Gossip Benches

By Paula Kirwan

 

In 1876, with the words “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,” the world was changed forever. This phrase put Alexander Graham Bell – and his assistant, Thomas A. Watson – in the history books. From his Boston laboratory, Bell was making history’s first telephone call, to Watson, who was in the next room.

 

The development of the telephone connected people like nothing else before it.  By 1900, there were nearly 600,000 phones in the Bell Telephone system, and by 1905, just over 2 million. Usage grew quickly. 

 

The first in-home phones were attached to the wall, and the user had to stand to use it.  By 1910, as technology improved, phones became less cumbersome and were small enough to sit atop a shelf, desk or table in the home. The phone became an indispensable part of daily life all across the country, and with its popularity came the question of how to accommodate this instrument in the home. 

 

Many home builders began incorporating a small shelf in a wall of the house, usually in a hallway, where the phone could reside. It was then only a matter of time before some enterprising person saw the need to create a unique and functional piece of furniture made specifically for the telephone, as well to accommodate the user as he or talked to friends and family. 

 

With a place for the phone on top and a shelf or drawer for the telephone book, telephone tables, also known as gossip benches, became very popular (photo, above right: a telephone table “upcycled” with new upholstery and Annie Sloan chalk paint, from www.amyantoinette.com). Some consisted of a small table with a separate matching chair (photo, left: telephone stand and chair, $150, GasLamp Booth B-221). Others, which were even more prevalent, had a table with a bench attached to it. 

 

Some of the top furniture manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon for these specialized pieces, including Lexington Chair, Mersman, Frankson, LuVan and Ethan Allen. Styles included Art Deco and Mid-Century Modern, as well as other designs to match popular furniture styles of the day (photo, right: telephone stand, $149, GasLamp Booth B-2022). Some were upholstered while others were made from wood, wicker and even wrought iron. The popularity for telephone benches didn’t wane until the early 1960s.

 

Many of us probably never thought that one day phones would have no wires to constrict our movement or that they would easily fit in our pockets and or worn on our wrists, as Dick Tracy once wore his.

 

Even though phone technology has dramatically changed, vintage telephone tables are being rediscovered and are often used in home décor – although not necessarily to hold a telephone as they did 60-plus years ago. They make great hall pieces, offering a place to sit down and take your shoes off, or a place to stash keys and other incidentals as you walk in the door. The sizes are perfect for a child’s room, as well. 

 

Wooden telephone tables with benches attached, primarily from the 1940s, are what we see most readily in antique shops today, including GasLamp. They are usually affordable, usually ranging from about $75 to $150. Many retain their mahogany finish, but some are being painted in modern colors to blend in with today’s homes. They are versatile, small, and can fulfill many functions in homes of today.

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