The sales description for this 1905 Strowger Pot-Belly candlestick phone says that it is all original with a replaced number card, the original cord and connector and a Bakelite-over-metal finish and mouthpiece. It can be yours for $4,500.
The eBay description is succinct, if not grammatically correct: “(sic)…the price is right 2 years ago I sold one for $4500 at a telephone show in Los Angeles… to own this phone is better than having money in the bank.”
Candlestick phones will generally sell for more than wall-mounted phones of comparable condition and age. In the early 20th century, a desktop model phone (a candlestick) was a luxury item; most telephones were wall-mounted wooden-case crank phones. EBay currently lists 2,151 antique telephones and 370 candlestick telephones (searched by keyword, sorted by Best Match), with a high asking price for candlesticks of $5,151 and a low of $169. Prices realized in the last 30 days ranged from a high of $3,000 to a low of $9.99.
This antique Western Electric dial candlestick telephone sold for $202.50 in 2010.
The gist of this information is that antique candlestick phones are still hot items. Candlesticks—if complete and genuine—have sold at consistently accelerating prices for several years. Pay particular attention to the phrase “complete and genuine” because candlesticks are a fashionable home decor item, as well as a popular collectible, and fakes and frauds abound. So let’s establish a few guideposts that will assist new collectors in identifying genuine candlestick telephones.
• Early candlestick phones separated the magneto (hand-cranked generator) from the mouthpiece and earpiece. These phones required an operator switchboard in order to make a call. Over the years, many of the magnetos became separated from their phone. If you find a candlestick telephone with no dial, you don’t have a complete unit. It may, however, have parts value;
• Original candlestick cords were green. Over the years, many of these were replaced with cords of a different color. Green cords add value to a phone;
• Dial telephones (which didn’t need a switchboard) were invented in 1891 by Alman Strowger. His company soon became Automated Electric (A.E.), the primary equipment provider to independent (non-Bell) phone systems. A.E. dials placed the finger stop at about the 5 O’clock position. A.E. dials are often found on reproduction phones. A few decades ago, a genuine A.E. 51 AL phone was sent to Korea for duplication, and the Korean A.E.-style phone has since become the standard for fake candlestick phones. If you see a phone that’s marked 51 AL you can be pretty sure that it’s a fake;
• Another commonly found dial was built by Western Electric (W.E.). W.E. was the equipment division of the Bell System. W.E. phones have the finger stop at approximately the 3 O’clock position;
• Mouthpieces were designed to be removed so that they could be cleaned. In 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic killed 5 percent of the world population, and phones were a common transmission point for the virus. Regular cleaning was a precaution;
• Authentic phones will have patent tags that read Tel Co, American Tel, or Western Electric Co.;
• Genuine phones will have technology markers consistent with the period. Screws will be slotted (not Phillips head); tags will be held on with rivets (not self-stick) and base felt will have been applied with hide glue (which after decades will appear to be a crispy brown substance);
• When in doubt, unscrew the bottom plate and have a look inside. If it’s all relatively new and shiny, chances are you’re looking at a fake.
This is a Kellogg/Western Electric Candlestick Telephone with an oak cabinet ringer box. It brought $192.49 on eBay on 2013.
This Western Electric candlestick telephone dial & mouthpiece parts brought $32 as parts.
It’s not unusual to find phones that are a mix of old and new parts. Collectors are rarely interested in such phones. Old phones with new parts and newer (late 20th century) candlestick phones (like the 1973 American Telecommunications model shown) are primarily purchased for their decorative value and don’t sell for much.
Candlestick phones are made from a variety of materials, some collectible in their own right: Bakelite, porcelain, glass, steel, pot metal, brass and felt are common in older phones. Consequently, non-working or partial phones may still have considerable parts value. As with any collectible, condition will greatly affect a phone’s value. Check a phone for cracks or chips in the Bakelite and damage to the original finish.
Beginning in the 1920s, candlestick phones began to lose market share to the newer cradle-type phones. Cradle phones had the mouthpiece and earpiece together in one unit and could be operated with one hand, leaving a hand free for writing. For most users, candlestick phones required two hands: one to hold the mouthpiece stem and the other to hold the earpiece.
Although the heyday of candlestick phones is long past, their stylish design and strong investment potential keep them a desirable collectible.
This is a video clip summarizing the 1940 movie “His Girls Friday,” in which the candlestick phone is visible in nearly every scene:
Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.