10 Things People Did Before Cell Phones

6 min read
Compass And Map

With the arrival of the cell phone, many youngsters often ponder what life was like before cell phones. Here are ten things people did before cell phones were invented.

10. They Used a Landline Phone

Landline Phones
Source: Pexels

Once upon a time, when people wanted or needed to use the phone at home, they called up folks the old fashioned way–on a landline phone. Though considered outdated by many, the landline phone can still be found in 44 percent of households, according to a 2017 U.S. government survey.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Despite its demotion to a means of harassment, though, the landline refuses to die… For many, the reason is pragmatic. Cell service is spotty in large, rural stretches of the country and even the hills of Los Angeles. Rocky elevation disrupts communication with cell towers, which are also often banned in environmentally protected areas. You can rely on a landline when the power is cut, or during an emergency like a hurricane that causes cell blackouts.”

FUN FACT: Oldphoneworks.com brings in close to $40K/month stocking antique and vintage telephones, rotary phones, and phone parts that are fully refurbished and ready to plug in to modern phone lines.

9. They Used Payphones

Source: Pexels

When people needed to use the phone away from home, more specifically, if they were on the street or at the airport or in some other public space, they placed calls from coin-operated public telephones called payphones. These phones were once found in nearly every public space, including schools, hospitals, airports, hotels, and even street corners, but were eventually replaced when cell phones became popular and affordable.

To use a payphone you had to have some pocket change (silver coins only), a calling card, or make a collect call. Of course, whether or not the collect call went through was totally dependent on whether the person on the other end was willing to accept the charges.

-Some 100,000 payphones remain in existence in the U.S. today. One-fifth of them are in New York.
-A collaborative art project in Houston is bringing back payphones to highlight the culture of the city’s Third Ward. One phone will play music recorded by local musicians. A second phone will have ambient noise and sounds and the option to leave messages for others. A third phone will feature area residents telling stories about the neighborhood.

8. They Used Pagers

Source: Wikimedia Commons By Vitachao – Template:Unication, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8502523

There were two types of pagers: one-way and two-way. One-way pagers were the first to come on the scene. They could only receive messages, and the recipient would have to use a nearby phone to call you back to respond to your message. In order for you to send the message in the first place, an operator had to take your call, type in the message, and send it to the recipient’s pager.

Two-way pagers were more like text messaging devices. You could send and receive messages without having to search for the nearest phone.

FUN FACT: One-way pagers were first popular among doctors and drug dealers in the 90s.

7. They Accessed the Internet via Landline Phones

Source: Pixabay

It was slow as molasses, but dial-up Internet was all the rage back in the day! You had to plug your computer’s modem into your phone line in order to get online. In addition to it being super slow, it also tied up the phone line. No one could use the phone while you were on the Internet.

Early service providers included AOL, Earthlink, Erols, CompuServe, and Netscape. You could pick up a 30-day free trial disk in Walmart, Radio Shack, or some other similar location.

FUN FACT: Dial-up Internet still exists. Netscape, AOL and other companies offer dial-up service for a modest fee. Both NetZero and Juno offer a free option that’ll get you 10 hours of service a month.

6. They Used Cameras and Camcorders

Source: Pexels

Before cell phone cameras and cell phone video technology, there were cameras and camcorders. Instant cameras developed the pictures right away, but you could only hold the final product by the outer edge. If you touched the image portion before it fully developed, your fingerprints would ruin the picture. With disposable and point-and-shoot cameras, the film had to be taken to a photo lab to be developed. These were typically found at retail locations like Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS.

Camcorders were for those who wanted to shoot home videos or document just about anything, for that matter. They were big and clunky and used VHS tapes (some earlier versions used audio cassettes) to record. They were quite expensive, so not everybody owned one.

5. They Used Car Phones

Car Phone
Source: Wikimedia Commons

If you were wealthy enough, and important enough (e.g. VIP), you likely had a car phone. Once seen as status symbols, many car phones came factory-installed in high-end luxury vehicles.

Detroit-based publication Autoweek explains how it worked: “You’d get a bulky transmitter unit in the trunk or under the dash, maybe an external antenna that told the world ‘High Roller Inside,’ and a handset that allowed you to make those big deals while driving your 7-Series or LS400 or S-Class.”

4. They Memorized Phone Numbers

Phone Number
Source: Pixabay

Ask anyone today for any phone number and they’ll likely stand there looking puzzled before telling you they don’t know it off the top of their head. Then, they’ll proceed to reach for their cell phone where the number is stored. But, it’s not just other people’s numbers they can’t remember. Most people don’t even know their own cell phone number!

According to research done by Kaspersky Lab, “digital amnesia” is to blame for our forgetfulness. Kaspersky Lab defines digital amnesia as “forgetting information you trust a device to remember for you.”

3. They Carried an Address Book

Address Book
Source: Pexels

If you wanted to keep track of important names, addresses and phone numbers, you wrote them down in an address book. Wallet address books were available as well and usually came with useful items like a calendar, a map, and, of course, space for your money, checkbook and credit cards.

Many office workers used a Rolodex–a rotating filing system used for storing business contact information.

2. They Had to Wait to Use the Phone

Source: Pixabay

Having no cell phone usually meant having to share a line with someone–either in your household or in another household, a.k.a. the party line.

A party line was a phone line shared by more than one household. If someone on the party line was already using the phone, you had to wait until their phone call was over before you could use the phone. There was no privacy with a party line, as anyone on the line could listen in on your conversation if they picked up the phone. To make matters worse, sometimes rude neighbors did annoying things to try to rush you off the phone so they could use it. Even when party lines disappeared, you still faced the risk of being spied on by your little sister or brother, LOL!

FUN FACT: Party lines were prevalent throughout much of the 20th century.

1. They Paid Attention When Crossing the Street

Source: Pexels

According to a news release from the Governors Highway Safety Association, “nearly 6,000 pedestrians were killed in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. in 2017, marking the second year in a row at numbers not seen in 25 years.” This can be attributed, in part, to a growth in smartphone use (usage increased 236 percent from 2010 to 2016). While a definitive link has not been found, smartphone use “can impair the attention and judgment necessary to navigate roadways safely behind the wheel and on foot,” the release said.


Do you have any memories of what life was like before cell phones? Please share them with us below. We’d love to reminisce along with you!