Landline phones find new life among nostalgic fans

To hear more audio stories from publications like The New York Times, Download Audm for iPhone or Android.

First came the rhinestone turntable. Then the cherry red lips. Then the cheeseburger.

By last summer, Chanell Karr had amassed a collection of six landline phones. Her latest model, an orange corded model made as a promotional item for the 1986 film Pretty in Pink, was purchased in June. Although she’s only connected one of them – a more understated VTech phone – they all work.

“During the pandemic, I wanted to get rid of all those things that distract you on a smartphone,” said Ms. Karr, 30, who works in marketing and ticketing at a music venue near where she lives in Alexandria, Kentucky. “I just wanted to go back to the original analog landlines.”

Once a kitchen staple, bedside companion, and plot device in sitcoms like Sex and the City and Seinfeld, the landline phone has been all but replaced by its newer, smarter wireless counterpart.

2003 more than 90 percent of respondents to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they have a working landline phone at home. By June 2021, that number – which includes phones connected to the internet and those made the old-fashioned way (via copper wires running from a house to a local junction box) – had fallen to just over 30 percent.

But like turntables and VHS tapes, landline phones are being embraced by nostalgic fans who say their non-scrolling and non-scrolling nature is an antidote to screen fatigue and excessive multitasking. The crescent shape of many phone handsets, users say, fits a cheek more naturally and comfortably than the flat body of a smartphone. And with a non-cordless device, you have to engage more in the act of conversation; the call becomes more conscious.

In January, Emily Kennedy, a communications manager in the Canadian civil service, began using an old calamine-lotion-pink rotary phone from her father’s office to take a break from her work on social media.

Ironically, Ms. Kennedy came up with the idea on Twitter. When Rachel Syme, a New Yorker contributor, tweeted in January via a landline phone that she had connected via Bluetooth, Ms. Kennedy was among many who responded that Ms. Syme had inspired her to set up one of her own.

“Having my old phone as an item in my house is an identity signal that I like a slower pace,” said Ms. Kennedy, 38, who lives in Ottawa.

Like Ms. Syme and many other modern users of analog phones, Ms. Kennedy doesn’t have copper wired to her landline—so it doesn’t have its own number—but uses a Bluetooth attachment to connect it to her smartphone’s cellular service. (In other words, when connected, she can take a cell phone call over the landline.)

Matt Jennings has worked at Old Phone Works, a Kingston, Ontario company that remanufactures and sells landline phones, since 2011. Now its general manager, Mr. Jennings, 35, said customer demand for candy-colored rotary phones from the 1950s and 1960s has skyrocketed over the past two years.

“It absolutely blew up about a year and a half ago,” said Mr. Jennings. “In the last six or seven years, we’ve gotten maybe an order or two for them, and now it’s probably one of our main sources of income.”

What motivated the recent desire for landline phones, Mr. Jennings said, “It’s a return to basics.” He added, “You can’t go anywhere with a corded phone, you’re basically within a meter of the base.” Celebration. You can have a real conversation without getting distracted.”

Rachel Lahbabi, 37, noticed a similar surge in interest after she began selling landline phones online through her Etsy shop Robert Joyce Vintage in early 2021. Lahbabi, who lives in Charlotte, NC

“The ones I put up just went so fast,” she said. “I was like, ‘Okay, people are clearly looking for this, so I should really focus on this trend.'”

According to Ms. Lahbabi, pink lip-shaped phones are particularly popular with her customers, as are clear or neon-colored models. Also in demand: Garfield phones.

All of those styles, she added, “probably resemble a phone they had when they were younger.”

On Etsy, there was a 45 percent increase in searches for Y2K and ’90s phones and a 26 percent increase in searches for rotary phones in 2021 compared to 2020, said Dayna Isom Johnson, a trends expert at the company.

“Calling on a landline is like watching a movie at the theater instead of watching it at home where you’re distracted,” said Nicole Wilson, 32, who has two rotary phones in her Manhattan home: one pink princess and another model that is baby blue.

Ms. Wilson, director of sales at Upfluence, an influencer marketing platform, also says landline phones offer a respite from her screen-heavy work. She bought her first phone in 2019 and started using it after watching a TikTok video explaining how to connect it to her phone via Bluetooth.

While many who have recently purchased landline phones are using them with newer technology, some prefer a more traditional approach.

Janelle Remlinger, 37, got a landline phone for her home in Plymouth, Mass., in December 2020 after a storm disrupted cellular service in her area. She wired it to her modem, but when Ms. Remlinger lost power for eight days during another storm in October, she began looking for a more reliable connection.

“I’m working on getting an authentic, real, old-school landline through the wires,” Ms. Remlinger said.

As attractive as landline phones are, even their most ardent fans are realizing that it’s basically impossible to use them exclusively.

Alex McConnell, 30, a private banker at KeyBank in Fort Collins, Colorado, has a Western Electric rotary phone connected to copper wires in his home. February 14 was not Valentine’s Day, but the 146th anniversary of Alexander Graham Bell filing the patent application for the telephone.

“I made a meal with ‘peppers’ and ‘graham’ crackers,” said Mr. McConnell. “Then I made a round cake that I covered in blue icing with the Bell logo and the phone’s original patent number.”

Not only is his landline phone more reliable than a cellphone, he said, but it also encourages him to memorize friends’ phone numbers, which he sees as a form of intimacy.

“Since I actually have to dial my friends’ phone numbers, I find it really helps me to link them to memory,” Mr. McConnell said.

But even he cannot escape the call of modern life.

“My secret sorrow is that I have a cell phone.”

Audio produced by Kate Winslett.

All Consuming is a column about things we see – and want to buy immediately.