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After Fifty Years, Soft Plastic Lives

As December rapidly brings 2009 to an end, it is time to reflect.  This past summer the media made mention of  significant events that had taken place in our nation’s past.  July 2009 marked the fortieth anniversary of both the Apollo 11 moon landing and the Woodstock Rock Festival.  Fifty years ago this year Mattel’s Barbie Doll made it’s first appearance while Alaska and Hawaii became our 49th and 50th States, respectively.  Much less notable was the end of production for Western Electric’s  “soft plastic” telephones. Tenite, or “soft plastic” was manufactured by the Eastman Kodak Company for Western Electric.  Tenite replaced the steel housings of early 300 series telephones around 1945.  As the model 500 went into full production in 1950, they too were made of Tenite.  Then, in 1955 the wall phone version of the Model 500, the Model 554 came into existence.   It wasn’t long before phones of color were also made in addition to the black models.  Soft plastic was the standard plastic used by other telephone manufacturers too, not just Western Electric.  Automatic Electric, Kellogg, Stromberg Carlson and others also used Tenite for their plastic telephones.

Technology changed rapidly fifty years ago.  Soon ABS plastic would be used for the manufacture of telephones, replacing Tenite.  ABS, commonly called “hard plastic” is still being used today for the manufacture of various plastic items.  We said good-bye to soft plastic telephones around the end of June, 1959.  There are exceptions as there were surplus supplies of previously manufactured plastic items but for the most part telephones made by Western Electric were made of hard plastic after mid 1959.  However black sets have been found made of Tenite into the mid-1960′s.  Telephone collectors will tell you that the “thumping” sound the plastic makes when one taps one’s fingernail against the side of the housing is the tell-tale sign that a phone is soft plastic.  Then there is the smell.  Since Tenite was made from organic material they continue to out-gas even today.  They are said to smell like cheese.  In addition to dated parts, just removing a handset cap and taking a whiff will tell the story.  That cheesy smell is undeniable.  It is a smell (or what some consider an odor) that is enjoyable to a collector of soft plastic sets such as myself.

Despite the vanishing act of soft plastic in that summer of 1959, sets made of Tenite are still found.  They are the source of “the hunt” by many plastic telephone collectors.  Many can be found on auction web sites like eBay or Etsy–and others.  Soft plastic sets are out there in the world too.  The Moss Green set seen here was found at a flea market by one of my sisters.  She saw the date of April 1955 on the bottom and picked up the phone for me as a gift.   That is the month and year of my birth.  The set is completely dated from April of 1955 and was a great find.  There are many stories of great telephone finds yet today.  Those stories will be a topic of discussion for another day.  Meanwhile I commemorate  the passing of “soft plastic” telephone sets but revel in their discovery.

6 responses to “After Fifty Years, Soft Plastic Lives”

Excellent look back at our favorite plastic! In the sense that these phones are still actively out-gassing, they really do live on. It also makes one wonder how strong the smell might have been when they were first installed. I’m not sure I’d want to find out!

I think of how many of these soft plastic phones I have come across that actually had white mold growing on the outside. That may be a result of the environment from which they were stored, but perhaps the “living” aspect of their composition contributed.

Thanks for taking the time to post a comment, Bingster!

Mr. Markham. Thank you for bringing this article to the forum. Soft Plastic phones are possibly the “Gold Standard” in the history of the W E 500 and all it’s clones and desk sets in general. The quality was high,the durability was unique and the look was stunning. As a collector of over 40 years,I believe the early W E 500 sets to be the pinnacle of 20Th century manufacturing at it’s finest. Nice work.

Thank you, Mark for your nice compliment and comments. It is always a pleasure to have someone with your experience stop by the blog and comment on the information I’ve posted. I agree with your evaluation of Western Electric soft plastic sets and enjoy searching for and collecting them. Thank you again for stopping by and commenting.

~Dennis

This was a very interesting read for me, I’m a big fan of W E phones, but had somehow not learned a great deal about soft-plastic until reading this post. I have an old Northern Electric phone from the 40s made of soft plastic, and I believe one of my Black WE500s is as well.

Once again, thanks for the interesting read, Phillip.

Thank you Phillip for visiting my blog and leaving your remarks. I’m glad you enjoyed the information. Please stop by Vintage Rotary Phones anytime you’re in the neighborhood!

~Dennis

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