Picks and Pans Review: Once Upon a Telephone: An Illustrated Social History

UPDATED 10/10/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/10/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Ellen Stern and Emily Gwathmey

Inability to program a VCR, like claiming computer illiteracy, has become a badge of honor among those lagging behind in our frenetic electronic age. Out of such technophobia comes this loving look at the early days of the telephone in America, when phone exchanges began with romantic names like Trafalgar and Butterfield and turn-of-the-century decorators urged clients to hide their phones in the closet.

In addition to a breathless history of telecommunications—from 1876, when 29-year-old Alexander Graham Bell filed patent No. 174,465, to 1982, when the government broke up AT&T—this volume is loaded with lively phone facts. The book is also cluttered with shots from old movies like Bells Are Ringing and lots of quaint telephone artwork from the early 1900s, all intended to evoke, as we hurtle toward videophones and computerized grocery shopping, a more innocent era. "The instrument that once brought people together has spawned an industry that now keeps them apart," argues Stern, a former magazine writer, and Gwathmey, an author, and certainly their vision of a society awkwardly discovering itself through telephones is sweet and wistful. But unless you are one of those folks who desperately misses rotary dialing, you may find their nostalgia a bit forced. (Harcourt Brace, $27.95)

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