The landline phone, a relic of a time when the voice was golden

“Hello? Wait, it will cut! “

They were at least five. Manue, Maureen, Sarah, Flo and Ingrid. Five regulars to whom I spent between thirty minutes and three hours on the daily telephone – after having already spent a good part of the day together, without worrying about my parents’ France Telecom bill. Before 2001, no unlimited plan and even less Snapchat. So we called each other.

Between 13 and 16 years old, I monopolized the family 04 to evoke in bulk the teachers, the parties where we would stick well even if it was Julie’s that we hated, the boys, the math option to drop , the narrowness of the universe, did Courtney kill Kurt ?, change the world, become a good person, skip classes (or not) … In short, life.

Twenty-a-few years later, thanks to the same tool and its technological advances (hello 5G), I can spend my life putting together playlists – and finally still listening to the same thing -, download forty films an hour, find a guy on an app ‘or sushi, learning to dismantle a bike, watch a Tamil black metal video and even, in all hypocrisy, congratulate Julie on Linkedin Julie the ex-babos promoted to commercial director at Airbnb. All at the same time. On the other hand, I only know one landline number, that of my parents. How did we get here?

The tool considered the least useful

Like 95% of French people according to the latest Crédoc digital barometer (2019), I own a cell phone. And I belong to the approximately 68% of the population who explore the Internet via their phone or the 62% who use instant messaging. While nearly one in two people now use applications to make calls, landlines are disappearing from homes. Only 40% of the population consider that it is “very useful or quite useful” (-9 points compared to 2017), which makes it, among various equipment analyzed by the institute, the communication tool considered ” less useful ”by the users questioned.

Thus, in view of the massive use of new technologies, the Orange network (formerly France Telecom) has been working since 2019 to dismantle its switched telephone network (PSTN), a historical network, that is to say the lines connected to the famous “T” sockets. which also disappear. This does not however prevent some enthusiasts from resisting.

Sébastien thus fell in love with an old landline telephone in 2011, during a flea market. Since then, he has not stopped spotting and repairing them, and sells them on Le Bon Coin or on his own site, The vintage telephone.

Are you a fan of the rotary telephone? | Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis via Unsplash

“I like this idea of ​​being able to reclaim objects from the past and from everyday life. For me, at 47, turning a dial [certains téléphones fixes étaient dotés d’un cadran qu’il fallait tourner pour composer un numéro, ndlr], it’s a return to childhood ”, says the one who claims to sell these machines from another time very regularly. Who are these followers? “There are those who are electrosensitive, those who want to consume more sensibly. More generally the aesthetic aspect pleases a lot, but also the idea of ​​taking a break, of taking the time to call and doing just that, especially in this period when moving around is less obvious ”, observes Sébastien, also employed in the private sector.

Refuge object, imaginary object

With his eye now seasoned, the Parisian scum flea markets and salons in search of rarities that sell for between 60 and 120 euros, or even more depending on the era and style. Mass-produced in the late 1970s, many black Bakelite phones still sleep in cellars and attics. “I think that for many, the landline is still something strong. It reassures people in the face of fear of the future, it is an object of refuge ”, suggests Sébastien.

The black bakelite phone, a classic. | Alexas_Fotos via Pixabay

But refuge from what exactly?

“The telephone is a total social fact, like the cell phone today. It is a unique technical instrument because it carries imagination, discourse and poetics ”, analyzes the historian Patrice Carré who participated in the elaboration of a MOOC of the Orange Foundation devoted to the history of the telephone. However, the French have long shunned this device.

To do what? The servants do the same job

In 1878, the telephone of the American Graham Bell (patent filed in 1876) made its small impact during the Universal Exhibition in France. French engineer Clément Ader seizes it and participates in the creation of the first private telephone companies. “At the time, the manufacture of a device required the work of several dozen workers, not to mention the cost of the lines. They were private, reserved for the richest of the population, and moreover operated on the model of the telegraph, point to point ”, recalls Patrice Carré.

In addition to the price, social use feeds reluctance. Why call each other to make an appointment when the servants are doing this job?

Clément Ader, however, perceives a real fortune in the making. To amaze the crowds, he designs his theatrical, allowing you to connect to the Paris Opera and listen to music live from home. “Already an idea of ​​entertainment accompanied the tool with the dimensions of joy, happiness, pleasure that it encompasses”, emphasizes Patrice Carré.

Clément Ader’s theatrophone. | via Wikimedia Commons

The telegraph, austere, functional and fast, does not allow so much poetry. But it is very extensive, covering the entire territory and allowing international connections. Nevertheless, a combination of economic and social events caused by the merger of two companies with very different cultures, the Post Office and the Telegraph – which will become the PTT – will promote the development of the telephone.

Year in and year out, the refractories gave in to the sirens of the Société générale des telephones in the 1880s. With the help of the State and the communities, it succeeded in establishing lines in large French cities. Reserved for economic elites, the telephone supports the industrial development of France. “We can see a real panther skin map, with wine-growing regions such as Bordeaux or Champagne equipped, as well as shopping and port towns and the major tourist regions such as the Côte d’Azur or Normandy”, relates Patrice Carré.

The magic board

At the turn of the interwar period and under American leadership, “The magic planchette” (as described Marcel Proust in his chronicles for Le Figaro) is developing in many wealthy households. In France, “The typical model in 1924 was PTT 24 black art deco style. It was the first rotary dial station with a little extra specific to the French style: the mother-in-law’s earpiece ”, Sébastien notes about this handset on the side which allowed a third party to listen to the conversation.

The device slowly intrudes into homes. In 1938 (a little less than 40 million inhabitants in France), there were 1 million connected to the voice transmission network. But, if large residences have their own telephone switchboard and the object sits on the desk of the master of the house, the object does not yet reach the middle and working classes.

“Most people were also a little afraid of it”, remark Patrice Carré citing In Search of Lost Time. Proust describes his servant Françoise and his reluctance to use the telephone:

“She found a way to run away when you wanted to teach her, like others when they were vaccinated. So the telephone was placed in my room, and, so that it did not disturb my parents, its ringing was replaced by a simple noise of a turnstile. “

Learn to speak

The technicality of the object and its often strident ringing frightening and disturbing. We must also relearn to speak. Patrice Carré explains how other codes of politeness, civility, diction emerge, the famous “Hello”, the smile that you do not see and the fact of taking news from the other. “The PTT had even published a small book at the time to make themselves understood better, to use certain words, numbers or letters well. Sometimes the links with the operators [les fameuses “demoiselles du téléphone”, ndlr] or with the interlocutor were bad. It is an instrument that changed voices and everyday life, but also intimacy. ”

Developed throughout the second half of the XXe century “A culture of interlocution to master in order to succeed during these acts of exchange whose rules change”, wrote in 2002 the sociologist Laurence Bardin About that.

Little by little, the fixed invades the houses under the gaze of mothers “Guarantors of the sociability of the household”, says researcher Corinne Martin from the University of Lorraine.

Catch-up plan

In 1974, representing a France ridiculed for its lack of telephone equipment (only one in seven French people have it at home), Valéry Giscard d’Estaing transforms this object into an essential accessory with his “Remedial plan”.

The telephone accompanies everyday life so well that literary, theatrical or cinematographic productions make it a character in its own right.

At the turn of the 2000s, however, the fixed line began to lose speed: the emergence of the mobile revolutionized daily teenage.

“The mobile phone offers new freedom to young people, exposes Corinne Martin who worked on the subject in the early 2000s. It is an incorporated, individualized object, receptacle of cognitive memory. And in November 2007, with the advent of the smartphone, we saw a new shift. ” That of the verb. Paradoxically, the more telephony is modernized, the less we talk to each other.

“We are witnessing the emergence of a double movement of return to written forms through electronic messages and, beyond the fascination for the novelty of the mobile phone, to uses of distance and multimediation”, already emphasized researcher Laurence Bardin twenty years ago.

Thus, the hated untimely and intrusive ringing was replaced by an object mobilizing us 24 hours a day.

The anguish of talking to each other

Basile grew up in this France adept of the smartphone. He is not “anguish” at the idea of ​​calling but just “Little used”. “I rather call to set up appointments, otherwise I mainly use apps to communicate, especially in the form of messages”, testifies this 19-year-old student who describes himself as not very talkative but more prompt “To see people in real life when it is important”.

Others would express a form of anguish at the idea of ​​talking on the phone, and even a form of hostage taking, reported L’Express in 2017 and more recently a long report from Le Monde Campus devoted to the subject. As at the turn of the XIXe century, courses appear to learn to speak on the telephone.

For Lucas Gallé, co-founder of the company La Vie Mobile in the Cotentin (department of Manche), the main victims of this phenomenon are the elderly: “Many are not used to cellphones and their apps, and the landline remains their only means of communication.” Noting a cultural and technical gap, aggravated in these times of health crisis, the young man decides to offer a “fixed smartphone” whose subscription also includes configuration and maintenance. He thus installs laptops reconfigured with the WhatsApp application, which allows both video and telephone use without “Changing habits too much” of its customers, mainly elderly people over 80 years old. The entrepreneur, who first did a test with his own grandmother, says he is now receiving requests from all over France in the face of isolation.

Because, alas, as Nino Ferrer sang in 1967, “Gaston there is the telefon which sounds and there is never anybody who answers it … Well that’s important”.

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