Our Landline Love Affair

A look back at the telephone’s heyday in UW residence halls.

When Witte Residence Hall was recently renovated, one change shocked some folks and left others (albeit younger others) unfazed: the removal of the 1964-era telephone booths in the hall’s common spaces.

Operators connect callers in the UW telephone system, circa 1930

Hold, please! Operators connect callers in the UW telephone system, circa 1930. UW Archives S13760

The UW had a long love affair with the coin-and-coil phone call, and though the cell phone has dominated as the primary mode of communication among students for more than a decade, mobiles are only a recent development on the timeline of UW history. In the 20th century, students could be found twirling cords around their fingers with feet kicked up on desks and leaning up against phone booth walls on Sunday nights to keep in touch with friends, family, and flames from afar.

In the 1930s, the university’s phone system consisted of a switchboard manned (or, more accurately, womaned) by operators who facilitated the taking and transferring of calls. In those days, students could find one phone in each residence hall; residents in Chadbourne were known to shout up the stairs to summon peers to take telephone calls, according to Brendon Dybdahl ’98, MBA’04, director of marketing and communications for University Housing. This increased to one phone per floor after World War II, and one per room in the 1960s.

Starting in 1989, students began registering for classes via touch-tone telephone. The university also printed an annual telephone directory until the start of the 2008–09 academic year, when landlines were removed from dorm rooms due to lack of use. Phones remained in common areas and house fellow rooms until they, too, were rendered obsolete. Dejope Residence Hall, built in 2012, was the first hall built without phone lines in each room.

In other words, University Housing has hung up the long-loved landline for good.

Published in the Winter 2019 issue

Tags: Campus history, Residence Halls, technology

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