The first time I realized I was alone in an impersonal universe and that my destiny wasn't linked to the certain transit of the stars was when I saw the Princess phone. Perhaps you don't remember this technological watershed -- either because you don't pay attention to telephones unless they're ringing or because you're an average American (who has difficulty remembering anything that happened before last Tuesday).
But for me, the introduction of the Princess phone was an omen, a disturbing portent that life would never again be the same. I can't remember the exact date, but it was in the early '60s, a time when conventions and traditions began to fall away with the ease of snow sliding off a steel roof. Until then -- or so it seemed -- telephones had been relatively stolid, utilitarian devices not unlike dependable but boring family cars.
The telephones of my childhood, in the late '40s and '50s, were no-nonsense machines, dull black and seemingly made of cast iron. As a small child I remember having to hold the phone to my ear with two hands, so great was its weight. And long before there were buttons and beeps we had mechanical dials that revolved slowly, almost ponderously, with a distinctive ratchet sound. Phones were a metaphor for a younger America: outwardly simple, proudly blue-collar, unashamedly proletarian.
Nor was anything particularly appealing about telephones beyond their normal applications, certainly nothing that spoke to the fire in one's soul. Phone followed function. You talked into it, and it -- or rather the party on the other end -- talked back to you. As now, telephones brought us good news and bad, gave the loved and unloved access to us, yanked us out of the bath, recalled us from sleep and kept us connected.
Then the Princess came tiptoeing in on its little rubberized feet. Television commercials sang a siren's song promising telephonic transmogrification if we'd order her from Queen Ma Bell. The Princess phone, we were told, was sleek and modern, and its placement in our homes would speak eloquently about our sophistication.
The Princess didn't look like a normal phone, of course. It was oblate with modern curves (like today's Trimline), and it had, as everyone in America learned, a dial that lit up when you lifted the receiver. Perhaps it didn't sound any better or transmit one's voice more efficiently than a traditional phone but Her Highness was certainly novel, a curious status symbol.
Owning a Princess phone, said Ma Bell, was a way of saying you had a concern for the finer things in life (especially oblate plastic things that squatted on night tables and lit up). Never mind that the Princess was fragile (dropping one often meant playing 52-pickup with the multicolored wires and minuscule gears) or that it was better suited to a teen-age girl's boudoir than kitchen or office. Forget practicality: Princess phones marked the beginning of the phenomenon we now recognize as Making a Statement.
Which brings us to where we are now, telephonically: up to our bellybuttons and push buttons in fun phones. Now that almost anyone can produce and sell telephone equipment, you may choose from an incredible hodgepodge of phones made by imaginative entrepreneurs in Japan, Taiwan and Korea, and -- judging by the shapes and styles available -- by leprechauns and wood nymphs.
The tiny Princess may have started phoney fashions -- leading directly to today's phones in the shape of Snoopy, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and other executive role models. Here are three of the latest designs:
Sly the Dog Phone is a bug-eyed, lop- eared plastic hound whose black tail is the phone cord. Lift the receiver from Sly's back, and his ears go up and he gives you a smile. Not for the easily nauseated.
Cable Car is a handcrafted wood reproduction of a San Francisco trolley. The ringer, in case you hadn't guessed, goes clang-clang. This is the perfect phone if your decor also includes paintings of children with big, soulful eyes and poker-playing dogs wearing eye shades.
Duck Phone is a mallard decoy (other species, including swans, are available) that quacks electronically and flashes its eyes when it rings. Lift the decoy and hold it next to your ear, pushing the buttons on its belly. The powerful social statement is only marginally diminished by the fact that using this phone forces you to spend your time speaking into a duck's rear end.
If these innovative phones are any indication, the trend in designer electronics has already gone too far, even for consumers eager to Make a Statement. ::