-white television and a small phonograph.

I can still remember hearing updates about the Korean War in the early 50s and listening to the Lone Ranger every evening.

After dad started farming in 1954, we bought a medium-sized tube radio and put it in the barn. Our cows seemed to like it and I always had the radio tuned to a popular music and sports station in the late 1950s.

Around 1957, I had my first transistor radio and could carry and play it wherever I went on the farm. I remember listening to St. Louis Cardinal baseball games on KMOX in the evenings.

Although we did have a small television, I recall listening to the radio more than watching TV up until approximately 1957. We only received AM stations during those days.

1950s-Style Radio
1950s-Style Radio | Source

Television

In 1950, just under 20% of US homes had a TV set, but by 1960, there were 52 million homes with TVs—almost 90% of all US households.

My Experience in the 1950s:

Our first television was black-and-white and only had a 12" screen. Therefore, it was always a treat visiting my uncle and being able to watch his heavy black-and-white TV with a 30" screen.

Unlike today, there were only a handful of broadcasting channels to watch. In the 1950s, I don't remember seeing any portable televisions.

After moving to the farm in 1954, I always watched Superman and the Mickey Mouse Club after school. In 1956, my parents bought a bigger 21" screen and I can recall them watching the Democrat Party Convention in August.

By the late 1950s, television was giving us more local, national, international, sports, and weather news than the radio.

1950s-Style Television
1950s-Style Television | Source

Movies

During the early 1950s, a five-minute newsreel would usually precede all movies in theaters. Most of the news seemed to dwell on the Korean War and the aftermath of World War II. You could not rent or buy DVD movies like today but the price to see a movie was cheap.

My Experience in the 1950s:

The Paradise Theater was right up the street where we lived in West Allis.

In the 1950s, newsreels and other public service announcements were often shown before the movie.
In the 1950s, newsreels and other public service announcements were often shown before the movie. | Source

Telegram

A telegram was still an important communication device in the 1950s. This was mainly because many people did not have a home phone. Messages were sent by Western Union and then hand-delivered to recipients.

My Experience in the 1950s:

I can remember sending a telegram in Taiwan in February 1974 after my son was born. At that time both my wife's relatives and I did not have personal phones.

In the 50s, if you or the person you wanted to reach did not have a phone, you'd send a telegram.
In the 50s, if you or the person you wanted to reach did not have a phone, you'd send a telegram. | Source

Summary

Many young people today don't realize how rapidly communication devices have improved since the middle of the last century. I am sure most people would be lost today without GPS, smartphones, email, and access to social media like Facebook, and Twitter...things I could only fantasize about when I was a young boy in the 1950s.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

  • What came before the fax/fax machine?

    The telegraph machine and telegrams came before the first fax and fax machine.

© 2018 Paul Richard Kuehn

Comments

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    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      2 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thanks for commenting. I thought the devices were cool, too, back in the 1950's.

    • profile image

      coner reela 

      2 months ago

      wow so cool

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      4 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Caroline, I enjoyed reading your stories and they brought back more memories for me. Thank you very much for commenting!

    • profile image

      Caroline60 

      4 months ago

      What a memory sparking article! I grew up in a teeny town in Iowa with a population of 102. We had party lines. Whenever I babysat I had to ask how many and what length the rings were so that if the phone rang, I knew whether to answer or not. I remember my dad trying to make a call several times with no luck. He would listen a few minutes, then tell me to run to the lumber yard because Sara had left the phone off the hook, or down to Richard's bar for the same reason. Our first tv was a 12 inch Admiral.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      4 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      I listened to my transistor a lot in the late 50s. Music and baseball games were my favorite programs. Thanks for commenting!

    • profile image

      Thomas 

      4 months ago

      I often carry a smart phone in my shirt pocket, listening to "talk radio". It sure is a throw back to the 50's and 60's listening to my transistor radio.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      4 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      I am pleased you liked my article, Jerry!

    • profile image

      Jerry V Di Trolio 

      4 months ago

      Great Website very in informative!

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      4 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thank you very much for your great supportive comment. I miss the grand old days and I am thrilled you like my article!

    • profile image

      S K Das 

      4 months ago

      Great reading and many thanks for taking me to my childhood days and nostalgic journey. Very true description of various communication channels available in those times . But I must confess those were hard but thrilling days to be able to communicate to your loved and dear ones as compared to present day's easy access to Internet and smart phones. Thanks again for taking me to those grand old days.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      4 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thank you very much for your interesting stories. Those were the good old days. Thanks for commenting.

    • profile image

      WinDog 

      4 months ago

      Yeah man, it’s hard to believe that I look back on these times with nothing but nostalgia. I’ve become my father. I also remember coming across short story booklets, and discovering in the back pages girls my age looking for a pen pal. Oh boy could I could conjure up a looker, even at 12. I would write a long introduction, being absolutely sure that this 12 year old girl in Idaho, or Syracuse, or even London, England looked exactly like Laurie Partridge, and longed to meet a skinny Chicago kid with mild acne. I also remember my first attempt at communicating without a telephone ... Mark was my friend that lived in the house next door, and after reading a cartoon kids idea in the morning Tribune, he and I poked a single hole into the bottom of two tin cans, and fed a wire through each hole. We then stretched the wire from my bedroom window to his, shut the windows and spoke to each other through the can openings. Did it work? Not really, so we just opened the windows and talked, since they were only 12 feet apart.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      4 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thank you very much for your comments, Zafar. I am happy you found my article informative.

    • profile image

      Zafar A. Khan 

      4 months ago

      How are you sir. I am Zafar from Karachi - Pakistan. Your article is quite informational. It reminds of my old passed days. All the things you mentioned is true as I have also gone through these phases. Thank you. Be blessed.... Zafar

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      4 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      I am very glad you found this article enjoyable. Yes, I certainly remember all of the old vacuum tubes in TVs and radios.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      4 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Mark.

    • profile image

      Lynsey 

      4 months ago

      Fun article that reminded me of all the 'tv parts' i.e. vacuum tubes that my grandfather (who was a tv repair man and built ham radios) had in the basement. It was like some weird sci-fi scene that a kid still in single digits could imagine all sorts of things. Thanks!

    • profile image

      Mark 

      4 months ago

      I grew up in rural Arkansas in the 70's, your story is similar to mine. I know that's not a question so I hope you can forgive me.

      Update- I should have kept reading, I would have found the comment section. Sorry about that. I did enjoy the article.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      5 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      I am pleased that this article helped you remember your olden days.

    • profile image

      Kulkarni 

      5 months ago

      Remberered my oldendays.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      5 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thank you very much for your comments, Randy.

    • profile image

      Randy j 

      5 months ago

      We had good comm.tv and radio in early 1960...newspapers daily.nbc news.and old rotary.telephones..still good..not like 1930..we survived well.r

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      10 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      I am very happy that this article helped you with your homework.

    • profile image

      chloe 

      10 months ago

      thanks to you i can actully get my homework done early

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      17 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      I am happy this article helped you with your homework.

    • profile image

      Eskata Mastachen 

      17 months ago

      Thanks for this! I needed it for my homework! ;)

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      2 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thank you for reading and commenting. When I was young, I dreamed of video calls. Now they are so common and useful.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      So much has changed and these bring back memories. The old techniques and how people spent their days. Interesting and a great title to think of such times.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      2 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thank you for your comment, Larry.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      2 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Peggy, I am happy to know that you can identify with my memories. Yes, I remember watching Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, too. Do you remember Buster Brown on Saturday mornings?

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Interesting how the world changes and stays the same.

      Great read!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      This surely brings me back to those good old days! I well remember the party line although it was only my parents that used the telephone back at that time. If there was an emergency people would simply break into any conversation and then the operator would direct the much needed call to where it needed to go. Of course everyone else on the line would know of it.

      My some of my favorite shows back then were the Mickey Mouse Club, Rin Tin Tin, The Lone Ranger, Lassie and others. Thanks for the memories!

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