Dial Candlestick Telephones

Fooled By Fakes

July 5, 2019

With our cell phones in hand, the candlestick telephone appears somewhat restrictive and quite old-fashioned, and that may be true, but it’s also an important piece of communications history that was a modern advancement in its time. It was the first lightweight phone and was made to be used conveniently on a desktop rather than forcing callers to stand at a crank wall phone.
The first candlestick phone was invented in the 1890s, and had no dial; callers would lift the receiver and ask an operator to connect them to their party. As the telephone system improved, a dial was added to the candlestick phone, allowing users to place their calls themselves, eliminating the need for some operator services. Referred to by several names - dial desk stand, dial candlestick, upright desk stand, desk stand telephone - the charming candlestick phone is beautiful in its simplicity and highly collectible, making it a target for scammers.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s, reproduction candlestick phones were very popular, with many of them being made in Korea. A good number of these were marked “Western Electric,” along with other markings including patent dates, so it was easy for resellers to either mistakenly or deliberately identify these repros as originals. However, there are some telltale signs to look for in order to distinguish a $30 repro from an authentic candlestick phone with a far higher value (from several hundred to over a thousand dollars).
Many repro dial candlestick phones are unpainted brass or have unpainted brass parts, or they may even have plastic parts. These brass candlesticks can have a nice-looking age patina that make it even easier to fool buyers. However, there’s a caveat; some authentic Western Electric dial candlestick phones have had their black color stripped down to the brass underneath, which lowers their value quite a bit.
Another clue is in the dial. Authentic Western Electric dials had a finger stop near the three o’clock position, whereas repros can have a finger stop much lower (note that in repro photo shown, the dial ends around three o’clock, so that alone isn’t enough for authentication). In some reproductions, Phillips head screws have been used to mount the finger stop. This is an immediate giveaway, since Phillips head screws were invented in the 1930s and weren’t even around when dial candlestick phones were originally made. Unfortunately, an antique dial can be added to a repro phone, so again, you still need to continue your detective work.
I mentioned that patent dates were included on many of the repros, and here’s where you need a reliable reference source. A lot of these patent dates are incorrect for the model they’re trying to imitate; for example, one well-known fake patent date to avoid is “November 1910,” as it’s an automatic indication of a repro. There are also some repros that have no patent date at all, while others have correct patent dates, which makes distinguishing them from originals more difficult. Some collectors have noticed that the numbers on certain dated repros are too close together; in particular, the date “Jan 1 18” may have no space between the numbers and look like “Jan 118”.
There are also marriages of candlestick phone parts, like a dial-less base attached to the stick of a dial phone. The wrong mouthpiece or receiver may be married to a different base and stick, or any combination of parts can be combined. The seller may term this as an “old candlestick phone,” which it technically is, but that doesn’t tell the full story. There are also “Frankenphones,” phones that are conglomerates of both old and repro parts.
The wording in online descriptions of dial candlestick phones needs to be carefully scrutinized, as it can be somewhat misleading. Without actually calling a phone a repro, sellers sometimes use the word “retro,” which can be misunderstood by buyers. Two other phrases that should raise red flags are “mostly original” or “mostly old”; these phones have replacement parts that are reproductions of originals. It’s important to understand the construction of dial candlestick phones as well as what each part should look like. Something as simple as an incorrect or modern grommet can clue you in to a well-made fake or a “mostly original” piece and save you hundreds of dollars.
Some other indications of a reproduction are identification tags that are glued on rather than being held in place by two rivets; the lettering on the tag may be too large or have incorrect information; wording other than “Western Electric Co.” or “American Tel & Tel Co” usually indicates a reproduction. You can find many more signs of a reproduction at www.oldphoneman.com, a very helpful website with lots of great information. The Korean-made candlestick phone picture you see here was clearly made to be a functional reproduction, as no attempt was made to disguise its modern parts. However, pieces of this phone, such as the handset or mouthpiece, could be taken off and used on a different reproduction that is meant to deceive.
An excellent source of detailed information about the technical workings of dial candlestick telephones, as well as the history of the telephone and all other telephones up through touchtone phones, is the third edition of “Old-Time Telephones” by Ralph O Meyer. A PDF of this wonderful resource can be found on the Telephone Collectors International’s website; chapter 10 deals specifically with dial candlestick phones. By understanding its workings and parts, you can more easily avoid fakes and reproductions.
Photos are of a reproduction and are property of the author.

At A Glance
Signs of a Reproduction or Fake:
1. Finger stop too low
2. Patent date November 1910
3. Phillips head screw(s)
4. Large lettering

Reference books, websites and collecting groups are the best ways to keep from being fooled by fakes. Here are a few: Telephone Collectors International (https://www.telephonecollectors.org/); Antique Telephone Collectors Association (https://atcaonline.com/); “Telephones: Antique to Modern” by Kate Dooner; “One Hundred Years of Bell Telephone” by Richard D. Mountjoy.


More Articles