Identifying Antique Wall Telephones

A Guide to Help Recognize and Value Old Phones

Antique Wall Telephones
Yuga Kurita / Getty Images

One of the first telephones commercially available was the wall telephone, which is basically a wooden rectangular box that housed the necessary components with a receiver that hung on the exterior. These wall telephones were referred to as camera telephones (since they looked similar to a camera at the time), box telephones, and even coffin telephones. The first wall telephone was sold in 1879.

While antique wall telephones may appear to be alike at first glance, and many of them do have the same components within their wooden cases, there are variations from phone to phone that can make a big difference in how much they are worth. By learning about the different details and styles of early wall units made between the late 1800s and the early 1930s, you will be able to identify those telephones with value.

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    Two Box Wall Phone

    Walnut Two Box Antique Telephone Made by The The Williams Electric Co., Ca. 1900, Sold at Morphy Auctions in June, 2012 for $360
    Walnut Two Box Antique Telephone Made by The The Williams Electric Co., Ca. 1900, Sold at Morphy Auctions in June, 2012 for $360. Morphy Auction

    These antique models are predecessors to "common battery" wall phones since they do contain a magneto (a battery within that charged every time the crank was turned). Select later models did not have a magneto housed within the phone itself but relied on the phone company for power just like today's landline telephones. 

    Early two box phones were made by companies such as Western Electric, The Williams Electric Co., Connecticut, and Couch & Seeley. The shapes of the boxes varied slightly from maker to maker, but they all held the same basic type of local battery components inside.

    Values are influenced by the condition of the phone and any unusual components that may be incorporated, such as receivers other than standard pony models (like a milk bottle receiver), glass or plastic windows on the boxes, or mouthpieces that differ from the normal black transmitter. Most are made of oak, so finding a two box wall phone made of another type of wood like walnut can add value as well. Most two box telephones sell in the $125-450 range.

    Walnut Two Box Wall Telephone

    The walnut two box wall telephone pictured was made around 1900 and manufactured by The Williams Electric Co. It has a milk bottle receiver marked OST. Not shown are the two glass battery jars housed in the bottom box which are cracked in back. The unit measures 32 inches tall and its overall condition was deemed excellent by the selling auction house. This telephone sold at Morphy Auctions in June 2012 for $360 plus buyer's premium.

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    Fiddleback Wall Phone

    Couch & Seeley Fiddleback Intercom Wall Telephone, Ca. 1905, Sold for $300 (not including buyer's premium) in June, 2012
    Couch & Seeley Fiddleback Intercom Wall Telephone, Ca. 1905, Sold for $300 (not including buyer's premium) in June, 2012. Morphy Auctions

    The Fiddleback telephone, which is said to have a back resembling the shape of a fiddle or violin, was made from the mid-1890s through the very early 1900s by manufacturers such as Western Electric, Century, and Couch & Seeley. Earlier Fiddlebacks had local battery components and later models had common battery components.

    The first Fiddleback phones produced their own alternating current for power using a magneto, or small electric generator that got power as the phone was cranked, and the direct currents needed to operate them came from batteries housed within the phones. Early examples powered like this are referenced as “local battery” phones.

    The Bell System came out with the Western Electric No. 85 Fiddleback, which did not require batteries, nor have a magneto, because it was powered with the electricity from the local telephone company, as are our landline telephones today.

    The transmitters, or mouthpieces, and receivers used with Fiddlebacks are often similar to later phones, but the overall shape of the back and box are very different from more common Picture Frame Front and Plain Front wooden wall phones. Even though these were made for a shorter period of time and are a bit more unusual than Picture Frame and Plain Front models, they sell for similar prices usually in the $100-450 range depending on the condition. Unusual components and some variations of the style raise the value, which is true for most types of antique phones.

    Couch & Seeley Mini Fiddleback

    The phone pictured is an oak Couch & Seeley Mini Fiddleback intercom model. In addition to serving as a telephone, it also operated as an intercom using the buttons below the transmitter (mouthpiece). It has a single gong ringer (where most early wall phones have two), and a traditional unmarked pony style receiver. It measures 17 inches tall and its width is smaller in comparison to most Fiddleback models, which makes it "mini." This phone sold for $300 in June 2012 at Morphy Auctions plus buyer's premium.

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    Picture Frame Front Wall Phone

    Western Electric Picture Frame Front Model 317 Cathedral Top Wall Telephone, Ca. 1907, Sold for $150 at Morphy Auctions in June, 2012
    Western Electric Picture Frame Front Model 317 Cathedral Top Wall Telephone, Ca. 1907, Sold for $150 at Morphy Auctions in June, 2012. Morphy Auctions

    Collectors refer to these types of wall phones as Picture Frame Front telephones because of the decorative routing in the wood around the mouthpiece. In comparison, Plain Front phones, produced a few years later, are less ornate, although their functionality and inner workings are largely the same.

    These phones are “local battery” phones that get their power to operate when cranked to activate a magneto, which amounts to a small generator, and they also require batteries to make them functional. 

    Many companies made Picture Frame Front wall phones including Western Electric, Couch, and Century from the early 1900s through the 1930s. The example shown here is one of the earliest versions of the Western Electric model 317 phone. The back has an arched top where line terminals are attached. Collectors refer to this as a "cathedral" top. 

    This phone came with a standard pony receiver. The first doors on these models were hinged to open left to right but interfered with the magneto crank, so later versions opened right to left instead. The following generation of Picture Frame Front phones eliminated exposed terminals as well and were made without cathedral top backs.

    Most Picture Frame Fronts are made of oak, but they can occasionally be found crafted of other woods. Writing platforms vary slightly in size and slant from model to model and maker to maker just as with Plain Front phones.

    Values vary depending on the cosmetic condition and whether or not the phone is in operating order. Collectors also value phones that are as original as possible with few reproduction parts used when they are restored. Most Picture Frame Front phones sell in the $100-$400 range.

    Western Electric Picture Frame Front

    This Western Electric Picture Frame Front telephone dates to 1907. The oak cabinet has the original paper wiring diagram inside. The phone measures 24 inches tall and sold for $150 (plus buyer's premium) by Morphy Auctions in June​ 2012.

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    Plain Front Wall Phone

    Plain Front Wooden Wall Telephone by American Electric, Ca. 1910, Sold at Morphy Auctions in June, 2012 for $120
    Plain Front Wooden Wall Telephone by American Electric, Ca. 1910, Sold at Morphy Auctions in June, 2012 for $120. Morphy Auctions

    Collectors refer to these as Plain Front telephones because of their flat front devoid of decorative routing in the wood surrounding the mouthpiece. These phones are local battery phones. 

    Many companies made Plain Front wall phones including American Electric, Western Electric, Kellogg, and Stromberg-Carlson through the 1930s when phone styles began to shift dramatically to more modern-looking designs. Most Plain Fronts are made of oak, but they can occasionally be found crafted of other woods. Standard pony receivers, which were often black, are commonly found with these phones.

    Transmitters can be either long or short and have marked or unmarked faceplates. Writing platforms vary slightly in size and slant from model to model and maker to maker.

    Values vary depending on condition, whether or not the phone is in working order, and unusual components that may be present like coin boxes, and of course, having good provenance can help. If a phone came from a historic building, for instance, that can add to the value. Most Plain Front phones sell in the $100-$400 range.

    American Electric Plain Front

    This American Electric Plain Front telephone was made around 1910. The cabinet is oak and marked with the American Electric shield nameplate. The transmitter base is also in the shape of a shield and the hook has shield cutouts on each side. The pony style receiver is also marked American Electric. This phone measures 20 1/2 inches tall and was in excellent condition. It sold for $120 (not including buyer's premium) by Morphy Auctions in June 2012.​