News & Politics

Early Answering Machines


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

July 23, 1958, Vol. III, No. 39

A Matter of Record

By John Wilcock

A few weeks ago I installed one of those recording devices on my telephone—the Bell system rents them for $12.50 a month—and since then I’ve been having a great deal of fun when I set home at night, playing back the messages people leave for me. Anyone who calls my home number (WA 9-123*) when I’m out hears my recorded voice and has about 20 seconds in which to leave a message of his own. Many of the callers make wisecracks about how they’re coming to me in “live, stereophonic color” or about how they want to my “first poison-pen telephone call.”

There aren’t too many of these machines in use—around 2000 in the N.Y.C. area—but a Bell official, while giving me a brief tour of a roomful of softly purring phone devices last week, told me about some of their varied uses.

“Sometimes the answering machines are used for puposes we can’t condone,” he said. “Like the girl who was offering sexy pictures of herself until the Post Office stopped it. But on the other hand there’s a bird-watchers’ group in Boston that leaves a recorded message about what’s been sighted lately, churches that offer prayers of the day, movies with time schedules, stores announcing bargain items, groups giving fishing information and highway conditions, and an association up in Westchester that provides the latest stockmarket news.”

The whole subject’s very interesting, I think, and there’s almost no limit to the sort of taped messages I could leave for callers. Wouldn’t you like to call up and hear me reciting a brief poem to a jazz background? Or to find out where there was a party next Saturday? I could leave definite and final word that No, I do NOT know about any vacant apartments (contrary to popular belief) or simply record the terse message: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Carole Janeway, a Village ceramist, also has one of these recording devices, and we’ve discussed the possibility of getting the two machines to talk to each other—so far without success. Carole, incidentally, ends all her recorded messages with a commercial. The current one is: “And remember, the road to heaven is paved with Janeway tiles.”

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. John Wilcock is still going strong at]

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 8, 2008


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