What Can You Do With Thousands Of Vintage Telephones?

Telephones. We’ve got a few around the place, and some may remember all the weird and wonderful varieties produced over the years. But, vintage phone dealers [Ron and Mary Knappen] may have a few too many. With a large 41,000 sqft property, at least three farm buildings, and no fewer than 33 semi-trailers loaded to busting with racks of phones, the retiring couple have a job sorting it all out and finding someone passionate enough to take over this once-strong business.

Technology has moved on somewhat since 1971 when they got into the retro business, and there are only so many period dramas being produced that could make a dent in a collection of a thousand steel desk phones. Nobody seems interested in taking on their business, so they are concentrating on emptying that large property in order to sell it, but the fate of the crazy number of other storage locations seems uncertain. Perhaps, other than a few museums around the world purchasing a few, this collection really is likely heading to the recyclers.

So what can we do with a vintage phone in this modern era? Here’s a primer to get you started. How about going cellular? Or maybe just add them to your existing designer collection?

Thanks to [Jeremy] and Adafruit for the tip!

53 thoughts on “What Can You Do With Thousands Of Vintage Telephones?

  1. “So what can we do with a vintage phone in this modern era?”

    By god, save those 600 ohms speakers in the hand sets! 😔🙏
    Those are great for all kinds of experiments!
    I’ve used them as fine microphones on combination with a little pre-amps a multiple times.

    The rotary encoder is nice, too.. It can be interfaced to any serial interface.
    There’s a WinAmp plug-in that uses it too (playlist feature).

    1. Yea! And you can connect two of those 600 Ohm earpieces together with no other circuitry except copper wire, and talk to your little brother in the treehouse. The first intercom for our wannabe Secret Seven-like detective agency, with one office in the bedroom and the other in the treehouse. I think we had a light (which needed a battery) as well, to tell the other they needed to “pick up the intercom”.

  2. There is a demand for these phones but they are asking much more than these phone are worth. I am confident that all these phones would find a home if they sold them at the fire sale prices they need to to move them. This is just like the guy with a field full of rotting cars that “knows what he’s got”.

    1. I looked out of curiosity, hundreds of dollars each for even fairly mundane ones. It looks like pricing aimed at people who need a specific model(s) for whatever reason – props for films etc I guess. Ok if you want to sell a few a month but no chance of shifting thousands of them.

  3. some of us would likely be open to purchasing one or two, but as mentioned above I’m not paying retail or some value that’s insane. I have a wooden copy of a British phone booth that I would love to have a british style payphone to complete the look. You got one of those at the right price, I’m buying.

  4. I foresee a future where their inheritors sell the entire inventory for cents on the dollar, and we see a few years of old phones being used as cases and whatnot for hacker gadgets

  5. “What Can You Do With Thousands Of Vintage Telephones?”

    Make them all ring at the same time.
    If the owners haven’t done this yet there is something very wrong with them!

    1. Or they could found a small town and the corresponding telecommunications authority.
      All these phones could find a new home easily that way.

      I mean, there are so many weird people in that large land..
      A “vintage town” built like an amusement park wouldn’t be too strange.
      It wouldn’t be more strange than the “World’s Largest Ball of Twine”. ;)

  6. Tell me about weird things. As an American in Germany, I’d say you haven’t got much room to call other people weird.

    Weird things in Germany:

    1. Toilets with a shelf in the bowl so you can examine your stuff before flushing it.
    2. Bernd das Brot.
    3. Traumschiff Surprise – Periode 1.
    4. Das Schuh des Manitu.
    5. Weiswurst.
    6. Mett.
    7. Wine barrel hotels – sleep in an old wine barrel.
    8. Stolpersteine

    People who sit in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

    1. Ah… the famous german toilet bowl… saw that in Munchen inside a not very recent flat.

      I’ve been told it was a remain from the time when people used to eat mostly pig meat and they needed to check if there was tapeworm egges within the poo.

      1. I find it kinda both interesting and perplexing how you guys always seem to have such a fascination with foul language, butt jokes and excrements in general. That’s one thing that I have a hard time to understand.

        But okay, to answer the question, I always assume the the shelf is there to prevent “things” to splash into the water. If there wasn’t one, a water wall would bounce up to the user. Like as if a heavy rock was thrown into a lake.

        1. I guess the water in the UK is too lazy since brexit to bother splashing back… no, wait, it’s never been a problem here. :P

          It’s always amazing what we take for granted in our cultures. Like in the UK the absurd list of things which are dangerous to eat during pregnancy, but other countries consider fine.

      1. To be honest, we’re not all being happy about Berlin/proud of Berlin, either.
        It’s multicultural and has history, but it’s not necessarily the finest/prettiest place the country has to offer.
        Some of us don’t feel being properly represented by Berlin and do miss the times a little bit when Bonn was the capital, still. Silently, of course. You can’t say that in public.

        1. Yet, even in Berlin. After ‘closing down’ a bar (bars don’t close in Berlin) I dared to just walk across the street, ignoring a don’t walk sign as there were no cars for a half mile. I got yelled at. Then again after I crossed back.

          Rules crazy people. Explains all the whips, discipline, Cartman’s mom (‘okie dokie’) etc.

  7. Tell me about weird things. As an American in Germany, I’d say you haven’t got much room to call other people weird.

    Weird things in Germany:

    1. Toilets with a shelf in the bowl so you can examine your stuff before flushing it.
    2. Bernd das Brot.
    3. Traumschiff Surprise – Periode 1.
    4. Das Schuh des Manitu.
    5. Weiswurst.
    6. Mett.
    7. Wine barrel hotels – sleep in an old wine barrel.
    8. Stolpersteine

    People who sit in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

    1. You already got me with Bernd das Brot! 😂
      To be fair, he’s essentially a portrait of our inner self/our soul.
      We’re all a bit of Bernd in one way or another. To err is Brot. 🤣

      About the vintage town/amusement idea.. It wasn’t meant in a bad way, more like a funny poke.
      That idea came to mind because of Disney’s future home project of the 50s or 60s.

      It’s this one here, I believe :
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EPCOT_(concept)

      1. My introduction to Bernd das Brot was one episode broadcast on repeat overnight as a “taster”, but on an old UK satellite box that could still pick up some analogue Astra (European) transmissions. The fact that this episode was a Star Trek parody made it all the weirder for my peer group.

        What exactly were a giraffe, a rose-bush/cabbage and a lump of bread doing on the bridge of the Enterprise? Given that our German was maxed out at “ein phaser”, we had NO chance of working it out!

        1. “What exactly were a giraffe, a rose-bush/cabbage and a lump of bread doing on the bridge of the Enterprise? Given that our German was maxed out at “ein phaser”, we had NO chance of working it out!”

          Hi there. The other two characters are from the time when Bernd was part of the older show “Tolle Sachen” (Neat Things). They’re his friends so to say, but always cause him trouble.

          It’s a parody of a teleshopping show (the children channel is usually free of ads, which this parody builds upon; it claims to be the only sales show allowed on the channel.).

          The giraffe/sheep is a hyperactive stuntman/moderator. She loves to make things blow up. Often she has to save the day when the products go out of control. The bush is the ingenious inventor, an always happy/optimistic person, but his inventions often fail in a spectacular way.

          And then there’s poor Bernd, who ends up being the testing candidate for the products. They always use a draw drum machine for choosing a candidate each episode, but it’s always Bernd’s name who’s written on the lots (it’s sort of a running gag).
          Bernd only wants to be home, watching his wall (his woodchip wallpaper).

          That’s a very short explanation, it’s maybe not entirely correct or complete.

          The character of Bernd is that of a grumpy/depressed person at first, but there are signs that he’s not all that way. In the many episodes he shows subtle humor and irony.

          He even has sung a catchy song (Tanzt das Brot, Dance the bread).
          https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=lQ7gDjcTsQI

          There were special episodes, too.
          In one, he parodies “Dinner for One” (Dinner for Brot), a British TV sketch that Germans watch on Sylvester each year.
          https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=NkS4H5fLcq4

          The epiosdes shown at night are essentialy an animated test image. They’re harmless placeholders for the children’s channel and repeat over and over until the regular program starts. As the years passed by, it got a little cult following. People who can’t sleep do watch it. Rumors say that stoned people love watching it, too. ;)

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernd_das_Brot

          I hope that explains things a little bit. Good night. 🙂🌃

      1. My mistake. I had always been told that Weißwurst contains brain matter from pigs.

        I should have checked first. No pig brains (or other brains) in Weißwurst:
        https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wei%C3%9Fwurst

        Change “Weißwurst” to “Füllsel” in the list.
        According to Wikipedia, it’s what you use to stuff a sausage or a roast pig. Locally, it is made from the bits and pieces of what every is left over after butchering a hog. Scraps of whatever fell off the pig, mostly, but also a lot of pig blood. All that stuff is mixed with pieces of boiled potato and fried in a pan.

  8. There are lots of collectors out there who have spent thousands of dollars (or much more) on old gear they thought would be valuable as antique or retro gear. Ham radio is another example, and stuff that was bought and hoarded for years is now literally being given away by the heirs because nobody wants it. I’ve seen small organizations cropping up that help older hams dispose of their gear collections before they die so that their wives or children aren’t stuck with the task. A bit of internet searching will illustrate some pretty extreme examples of delusional collectors.

    Another factor that sometimes exists is valuation. People list old gear on asset sheets at inflated values and then literally cannot afford to sell it at actual market prices. I don’t know if that’s the case here with these phones, but I remember a Honeywell surplus outfit in Phoenix many years ago that was stuffed with parts and hardware they couldn’t sell because they carried it at unrealistic valuations and kept delaying the write down.

    1. Re: Ham gear. Yep. at hamfests it feels like pay by the pound, or even the vendor will pay *you* to take it if it is going to a good home. One dude was going to straight give me a wheel-around rack of vintage o-scope stuff, perfect working condition that probably came from NASA or something and cost $100k new (exaggeration but still). Because he was sick of putting it back in the truck.
      .
      I keep hoping machine tools is the same- one of these old guys must have a full shop somewhere that the widow can’t get rid of. I promise I’ll give it a good home. It is heavy, useless to the vast majority of society, but still “valuable” in that it cost a ton up front.
      .
      There is a youtube channel, Inheritance machining, where Grandpa left him an entire shop. To equip that out today from scratch, even buying new, would be about $100k I’m guessing, and I’ve looked

      1. That is starting to happen, I picked up hundreds worth of machine tools for seven quid because the guy just wanted to get rid. Now to sell seven pounds worth on eBay – and the rest is free!

    2. “Ham radio is another example, and stuff that was bought and hoarded for years is now literally being given away by the heirs because nobody wants it.”

      Oh, that’s sad. I just hope that classics from ham radio heyday (70s/80s) such as the Yaesu FT-101 or FT-221 will find a new home, at least. Plastic radios like the 817 are expendable, by comparison. Those Hammarlund and Telefunken aren’t exactly lovable, either.

      That being said, it’s not new that greedy hams and CBers buy/take radios from families of the deceased.

      As much as I love ham radio, I must admit there are always those greedy guys who value material possessions more than the fellow hams operating them.

      These figures often show up quickly at the families once a fellow ham (or CBer) barely is six feet under.

      I find this to be highly disrespectful, especially if the deceased was a really good soul.
      His legacy should be held in honor, not thrown away like on a yard sale.

      The people should spend a few thoughts on him rather, not his possessions (or think of her, but women are are).

      That’s something I often do address IRL and I don’t care if it makes me unpopular.
      I tell them that they’re vultures.

      Because, at heart the hobby isn’t about consumption or collecting diplomas (DXCC).
      It’s about learning/evolving, love for technology and social interaction and about making friends.

      PS: The XYLs aren’t any better.
      Too often, I saw how little they cared about their husband and his stuff.
      When the husband in question passed away, his “government” (wife) usually threw it all out (literally).

      Then, she moved in another house/apartment and bought a ticket for a trip, with say, a cruise ship.
      Yeah, that’s how you do it.
      After a ham passes away, life just starts.
      On a cruise ship or a world tour, it’s much easier to grieve.

      I would laugh about it, because it’s so unreal, if only it wouldn’t hurt so much in the stomach. 😟

  9. At those prices, not much except if you need a specific thing, or maybe sentiment is involved. Trouble is, old phones aren’t as popular or as unique as old cars, so I don’t think you can command the high prices that someone with the very last set of original hubcaps for a 1932 Hoosiewatsit could.

    For DIY and hacking purposes, it doesn’t matter so much what the exact model of device is, so long as it’s not way over market price. At some time or other I spent a few bucks on a payphone handset, and attaching thru a 3.5mm to a typical computer, I get roughly the expected “phone” sound, both directions. I can’t imagine I’d have done that if it wasn’t cheap; I’d probably just use a digital effect instead if I wanted to mess around.

    Seems like the kind of thing that needs a dedicated museum or something if it’s going to be much use past sitting in a warehouse forever. Unless it somehow turns out like vinyl and film cameras, of course…

  10. Old phones have become like old phone and power line glass insulators. They were very popular collectors items for a while then the market all but vanished, with only a very small number of die hard older people still looking for more.

  11. I acquired a couple of repair bits from PhoneCo in the ‘nineties, and a couple of things from (I think) the Chicago Old Telephone Company that they probably bought out. This was in that brief window after the breakup of Ma Bell (so suddenly no charges for extra extensions in the house) and the point a couple of decades later where landlines got to be a rarity. I took great pleasure as a youngster in having a 302 set in my room; now desk and wall telephones are about as useful as a room full of telegraph keys and sounders, and lag behind vintage television sets and radios which still receive *some* signals, although infomercials and other poor quality programming abound. Ham radio is largely relegated to a backup for preppers and some retirees, and as someone said the gear is often transferred by the pound. I picked up a sunburnt ivory 302 set a year ago out of an estate sale out of habit, but there is nothing to be done with it. :-/

  12. It’s a damn shame the phones are priced like that, as others have said. I mean sure, SOME of them are rare antiques, and should command a higher price than the others. But California prices on everything? On the border of Wisconsin and Minnesota? For things almost nobody wants?

    The double tragedy is that a) the majority of the equipment will be scrapped, and b) the couple won’t be able to retire off of whatever they get for the property OR the phones. I just hope someone can convince them to do something differently, e.g. have a professional put the entire lot on eBay, or have an auction house come in and sell it for them. That way, it’d all go to good homes, and the couple will get as much money as possible out of the items. Win-win in my book.

  13. Hypothetically, if these phones were offered up for zero, with the stipulation that every one had to be removed, it would be a $100,000 task. They need to be pack and trucked out, then either unpacked at the other end, or pay to store them for the next generation to deal with. The stark reality is that it’s a losing proposition to take these phones.

  14. I have a fantastic business idea! Listen up, entrepreneurs! We buy thousands of phones and install them in little enclosures, scattered around the country. So many people find that their battery’s suddenly dead, or their phone flies out the window while recording, etc., etc. They will NEED these phones!! No video of course, and a few other minor limitations which can easily be ignored.

    Rig a way for users to pay before using the phone. You could even hold contests; for example, to see how many people can be packed into one. Movie makers and TV moguls would pay to be allowed to include them as plot devices in video. Imagine a superhero who has a secret identity, and when he needs to change in public he uses one of YOUR boxes! The possibilities are infinite…and potentially tremendously profitable. You will clean up!

    I just need $8.5 million to start. To buy the phones, place options on building materials, scout out locations for these things….hmm……

    ….yes, things….hmmm….what to call them? “Phone enclosure” doesn’t sound right…..Hmmm………

    [PayPal is BR-549 ;-)]

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