The trials and tribulations of using a phone as a teenager in the ’90s

In the 80s, if you’d told me that in the future that basically everyone, even kids as young as me, would own a phone they could carry everywhere and use anywhere to talk to anyone, then I’d have probably skated away in my roller boots as fast as I could, as my mum told me never to talk to strangers.

Seriously though when I was a kid, and then a teenager, in the 80s and into the 90s, the whole relationship with telephones was nothing like it is for kids and teens nowadays.

For starters, they’ve never had to experience using a rotary phone. Having to put your index finger in the hole of the first number you wanted to dial, then rotating it clockwise until you reached the metal bit. Then repeating the process over and over again until you’d dialled all of the numbers. It was a tedious task at the best of times, especially if the number you were calling was engaged, as there was no redial button. If you wanted to try phoning again, you had to restart the whole damn process.


Luckily the only time I really had any need for the phone then, aside from being made to speak to elderly relations to say thank you for a birthday card with a pound note inside it, was to try and sneakily call Saturday Superstore while my mum was having a lie in. Well over 30 years later I can barely remember what I had for breakfast this morning or what I opened a new Google tab for but I can still remember Saturday Superstore’s phone number. It’s engrained in my brain forever, probably in place of something else that should be there, like how to do long division.

Luckily, by the time I hit my teens and started wanting to use the phone more, a push button phone had replaced our rotary phone.  However, now not running the risk of a sprained index finger from excessive dialling was really the only plus point. The phone may have been easier to dial now, but it was still attached to the wall. Owning a cordless phone was still a long way off.

This meant absolutely zero privacy when trying to talk to friends or, even worse, someone I had a big old crush on. Our phone was in the hallway, which meant hours spent uncomfortably sitting in a draught at the bottom of the stairs whilst all my family members traipsed past, not even pretending they weren’t eavesdropping. In my mid- teens my parents got a second phone, in their bedroom, which finally meant the opportunity to talk to my mates in peace. That is until suddenly, mid-chat, a parent would pick up the downstairs phone extension and bellow that I had to get off the phone and to stop running up the bloody phone bill as we aren’t made of money and why are you using the phone before 6pm when you know it’s cheaper to make calls after that time and who are you even talking to? Is it that Katherine again? What have you even got to talk about when you’ve seen each other at school all day and stop being selfish hogging the phone as your nana might be trying to get through and what the bloody hell are you doing in my bedroom, whilst I slowly died inside from embarrassment.

The actual art of making a call in the first place could often be a whole drama in itself. We didn’t have phone numbers programmed into the phone so we had to memorise them or have them written down in a special book. If we didn’t have a number then we had to phone an operator to obtain it or look it up in The Yellow Pages, which was, funnily enough, a book with yellow pages that weighed about the same as a small child and left ink print all over your hands. It did have some good television adverts though. Mention J.R. Hartley and fly-fishing to people of a certain age and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.

1983 - Yellow Pages JR Hartley


If you were phoning a friend then you hoped and prayed that they would be the one who answered the phone so you didn’t have to speak to one of their parents first (who always answered the phone by saying their phone number instead of saying hello).

Receiving a call could often be a traumatic experience too. There was no such thing as caller ID so when answering the phone you had no idea who was on the other end. Could be your best mate, could be your aunty Jackie wanting to  give you an update on her piles. YOU JUST DIDN’T KNOW!

If you were expecting (desperately hoping for) a call from someone you fancied then you had to be on your guard at all times. The last thing you wanted was for a parent or, sometimes even worse, a sibling to get to the phone before you, so you’d be on red alert hovering round it, all set to throw yourself at it if it rang. No point trying to make yourself comfortable whilst waiting by sitting on your beanbag chair or inflatable armchair as you’d never have made it up in time to be the first to the phone if it started to ring.

Nowadays owning a mobile means you can make or take a call even if you’re out and about. When I was a teenager though, we made plans with friends to meet up, but then once you left your house that was it. You had no way of making contact with anyone unless you used a payphone – if you could find one that hadn’t been vandalised, you had a ten pence piece and you could tolerate the smell of urine that is. If a friend was late meeting you in town on a Saturday afternoon you just had to stand there waiting like a complete numpty until they finally showed up. You couldn’t even go and look round the shops in case they turned up at the meeting point outside Wimpy whilst you were off in Footlocker eyeing up the latest Fila trainers.

Also, back in the day, if we were going to a friend’s house then, after walking through the woods, and past that bush where Kevin Jones allegedly once found a dirty mag, we couldn’t text our mum to tell her we’d got there safely, so we had to use the 3 rings system. For those not knowledgeable enough (aka too young) to know what this is, it’s where you’d get to your destination, use their landline to ring home, let the phone ring 3 times, then hang up, thus not costing the bill payer any money but allowing your mum to know you’d got there safely.

Still, now when it comes to phones, even though, teenagers these days don’t have to go through these same trials and tribulations, there’s one thing that mobile users don’t get to do. When they’re using a mobile and have a row with someone they never get to appreciate the immense satisfaction of hanging up on that person by slamming down the phone.