“I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s!” whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hands, and splitting with a laugh. “He shan’t know who sends it….”[1]

Not long after re-reading “A Christmas Carol,” I was reminded of mid twentieth-century Christmases and gift giving when I came across our research file for this Tiffany & Co. silver telephone dialer. The main function of the telephone dialer (at a time when telephones had rotary dials) was to make dialing easier, preventing sore fingers and chipped finger nails. Telephone dialers came in a variety of styles and materials, and became popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Some dialers were even made to rest in a telephone dial’s finger holes when not in use, a design feature that reduced the risk of their being misplaced.

Tiffany fashioned its dialer with a handle like a very small spoon, but instead of a bowl, there is a half-globe with a disc at the end that would fit into the finger holes of the rotary dial. Unlike plastic dialers made at the time, the Tiffany dialer, being made of silver, had a very pleasant heft to it, elevating it to the quality of a gift. This specialized object was part of a group of Tiffany & Co. items priced under $100, designed to appeal to the growing market of upwardly mobile customers. The telephone dialer sold for about $6, with 20,000-30,000 dialers sold per year. Tiffany dialers became popular housewarming gifts and even became much appreciated as thoughtful and handy Christmas gifts. Tiffany & Co. advertisements highlighted their dialer’s sleek design and ease of use. Monograms could be added to the handle of the dialer, as seen in this example, transforming a stock item into a personal one.

The telephone dialer was created at a specific moment of change in communications technology.  Prior to the late 1950s, the placement of a long distance call, or trunk call, required the assistance of an operator. With the advent of technology that permitted direct-dialing of an area code and seven-digit phone number to make a long distance call, users dialed more numbers and found the dialer to be a helpful tool. At this time, virtually all American homes and offices leased their telephone equipment, and used the same type of table top phone, the Henry Dreyfuss-designed model 500 rotary-dial telephone, introduced in 1949. One of Dreyfuss’s innovations was the placement of numbers outside the dial, rather than under the finger holes. This allowed the user to better see the numbers while dialing and made the use of dialers that much easier. The dialer’s fate however was linked to rotary phones. The dialer started to loose its usefulness when in 1963 the model 1500 telephone ushered in the era of touch-tone calling. Thereafter, dialing with a push-button keypad gradually replaced the use of the rotary dial. By the late 1980s, keypads became standard for landline service, and a few years later, cell phones. Touch-tone dialing made the function of the dialer obsolete and the giving of a dialer, the giving of a relic of a bygone era. Classic films, like the 1962 motion picture Breakfast at Tiffany’s, helped immortalize the telephone dialer and probably encouraged people to add it to their Holiday gift list for friends and family.

[1] Charles Dickens. The Christmas Books, Volume 1, A Christmas Carol/The Chimes. London: The Penguin Group, 1971. p. 129.

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