Western Electric "Princess" telephone from 1970s, $1.

It's no secret that old telephones attract people like flies. The old wood Kellogg wall phones and the Western Electric "candlestick" phones can really get the collectors hopping. But many people are still unaware that telephones from as recent as the 1970's and 1980's are becoming quite desirable. I assume that the old Harvest Gold and Sky Blue motifs are back, and matching telephones from back then are becoming quite the accessories for color coordinating those retro rooms in the house.

Western Electric introduced the Princess telephone in 1959, stating that "It's little, it's lovely, it lights..." referring to the fact that the keypad and the transparent handset plungers actually lit up when the handset was lifted, and that a switch on the phone even allowed the light to stay on as a night light. Although the older princess phones were like this, the lighting function was eventually done away with due to cost cuts, and the later models don't light up at all.

How can you tell if a particular phone you're looking to buy is a light-up model or not? Well, I'm sure the collectors of these phones would be able to tell you from across the street, but for us non-specialists, there's a clue on the phone itself. On the bottom of the illuminated models, there's a small plastic plug that you can slip the edge of a coin into, give it 1/8th of a turn, and remove to reveal a little light bulb. If the phone lacks this plug, it's not an illuminated model.

And how do you test one of these phones to see if they actually work? If you have one with the newer modular type of plug that fits into a contemporary phone jack, just plug it in and call someone. Then have them call you back to make sure the bell works. That's really about all you can do. One of the fits this little phone gave its designers was its very small size, which prevented them from fitting everything inside the phone itself. This is why some of the really old (so old that you won't be able to test them with a modern phone jack) Princess phones actually had the bell mounted externally, on the wall. And the light was powered by a transformer that was plugged into a wall socket! So as you can see, if a particular Princess you're looking at is the older style non-modular variety, you're better off just selling it as-is and letting the buyer/collector deal with the particulars. No reason to set the drapes on fire just to test a silly telephone.

Years ago, I bought a bunch of Fiestaware (a very popular and highly collectable dinnerware) at a local auction. When I got home, I noticed that some of my pieces looked weird, as if they'd actually been spray painted in spots. Curious, I soaked a few pieces in paint remover and to my horror, big chunks of paint fell away, revealing them as the half-glazed factory rejects that they really were. Someone, somewhere had painted the "bald" spots with spray paint that matched the color of the glaze perfectly! Homer Laughlin, the maker of Fiestaware, normally sends their factory seconds to their outlet center, where they're sold as factory seconds. I'm not aware that they spray paint their seconds. I have no idea who painted these pieces, but I'd bet a collector of Fiestaware could tell me. But whoever did it certainly wasn't an amateur, because they did a perfect job matching the colors of the real glaze. And... why in the heck am I talking about pottery when we should be talking about telephones?

As you may know, the folks who make telephones start out with plastic that's the color they want their phones to be. Red plastic is used to make red phones, green plastic for green phones, etcetera. However... and this is important... I have seen telephones with painted handsets. That's right, I've seen handsets that started life as one color, and were painted another color to match the base. Why would this happen? I'm not positively sure, but it may occur at the factory when a particular color handset is in short supply. They paint a handset to match the base and they have a complete phone. What other reason could there be? Well, I'm sure a telephone collector out there could tell me why this happens, but it's only important for you to know that it happens. So, how can you tell a painted handset and why does it even matter?

Remember that a painted phone, like the painted Fiestaware I mentioned above, is essentially a "second" that's not worth as much as first quality merchandise. The customer who was issued a painted phone by the phone company neither knew, nor did they care, that they were getting one. Why should they? But today, that same phone that was once a worthless home fixture may now be a collectible that your eBay buyers will pay you very well for. And if you send these folks any painted handsets, you may end up taking them back.

One way to tell if a phone handset has been painted is to look at the writing that's imprinted onto the underside of the handset, as it rests on the cradle. This lettering, which is normally sharp and clear, becomes blurry and less defined when it's painted over. It's a little difficult to explain here, but you'll know just what I'm talking about when you see it. You can also unscrew the earpiece or mouthpiece and look inside for any areas that the painter missed, although it's normally hard to tell this way.

One other very important thing I should mention here is the confusion that often arises between the Princess telephone and a similar phone that Western Electric introduced back in 1965, called the Trimline. The Trimline was designed with the keypad in the handset, so that the user didn't have to actually have the phone with him to dial his calls. He could make all his call right from the handset, without having to go back to the phone to dial. Talk about convenience! Okay, I know it all sounds silly nowadays, but it was apparently the height of convenience back in the day!

The Princess and Trimline phones don't really look that much alike when they're side by side, but it's really easy to get that "little oval telephone" profile stuck in your mind, and then forget which is which when you see them in person. Just remember, the Princess buttons are on the phone itself and the Trimline buttons are on the handset. I guess the logical question here is, why bother knowing the difference? Well, if you check eBay, you'll see that Trimline phones sell for much less than Princess phones. What more reason do you need? Learn to tell them apart!

The moral of this whole story is that you shouldn't really worry too much about the agonizing particulars, like whether a phone lights up or has a bell inside it, etcetera. As long as it's a Princess phone in good physical shape, it hasn't had any paint work done, and you can get it for a few dollars, I say get it and list it. Just take good photos and be ready to answer any questions your bidders ask! This phone, a modern model that plugs into any modular phone jack, sold on eBay for $51.

Photo of vintage 1970s Western Electric Princess telephone