From Crank Calls : Collector Has Restored Hundreds of Antique Telephones

Alexander Graham Bell's cry for help--"Watson, come here, I need you!"--may have signaled the birth of the telephone in a Boston workroom in 1876, but much of the technology that came after has found its way to a two-story house near a San Marcos dairy.

There, Dan Golden lives amid the largest private collection of antique telephones in the United States--about 500 that he has restored with original parts, and another 700 or so in various stages of disrepair and reconstruction.

"People walk in, and it's usually one of two questions," Golden said. " 'Do they really work?' and 'Who dusts them all?' "

Answer No. 1: Yes. Answer No. 2: He does. Occasionally.

Golden, 42, is the founder of Telephone Collectors International and an expert registered with the Smithsonian Institution. His fate was sealed as an inquisitive 12-year-old when his family moved into a new home.

"The telephone man came, and he let me tag along--ask him lots of questions about how everything worked," Golden said. "I helped him carry his tools outside, and I watched him climb that pole, and I thought, 'Wow.' I decided right there I was going to be a telephone man."

After a draftee's stint with the Army Signal Corps and a long affiliation with Pacific Bell as a technician, Golden bought a small Carlsbad phone company in 1984. Today his Golden Telecom Inc. has 17 employees and specializes in new voice mail and business telephone systems.

But it is the old phones that are his passion. In 1978, he added a wing to his home to accommodate a staggering array of antique phone booths, furniture and telephones.

The oldest, nestled among dozens of boxy wall phones of walnut and oak, is a primitive 1876 "Butter Stamp" phone, the first one designed and sold by Bell. The phone was so named because the combined receiver-transmitter resembled the cylindrical wooden stamp dairy farmers used to mark their butter shipments.

Among his newer "antiques" are the more stylized phones popularized by the Shirley Temple movies of the 1930s and TV's "I Love Lucy" in the '50s.

"I'm collecting one small piece of Americana, like the person who has mustache cups or handmade quilts or Norman Rockwells," Golden said.

Golden has seen firsthand the effect an old telephone can have on someone who sees one after many years of dealing only with modern contraptions.

"It's like a time machine," he said. "They touch an old crank phone and, all of a sudden, they're back in Grandma's parlor and it's 1933. Some of the most important conversations of our lives happen on the telephone. It's part of everyone's personal history."

Rarest among antique phones are those manufactured by the Bell System, which rented its products to customers. When customers moved or updated, the phones were returned to the company, which destroyed many of them.

"Phones were literally burned in bonfires--melted for scrap metal," Golden said. "A lot of those that survived were, shall we say, swiped."

Golden's first acquisition, at the age of 12, was a crank magneto (part of an old-fashioned crank phone) that he fished out of a neighbor's trash can. His methods may have changed since then, but his enthusiasm has not.

He says he is well known to many antique dealers. "I'm known as the guy who will let them sell me an old, broken phone for top dollar, and who'll thank them for finding it."

His search for antiques has taken him as far as Little Rock, Ark., a trip that netted him an 1877 Williams "coffin" crank phone designed by Bell's sidekick, Thomas Watson. So named because of its casket shape, it is one of six known to exist. But it was through his affiliation with the theater, television and film communities--lending them phones and advice about telephone props--that Golden netted the Holy Grail of his hobby.

"A friend in the movie business met this American collector in England, and he found me this," he said proudly, pointing to a glass-encased 1886 Long Distance Transmitter Candlestick phone. Made of nickel-plated bronze surrounding a pure platinum disk, it is thought to be the last of its kind.

Golden's ties to Hollywood also recently brought a celebrity to San Marcos in the person of actor-comic Bronson Pinchot. Pinchot was on a quest to find the thick, utilitarian phone popularized by the "Perry Mason" series.

"He had to wait for me for hours, and then he thought it was great when I didn't know who he was," Golden said with a laugh. "He ended up leaving with three phones. Now he calls all the time, wanting to know what new (old) things I've found."

In 1982, one of Golden's co-workers at Pacific Bell made a discovery in North County: an old crank pay phone at the Desert Ironwoods Motel in Ocotillo Wells. Installed in the 1920s and updated in the '50s, it was the last such phone in Southern California. The phone company didn't want it, so the technician called Golden.

"So many things have come to me because of the friendships I've established by doing this," Golden said.

An average antique phone is worth about $200, he said, while a rare one may be worth as much as $1,000. Because the phones are not widely accepted collector's items, values are not firmly fixed.

As an adjunct to his collection, Golden has amassed an extensive reference library, from which he's gleaned a grab bag of telephone trivia. Among his favorite fun facts:

* Transmission quality was so poor in the early days that public phone booths in hotel lobbies had double walls, doors, ceilings and floors. Callers who had to yell to make themselves heard could then do so without bothering other guests.

* Almon Strowger, a Kansas City undertaker, invented the dial for individual telephone users in 1892 after he became convinced that a young Bell operator was connecting calls meant for him to a competing mortician.

When not unearthing telephone history, much of Golden's spare time is spent tracking or repairing antique phones. He says that for him, it's a worthwhile project.

"Nobody in their right mind would own 500 phones," Golden conceded with a grin. "But I guess I just can't help myself."

If you'd like more information on antique telephones or would like to arrange a tour of Dan Golden's collection, you may reach him by calling 744-9393.

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