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updated: 4/17/2011 9:48 PM

Treasures in your attic: Telephone table history parallels phone use

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  • Though we first used telephones standing up, telephone tables paired with a stool or bench came into use between the 1920s and 1950s.

    Though we first used telephones standing up, telephone tables paired with a stool or bench came into use between the 1920s and 1950s.

By Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson

Q. Could you please look at the pictures of my telephone stand? I would like to know when it was made and how much it's worth. They belonged to my grandparents.

A. We could tell the long tale of the invention of the telephone, but we will resist the urge. Of course, Alexander Graham Bell is credited with inventing the telephone, but the race was closer than most people realize.

Many other inventors were competing with telephonic devices, including Antonio Meucci, Innocenzo Manzetti, Johann Philipp Reis, Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray. In any event, on Feb. 14, 1876, both Gray and Bell brought similar versions of what we know as a telephone to the patent office in Washington.

Bell submitted his application at 11:30 a.m., and two hours later, Gray submitted his "caveat" on a comparable device (a caveat is an application that notified the Patent Office of an invention in progress). Bell got the patent.

Telephone usage has changed dramatically over the years. In the early days of the 20th century, a family lucky enough to have a telephone would probably have placed a wall unit in a hallway or in the kitchen.

People used the device standing up, but in the 1890s, a "desk stand" telephone made its appearance -- a type of telephone that collectors call a "candlestick telephone," because it looked something like an oddly shaped candlestick. These candlestick (or "stick") telephones were produced until the 1930s, and it is probably this type of device originally used on this telephone stand.

Most telephone tables/stands were made between the 1920s and 1950s. They were commonly placed in hallways because most families had only one phone in a household and this was the most convenient location for all to use. Many of these stands were simple affairs -- just a table with a stool or a bench, which had an attached shelf for placement of the phone.

Occasionally, however, a fancy example can be found. These were often made with bronze and have marble tops or were elaborately carved in a style that mimics Italian Renaissance design. Some of these have insurance values greater than $2,000, but most telephone stands/tables are valued at less than $150 -- and many are worth less than $100.

The example in today's question appears to be made of mahogany or has mahogany veneers -- it's hard to be sure from a photograph. It has cabriole legs (a leg composed of two curves, with the upper one out-curving and the lower one incurving to create an "s" shape). The cabinet on top is a perfect fit for a "stick" telephone, and the open shelf could store a telephone book and a pad and pencil. The matching stool has a low back with an elongated seat.

Probably dating from the 1920s or early 1930s, this set has an insurance-replacement value of $150 to $200.

• Contact Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928.