Like most aging apartment buildings, mine came with its quirks: an ironing board that folded out of the wall, a radiator that hissed and clanked in the night, a decades-old doorbell that emitted a sound I can only describe as that of a hungry, bleating goat. But what intrigued me the most was a recess in the wall outfitted with what appeared to be a slightly rusted old telephone — similar to one I remembered from the iconic phone call scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Made of a gray steel hardware, the box-shaped gadget was also equipped with an earpiece connected to a cord that could be removed from a small hook. On the front of the device was a button and a small speaker that probably hadn’t been used in decades.
Feeling curious about it, I asked my landlord, who shrugged and suggested I was probably right — that it was likely an antique mode of communication used by tenants during a time when they had to pick up the phone and speak with an operator in order to be connected with another party. But he also had a sneaking suspicion it might be an intercom system used by residents to speak with a guest waiting outside at the lobby, similar to the buzzers many modern apartments have today.
In search of a concrete answer, I decided to reach out to Rick Prelinger, who is the co-founder of the Prelinger Library on 8th and Folsom, which contains an archival collection of 19th and 20th century ephemera, periodicals, maps and books.