Princess phone history

Princess phone history

By the 1950s, the form and function of the telephone had become mature. Western Electric, the supply arm of the Bell System, realized that there was limited growth potential in making just basic phones. In 1955, Bartlett Miller in Bell's merchandising department determined that Bell had done a good job providing the customer with what they needed -- but weren't listening to what they wanted.

The world was changing; convenience and decoration were as important -- or even more important -- than pure utility. People wanted more than just the main phone in the hallway. They wanted a phone that would fit on a bedside table; and they wanted the teenagers out of the hallway, too. Miller realized this potential market and went after it.

In 1956, the design of the Princess phone was turned over to Henry Dreyfuss Associates, which had designed earlier phones for Western Electric, and it would be the last telephone design to be overseen personally by Henry Dreyfuss.

He worked with Bell Labs engineers and Western Electric's Indianapolis Model Shop to create a phone that was lighter and smaller than the standard model. In 1956, Princess prototypes were shown in Richmond and Cleveland. When Western completed design of the Princess, it conducted field trials. Customer comments were highly critical. Western Electric had designed the small, oval-shaped base with all the internal equipment on the left side. The right side was empty so new components could be added in the future. The uneven distribution of weight caused the phone to move around the table when someone tried to dial. She needed one hand to hold the base in place and the other to dial, while squeezing the handset between neck and shoulder.

Bell Labs chose to disregard the complaints and gave Western Electric the green light to manufacture the Princess sets as designed. Tens of thousands of sets went out to subscribers, and the result was thousands of disgruntled customers and thousands of calls to phone company repair service. Because of customer pressure, Western produced a counterweight to be mounted on the right side of each phone, and repairmen made visits to retrofit tens of thousands of Princess phones in people's homes. Millions of dollars were spent because the infallible Bell Laboratories rejected their own test results.

The Princess phone was the first model designed from a marketing perspective instead of an engineering perspective. The Princess was also the first Western Electric phone to have a trademarked model name instead of just a model number. Model numbers are not as memorable as names, and numbers can't be trademarked. It's name was chosen from a list of 300 suggestions. The Princess also made history with an internal light bulb to act as a bedside night light and to aid dialing in the darkness.

The Princess went into production in 1959, and although radically different in appearance from previous models, the technology in it was the same.

It was initially available in any standard phone color except black, which was added in 1963. Legend has it that black was added when Jackie Kennedy wanted one.

Early Princess phones had some serious deficiencies:

  • They required an external ringer in a wall-mounted box.
  • The base was too light, so the phone flopped and fell.
  • The weight was unevenly distributed, because the network was on one end of the phone, and the other side was totally empty. This made the Princess phone very prone to scooting around while the user tried to dial.
  • The Princess phone thus initially became known as the "three handed phone," requiring one hand to dial, one hand to hold the handset, and one hand to hold the phone in place while dialing.
  • It was very easy to knock the handset off the phone base. At least one company modified the Princess for use as a car phone, and installed clear plastic "fences" around the ends of the phones to keep the handset from flopping out on rough roads.

The external ringer was later replaced with a single-gong internal ringer, and the problem with the base moving around while dialing was partially solved by the addition of a lead weight (later replaced by the M-type single-gong ringer). Ultimately, the heavier touch-tone models made this problem almost a total non-issue. However, the problem of knocking the handset off the cradle always remained, and this caused some people to hate the Princess phone forever.

Despite all these problems and design shortcomings, the Princess phone remains one of the most beloved telephone designs of all time.

Although some various production changes and tweaks would occur over the over the years, the basic design remained almost totally unchanged from 1959 right up through the divestiture of AT&T in 1984. Production continued after divestiture under the name AT&T Technologies until 1986, when the Indianapolis Phone Works plant was finally closed, and production moved offshore. AT&T introduced a new "Signature Princess" series made in Mexico in 1993.

The vast majority of telephones made by Western Electric were made for the Bell System, although they also made special models without Bell System markings for independent phone companies. Western Electric also made some special models of the Princess for businesses and institutions.

Specialized versions of the Princess included models with message-waiting lights, and two-line operation.



  • Initial release of the rotary model 701B. Uses an external ringer.
  • Initial models use a 495A network, which is circuit-wise identical to the 425B network used in bigger phones. It was just repackaged into a slightly different form so it would fit in the Princess housing.
  • Phones have hard plastic housings, plastic G3 handsets, clear plungers, and closed-center clear plastic finger wheels. Colors available are white, pink, light beige, light blue and turquoise.
  • Two different patterns are used on the bottom mats. One was basically smooth with some bumps around the edges, while the other had a cross-hatched pattern.
  • The light used is a screw-base #46-type lamp.


  • Only the smooth style of bottom mat is now used.


  • Lead weights are now added to the left side to try to improve the balance of the set. They were also available for field installation if customers complained about the phones moving around while dialing.


  • Model 701B is replaced with the model 702B. The lead weight in this new model is replaced with an internal M-type ringer.
  • The 495A network is replaced with the more compact 4010B network (?)
  • The screw-base #46-type lamp is replaced with a #259 bayonet-style lamp.(?)
  • Green, Yellow, Gray, and black are added to the color choices.


  • The touch-tone (10 button) model 1702B is introduced.


  • Ivory and red phones are added.


  • The 10-button model 1702B is replaced with the 12 button model 2702B.
  • The bases and handsets on all models made for the Bell System are now stamped with the words, "Bell System Property, Not For Sale."


  • Turquoise and Gray are dropped, and clear is added.


  • Clear is discontinued.


  • Shift from 4010B network to 4228 network (?)
  • Shift from hardwired to modular cords (?)


  • The center cut-out on the bottom mat is enlarged.


  • The center cut-out on the bottom mat is enlarged yet again.
  • Changed the style of date coding. Instead of "mm-yy," it is now "yyddd," where yy = year, and ddd = the day of the year.


  • Shifted from the old rubber-style mats on the bottom to a new rubber/cork mixture, which is less likely to harden and crack with time.
  • Shifted from the M-type ringer to the P-type ringer (?)
  • Shifted to a greatly improved hook switch with a plastic cover on it (?)

1982 (or '83)

  • Introduction of for-sale models with "CS" prefix. They are pretty much identical to the traditional rented models, except that they lack the "Bell System Property, Not for Sale" markings, and do not have lights.


  • Production under the Western Electric name ceases, with the divestiture of AT&T. Production of customer-owned "CS" models continues a little bit longer under the "AT&T Technologies" brand.
  • Color selection changes again
  • Shifted from metal screws and brass inserts to self-tapping screws directly into plastic to fasten the housing to the base (?)


  • Production of the traditional Western Electric Princess ceases altogether, as the factory in Indianapolis is closed, and production is moved overseas.

Late 1990s

  • Refurbished phones are available in slate blue, peach and cameo green.


  • AT&T introduces the "Signature Princess" series, made in Mexico. It was offered for sale through AT&T Phone Center Stores (which closed in 1996) and is still available for rent from QLT Consumer Lease Services, previously AT&T Consumer Lease Services, which was not really part of AT&T. Colors include white, ivory, rose pink, aqua blue, and peach. This model has a modern electret condenser microphone in its handset, tone/pulse switchable pushbutton keypad lit by a green LED, and a receiver volume control on the front of the phone. The phone number card is moved from below the dial to the left end of the phone. With an optional transformer, this new model's dial will stay lit continuously, for use as a night light.

Princess Model Numbers

  • 701B: Original set without ringer

  • 701D: The D was for message waiting lamp

  • 702BM: The 2 designates an internal ringer, the M is for modular

  • 1702B: 10-button Touch-Tone

  • 2702B: 12-button Touch-Tone

  • 711B: Slide switch /push button, two line with exclusion

  • 712B: Turn Key, 2-line with hold (and several other combinations)

  • 713B: 2-line with Exclusion or hold

  • 2713B: Touch-tone version

  • CS2702BM: Touch-tone, no illumination

  • 2703BMG: Signature Princess

Similar Phones from Other Makers

The "Princess" name was a registered trademark of AT&T for the distinctive oval-base desk phone, but the name is frequently misused to identify other phones, most often the AT&T Trimline, as well as Princess clones produced by other companies, under license from AT&T:

  • "Cinderella" made by Kellogg, then ITT, now Cortelco.
  • "Petite" made by Stromberg Carlson, later renamed Comdial, now Vertical.
  • "Starlite" made by Automatic Electric for the GTE phone system (rectangular rather than oval)
  • "Contessa Phone" made by Northern Electric/Northern Telecom/Nortel. Early on in the production run they used a glue for the base pad that lost its adhesion after a few months. The base pads fell off of the phones when they were removed from their boxes, and the phone was referred to as the "barefoot contessa" (The Barefoot Contessa is a 1954 film about fictional Spanish sex symbol Maria Vargas. It was written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and stars Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner and Edmond O'Brien.)
  • Many reproductions from other companies, such as Crosley and Sonecor.
  • Some people call the "Trimline" the "Princess Trimline."

Based on info provided by  DanielPorticus, Wikipedia, AT&T Consumer Lease Service. Please email corrections or additions.