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Soft Plastic -vs- Hard Plastic

As I have probably written in previous posts one aspect of my interest in collecting these rotary dial telephones is the enjoyment I get when I have finished detailing a phone–seeing and using the fruits of my labor. I will often get into a certain model or color for a while and then switch to something else. For example for several weeks last month I worked strictly on red model 500’s. There are many red 500’s out there, many of them listed For Sale on eBay. But it is not often that I see one that meets my criteria for a telephone that I’d like to restore. And that criteria is what I search for–with some degree of success. I can usually tell by glancing at a photo whether or not it is a telephone worthy of my restoration. Don’t get me wrong, I think all rotary dial telephones have value as a “vintage” decorative piece to accentuate room decor–even those manufactured in the 1980’s. However the telephones I enjoy working on the most actually have the most value as a collectible.

The telephones I am referring to in this post were made by Western Electric—the desk model 500 and the wall version, the model 554. If I was to place a black model 500 from 1955, one from 1961 and yet another built in 1970 side by side an untrained eye may see slight difference, if any. But the differences are many. As one might expect as the years went by quality decreased. Manufacturing processes improved but in cost-saving efforts quality was spared. Telephone parts were ultimately made with service in mind. Since the telephone company owned the telephones changes were made to make service easier,faster and least costly. Most notably is the change from “hard wired” handset cords and line cords to “modular” connections. If a handset cord was worn or not working a repair person simply unclipped the cord and put on a new one. But in the process quality was diminished. After a period of time of using the modular handsets they often became worn. It was not unusual for the plugs to become unplugged while the user stretched the cord away from the telephone–especially while using a wall mounted phone where the user would be doing some chore while conversing on the phone. The internal working of the phone also became “cheaper” as dial gears that were once made of brass and steel were later made of plastic. As a result costs were reduced but so was the quality. And that brings me to the point of the topic…soft plastic -vs- hard plastic.

Prior to and including the early part of 1959 the cases were made of a thicker plastic referred to by collectors as “soft plastic”. The plastic has a more pliable composition and actually has a specific odor to it. The cases or covers made of soft plastic were stamped on the inside edge of the case with the date of manufacture and with a shift number. This number was stamped in ink. For example a case with a date of 5 25 55 3 would obviously indicate that it was made on May 25, 1955. The “3” indicates which shift of the day made the case. In this case it would be the third shift. Into the year of 1959 the plastic process changed and became known as “hard plastic”. Hard plastic is more brittle and easier to crack or chip. The manufacturing date was actually molded into the plastic inside the case.

So in searching for that perfect vintage telephone the first step is to determine if the plastic is “soft plastic” or “hard plastic” with soft plastic being the more desired.

These telephones have dates in various places throughout. Speaking of a desk telephone there is a model and date on the bottom of the phone. Inside there are dates on the case, the network block, the ringer bells, the underside of the dial mechanism, even the line cord and handset cords have dates as do the handset itself, the caps for both the mouthpiece and receiver as well as the inner transmitter and receiver pieces themselves. If one were looking at a phone for sale on eBay for example and the seller said “this phone is from 1958” based upon the date printed on the bottom of the phone that statement may or may not be entirely true. Somewhere along the line the telephone may have been serviced. Perhaps a handset was replaced with one built in 1981. Maybe the plastic case was damaged and one made in 1965 was put in place. So what we as collectors of these phones are looking for are consistent, original dates. We want to verify that the date is indeed stamped inside the plastic case in ink….if so it is usually soft plastic. However once in a while one can find a case with the ink stamped date, in mid 1959 that will be on a hard plastic case.? I have encountered two—and each of them has been on a white model 500.? Once one sees one of each side by side the difference would be apparent. I have seen long-time collectors tap on the side of the phone with a finger nail and determine whether or not it is soft or hard plastic. Hard or soft plastic–this is step one in finding a true vintage telephone. I’ll talk about more in subsequent posts. Happy Hunting!

2 responses to “Soft Plastic -vs- Hard Plastic”

I have two 500 sets from 1956 with metal dials.

One was obtained locally and was converted to modular at some point which means both the handset and the case are not original.

I opened up my other 500 after reading your post. The handset on this hardwired and much heavier than the other, but the case is from 1964.

Oh well.

Louis, that so often is the case with many of the telephones that are out there–but not always. During the course of their service life a phone may have needed service. In the field the repair person would simply swap out a customer’s telephone. Then the telephone would be refurbished and updated with new plastic and ultimately modular connections. Also the feet would be changed if a leather covered pad became torn, all four would be replaced and a new “foot” riveted into place. The replacement, in my opinion was never as good as the original. The feet were changed from leather to large rubber to ultimately small round plastic feet that become dry and brittle. So just because the date on the bottom of the phone may say it’s from the 50’s, plastic may have been changed. On black telephones one clue externally, other than a hardwired cord can be the switch hook buttons, or plungers. Original cases had black buttons, replacements were clear. Finally, looking inside for a date on the case will tell the actual date of the phone. Thanks for your comments!

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