Text Messaging in the 1940’s

In “Anecdotal Tales”, stories will be told. Some will be fun, some will not. Some will be great, some will be less so. Some stories are true, some are merely possible. This is one of them.

Texting in the 1940’s

As a teenager you are at the last stage in your life when you will be happy to hear that the phone is for you.” -Fran Lebowitz

Lionel couldn’t believe that Victoria had said yes.  He had dreamed of talking to her ever since they had shared a class in comparative literature together.  And today, when he had asked if they could split a shake, she had said yes.  Lionel was elated.  He had worked up all of his courage just to talk to her.  He didn’t have any left when it came to actually asking for her phone number.  Happily, Victoria had been nice enough to write down her number on a piece of paper, complete with little hearts to dot her i’s.

Now came the moment of truth.  His mother was hanging laundry out to dry in the yard and his dad was still at work.  He was sure that Victoria had to have completed her walk home by now.  Lionel fumbled with the piece of paper and looked at it.  Victoria had only folded it once, but as he had looked at it and held it with trembling hands Lionel had added many more creases.  The lovely handwriting, crafted by a rather keen gal, was still legible.  624 Walker Lane.  Lionel gulped and took the rotary phone in his hand.  Immediately, the operator’s voice came on the line.

“What number please?” the pleasantly professional voice asked.

“Uh…”, Lionel stammered.

“What number please?” she repeated.

“I… that is…”

“Sir, would you like to place a call?”

Lionel tried to communicate, but the words would not form in his mouth.  How was he supposed to talk to this wonderful girl if he couldn’t even say her number to a complete stranger?

“Sir, are you still there?”

Suddenly, Lionel had an idea.  “Actually, I was wonder if I could send a text message to Victoria at 624 Walker Lane.”

“Of course sir”, the operator replied.  “Just dial the message and I’ll read it back to you.”

Lionel nodded to the voice that couldn’t see him and focused on the numbered dial in front of him.  He tried translating what he wanted to say into turns of the phone.  “Dear” became one turn to the three, two turns to the three, one turn to the two, and two turns to the seven.  “Victoria” was even more work as he made three turns to the eight, three turns to the four, three turns to the two, a turn to the eight, three turns to the six, two turns to the seven, three turns to the four, and a turn to the two.  Lionel started to wonder how his fellow classmates could text so fast.  He had heard Stewie Johnson brag that he could text up to a hundred words a minute.  Lionel now realized what a feat that would be; assuming Stewie wasn’t full of bunk.  Stewie also claimed that he could run a mile in five minutes, so Lionel was inclined to doubting the speed with which he could dial.

Lionel heard the screen door swing open, followed by his mother’s footsteps.  He tried his best to dial faster.  Eventually, after much work and a rather sore finger, Lionel’s work was done.

“Would you like me to read the text back to you, sir?”

“Yes please”, the teen replied to the operator.

“’Dear Victoria.  Period.  You are just about the keenest girl in the school.  Period.  Thanks for thinking we could hang out.  Period.  I’d like to take you to the malt shoppe and buy you a burger and shake.  Period.  Maybe we could even go to the dance together?  Period.  You’re a real doll.  Period.  If you would reply to this text or ring me, that’d be swell.  Period.  Yours, Lionel.  Period.’  Is that the entire message, Sir?”

“I think so.”  Lionel was quite stunned that he hadn’t made any mistakes in his dialing.  He was rather proud at his first attempt at sending a text message.

“And the message is correct?  I made what I assumed were proper corrections with the message.  For example, I believe that you wished to ask her to the dance and not to France.  Is that correct, Sir?”

Not so terrific at dialing then, Lionel thought to himself.  “No, your corrections are fine.  Thanks for the help.”

“Anytime, Sir.  Now, you are currently looking at a charge of over five dollars.”

Lionel was speechless.

A period of a few moments passed until the operator’s voice came back over the phone.  “Sir, are you still there?”

“Yes”, Lionel replied meekly.  “I just think I misheard you.  Five dollars?”

“Yes sir.  Most of that is because you went over your family plan’s allowance of one hundred and sixty characters.  You are currently at about three hundred and twenty-five characters.  That would drop to two hundred and sixty-three if you took out the spaces.  Either way, you are well in the four to five dollar range for this service.  Might I suggest a telegram?”

Lionel started to contemplate the benefits of throwing a note in Victoria’s window when a man’s voice came on the phone.

“Hello?  Operator?”

“One minute sir, I’m assisting another customer”, the operator replied.

“What?  Is that true?”

“Yes Mr. Humphries”, Lionel timidly replied.

“Who is this?”  Mr. Humphries was clearly in a hurry.

“Lionel, sir.”

“From down the road?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well…”  A tone of irritation was quite audible in Mr. Humphries’ voice.  “See that you’re quick about it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m sure that your parents told you this is a party line.  We can’t have folks tying up this one connection when our neighbors have business to conduct.”

“No, sir”, Lionel confirmed.

“Well, all right then.  Good day.”  With that, an audible click was heard from Mr. Humphries resting his phone back on the cradle.  None of this had solved Lionel’s dilemma.  Five dollars was more than he made in a month.  He’d never be able to afford to send this message and pay for dinner for the two of them.

“Might I suggest trimming your message?  Then you would be within your plan’s terms.”

“Like what?”

“Well”, the operator started, her voice softening from professional to maternal.  “I think if the girl is getting a text message from you then she knows you like her.  You could probably ease up on the flattery and just get to the point.  I would recommend removing the line about her being the keenest girl in school.  Also, why not skip the line about the dance?  It would take pressure off of your getting a shake.  Those two lines alone would save you considerably.”

“Wowzers, you really think so?”

“I do”, the operator reassured.  “Also, you could probably remove the line about asking her to get back to you.  If she’s interested, she’ll return your call.  Or, if she’s creative, she’ll figure out a different way.  Either way, you probably don’t need to ask her to call you back.  She gave you her number, didn’t she?”

“How’d ya know?”  Lionel was bewildered at this woman’s wisdom.

“I was young once myself”, the operator assured.  “But if you were given her number then she probably wants to talk to you.”

“If you think it’ll be okay”, Lionel agreed.

Image“Well then sir”, she said with the seriousness back in her voice.  “I think I can fit that into your family’s maximum of one hundred and sixty characters.  The message currently reads, ‘Dear Victoria.  Thanks for thinking we could hang out.  I’d like to take you to the malt shoppe and buy you a burger and shake.  You’re a real doll.  Yours, Lionel.’  Is that acceptable to you?”

“If you think it’s all right.”

“I think it will be fine, sir.  Will there be anything else?”

“No, I mean… well, how does this all work?”

“It’s like a normal telephone call, sir.  We try to ring the person who is the recipient of the message.  If they answer, then I relay the message as I have it transcribed here.  If they do not answer, then I try again later.”

“Wouldn’t it be simpler if I just called her myself?”

“That’s what I would offer, sir.”


“Would you like to do that, sir?”

“I’d like to.  I mean, it makes the most sense.  The only thing is…”

“You’re afraid your voice will crack or you’ll stumble over your lines?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Understood, sir.  Shall I try it this time?  Then, when the two of you are face to face, you can try to regain your confidence in person?  Maybe when there is less pressure you’ll find the words?”

“Sure, if you think that works.”

“I think it will do for now.  But I might suggest taking a few breaths before your date with this girl.”

Lionel smiled.  “You’re a fantastic operator.”

“We try our best, sir.  Have a nice day.”

“You too”, Lionel said.  He placed the phone back on the cradle and saw his mother duck her head back into the kitchen.  Her attempt to eavesdrop unnoticed had been successful up until that last moment.  Lionel looked at the phone and shook his head.

Text messaging, Lionel thought to himself.  He considered the new craze and how all the kids seemed to rave about it.  Nah, it’ll never catch on.


About Cosand
He's a simple enough fellow. He likes movies, comics, radio shows from the 40's, and books. He likes to write and wishes his cat wouldn't shed on his laptop.

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