Identifying Antique Wall Telephones

A Guide to Help Identify and Value Old Phones

Antique Wall Telephones
Yuga Kurita / Getty Images

While an 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. Listed below are several examples of early wall units made between the late 1800s and the early 1930s. Learn more about a number of different styles through the examples shown below.

To learn more about antique telephones, read: Candlestick Desk Phones.

  • 01 of 04

    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 land line telephones. Examples of common battery phones are some Fiddleback wooden wall phones, as shown below.

    Early two box phones were made by companies such as Western Electric, The...MORE 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 the milk bottle receiver shown here), 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 the walnut example shown here can add value as well. Most two box telephones sell in the $125-450 range.

    About the Example Shown Here:

    This walnut two box wall telephone made around 1900 was 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. Measures 32" tall. 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.

  • 02 of 04

    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.

    According to AntiqueTelephoneHistory.com, the Western Electric No. 85 Fiddleback was the “first of the common-battery phones produced for the Bell System. This type of...MORE phone had no magneto nor did it require batteries because the 'common-battery' phones were provided with the electricity from the local telephone company as are today's phones.”

    What this means is that earlier 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 by batteries housed within the phones. Early examples powered like this are referenced as “local battery” phones.

    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 depicted below, they sell for similar prices usually in the $100-450 range depending on the condition. Unusual components and some variations of the style can be a bit pricier, which is true for most types of antique phones.

    About the Example Shown Here:

    The phone above 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” 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.

  • 03 of 04

    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 as Picture Frame Front telephones because of the decorative routing in the wood around the mouthpiece. In comparison, Plain Front phones (as illustrated below) produced a few years later are less ornate although their functionality and inner workings are largely the same.

    These phones 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. Examples powered like this are...MORE referenced as “local battery” phones.

    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 like the one shown here. According to AntiqueTelephoneHistory.com, 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.

    About the Example Shown Here:

    This Western Electric Picture Frame Front telephone dates to 1907. The oak cabinet has the original paper wiring diagram inside. Measures 24" tall. 

    It sold for $150 (plus buyer's premium) by Morphy Auctions in June, 2012.

  • 04 of 04

    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 get their power to operate when cranked to activate their magneto, or small generator, and they also require batteries to make them work. Models powered like this are called “local battery” phones.

    Many companies made Plain Front wall phones including American Electric, Western Electric, Kellogg, and Stromberg-Carlson through the 1930s...MORE 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, like the one shown here (but more often in 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.

    About the Example Shown Here:

    This American Electric Plain Front telephone was made around 1910. The cabinet is oak and marked with the American Electric shield name plate. The transmitter base is also in the shape of a shield and the hook has shield cut outs on each side (click on the photo to see a larger view). The pony style receiver is also marked American Electric. Measures 20 ½" tall. Condition graded by the selling auction house as excellent. 

    This example sold for $120 (not including buyer's premium) by Morphy Auctions in June, 2012.