Identifying Antique Desk Telephones

Candlestick phone variations with dials and pot bellies

Woman with smartphone and old-fashioned phone
EMPPhotography / Getty Images

There were many different variations of candlestick telephones made in the late 1800s and early 1900s shortly after the phone was invented. Identifying them properly isn’t just of importance to those who collect them, but to buyers and sellers as well.

In fact, misidentifying a pot belly candlestick telephone treasured by collectors for a more run of the mill model could cost you a few thousand dollars in the secondary marketplace should you decide to sell one. And, even if you have great-grandpa's phone in your care now and you'd never consider selling it, knowing what you have and what it is worth is always good. Learn more about a couple of popular variations in desk phones here.

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    Pot Belly Candlestick Telephones

    Antique Pot Belly Telephone, ca. 1900, Sold at Morphy Auctions in June, 2012 for $4,200
    Morphy Auctions

    Pot bellies are described as such because of the bulge in the stick portion of the phone. This resembles the shape of an old-fashioned pot-bellied stove, a common item in older homes back when the telephone was new to many households.

    Among the brands of pot belly candlestick phones sought by collectors are those marked as North Electric, Samson, Couch and Seeley, and Western Electric. Other lesser known brands can be collectible, too, however.

    Unusual variations and features usually increase the value of the phone as a unit no matter which company made it. Some pot belly models have large round dials in the center giving them a district appearance. Transmitters, also known as mouthpieces, are usually black, but can sometimes be made of white porcelain.

    A number of different types of receivers were used on these phones as well, including the traditional/common style known as a "pony receiver.” Variations called “long pole” receivers, which are basically elongated versions of pony receivers, have also been found as original components with varied pot belly bases.

    Researching the specific components included with a phone and describing them with appropriate terminology will attract buyers who are looking for phone rarities, especially when you’re writing online auction titles and descriptions.

    If you have a phone like the one depicted here, consider yourself lucky. This pot belly model has a cast iron “watchcase” receiver since it looks a bit like a pocket watch at first glance. In spite of its condition issues–worn nickel plating, frayed cord, and missing base plate–it brought $4,200 (not including buyer’s premium) at auction in June 2012 at Morphy Auctions. A pot belly example with a central dial and porcelain mouthpiece sold for $2,700 at the same auction. The high value of these phones contributes to the importance of identifying them correctly.

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    Western Electric 51AL Dial Candlestick Telephone

    Western Electric 51AL Dial Desk Stand Telephone, Ca. 1925, Sold for $150 at Morphy Auctions in June, 2012
    Morphy Auctions

    These phones are technically termed dial desk stands, but collectors have adopted the name “dial candlestick” for this style. Western Electric made the first dial operated phones to coincide with the newly introduced dial service offered through the Bell system beginning in 1919. Previous desk stands did not have a dial and required a separate bell box mounted under a desk or at the base of the floor to operate.

    This model, the 51AL, is the second dial candlestick phone to be produced. It was introduced in the mid-1920s. The body is the same as the earlier 50AL model, but the inner workings were upgraded to make it more efficient to service. refers to this style as “THE classic old-fashioned telephone”.

    It’s important to remember that these types of phones were reproduced in the 1970s. One of the most obvious signs, while they have faked markings of an old Western Electric phone, is that they are made of unpainted brass. There are a number of other clues including the position of the finger stop being lower on the dial than the original and the use of Phillips head screws which didn’t exist in the 1920s when an original would have been made. Some of these are dated 1910 as well, which predates the manufacture of this type of phone. If you’re not sure if a phone you’re contemplating is old or new, it’s best to do further research before buying.

    The telephone depicted here is an authentic Western Electric 51AL Dial Candlestick painted brass model in very good to excellent condition. It sold for $150 at Morphy Auctions in June 2012.