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Throwback Products We Love: Novelty Telephones


Why are some consumers dialing up demand for vintage-style new phones?

Cellular technology has meant freedom -- freedom to stay in touch, share information and conduct business without being tethered to any specific physical space. It has allowed us to cut the cord to the past and move unhindered into a bright, wireless future.

Society took its first steps outside of the corded dark ages three decades ago when Motorola (MOT) introduced the first portable handheld phone. Sure, its battery died after 20 minutes, it broke the bank at thousands of dollars and a phone call became a bicep workout with the device weighing in at nearly four and a half pounds, but the clunky beast was the milestone that got us where we are today -- on the eve of our fourth generation of mobile technology that allows us to text, email, browse the internet, listen to music, navigate through cities and talk through tiny earpieces that weigh less than an ounce.

With mobile phones capable of everything but doing our taxes -- wait, there's actually an app for that -- people all over the planet are lending their ears to the cellular gadgets. Between 2009 and 2010, worldwide mobile phone sales increased 35 percent to 417 million units sold.

Americans are ripping corded phones out of their walls, with a quarter of households now using only mobile service and 15 percent of homes with landlines receiving the vast majority of calls on their cell phones.

While wired phones may have become, like, so 19th Century Alexander Graham Bell, some of us are still letting them bind us to our four walls. But we aren't twirling just any old phone cord around our fingers while we prattle away for hours with our BFFs. We're plugged into a niche market of whimsical novelty phones that offer new meaning to the term 'conversation starter.'

"Hey, yeah, I'm just calling to procure a hasty abortion," said hip pip Ellen Page in the 2007 indie movie Juno. "What? - Can you just hold on for a second, I'm on my hamburger phone." And lo, the retro hamburger phone craze was born, despite the fact the character claimed it was "really awkward to talk on." Entertainment Weekly named the movie prop one of the "10 Cool Gifts for Film Buffs" and three years after the film's release, the "Juno model" is still for sale on eBay (EBAY) and other retail outlets.

Kitsch is king when it comes to vintage collectibles and novelty phones are no exception. Perhaps no retail chain caters to the garage sale set like Urban Outfitters (URBN) which currently sells, not only the hamburger phone, but other retro replicas like the '90s-era neon-accented Transparent Trimline Phone that offers a see-through glimpse into the phone's electrical guts. The store also sells reproductions of the mid-century Crosley kitchen wall phone and payphone that aren't fooling anyone with their push buttons on a rotary dial fashion plate. The modern feature is a smart move considering, in the old days, the rotary dialing process took longer than the phone calls themselves.

And who can forget the cheap piece of brown, oblong plastic that was the coveted Sports Illustrated football phone with 'kicking tee' stand? It was the item on every boyfriend's 1988 Christmas list and came free with a year's paid subscription to the magazine.

Telemania currently makes other boy-themed phones, like the Spiderman Animated Corded Phone, the USS Enterprise Phone with red alert sounds and flashing warp nacelles and the Star Wars R2D2 Novelty Phone.

Girls monopolized the house landline on boudoir classics like the glossy red Hot Lips phone, the Stiletto Heel shoe phone and the Princess Phone, which came in a variety of feminine colors, including the Pretty In Pink model on which Andie unsuccessfully tried to reach the elusive Blane. Then there were the gender neutral phones like the Coca-Cola Bottle and Can phones and the Grand Piano one on which aspiring musical prodigies had ten computerized "keys" to practice "Hot Cross Buns" and the first part of "Chopsticks" -- which helped compensate for its failure in the *69 department.

Aside from presenting tripping hazards or the isolated strangling by a homicidal maniac, wired phones pose little to no risk to our health. Cell phones, on the other hand, have been likened to mini death devices, causing everything from contact dermatitis from their nickel content to the pain and soreness of so-called "BlackBerry thumb" to distraction on the road for drivers to carrying "superbugs" in health care settings from the microbe-laden phones of doctors who aren't disinfecting them.

Additionally, the matter of radiation exposure and brain cancer has still not been put to rest. Apple (AAPL) warns users to keep the iPhone at a distance of at least 5/8 of an inch while Research In Motion (RIMM) advises that the BlackBerry be used no closer than one full inch from our bodies. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for safety.

Personally, the wires and curtailed freedom of movement wouldn't necessarily stop me from plugging a corded phone back into my wall. As I see it, the real drawback is having to memorize phone numbers all over again. That is, unless I decided to relegate the wired phone strictly to emergency call use. Now what's that three-digit number again?
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