Vintage 1980s cordless phones completely changed how we talked to each other

These vintage cordless phones from the '80s completely changed how we talked to each other

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Vintage 1980s cordless phones were the essential step between wired pushbutton phones and today’s modern cell phones. Here’s a look back at the top telephone tech from the 80s!

Cordless phones start to ring true

Excerpted from Changing Times, from Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia) May 20, 1985

Some of the problems with cordless telephones are the stuff of situation comedies: conversations accidentally broadcast on the radio or neighbors getting each other’s calls. Some are not so funny: hearing damage and pirates using owners’ numbers for long-distance dialing.

A cordless phone still shouldn’t be your only phone, but technological advances are beginning to ease some of the problems and quality phones with key features are becoming more affordable.

A cordless phone is really a radio. Its base station plugs into a regular telephone jack, but airwaves carry a conversation between the base and handset. When not in use, the handset fits into a recharger to keep the batteries going.

Vintage 80s Sony Cordless telephone from 1989

Some of the new features include New channels

To alleviate over-crowding, the FCC approved 10 new channels in December 1983. You can still buy a phone that uses channels in the 1.7-MHz frequency range, but all cordless phones manufactured after Oct. 1, 1984, must operate on the new 46- and 49-MHz channels.

Look how colorful vintage phones used to be! Dial & touch-tone phones came in lots of decorator colors

Vintage cordless phone for 1980 - Tandy tech at Radio Shack

Digital security codes

You can use these to prevent other cordless phone users from picking up your dial tone and making unauthorized long-distance calls. They also prevent neighbors’ calls from ringing on your line.

Digital coding is more reliable than guard tone systems and is now available on many models. However, someone with an all-band radio, a scanner or another cordless phone can still eavesdrop. Don’t give out your credit card number or any other private information on a cordless phone.

Vintage Cobra cordless phones from 1982

Vintage 1980s cordless phones: Clearer sound

You no longer have to pay a premium for a phone with an extended range that provides clear sound up to 200 or 300 feet from the base station. The range is smaller where there are hills, electric motors or other sources of interference, or even nil if you live near a TV tower or an airport.

Many models claim a range of 700 or 1,000 feet, but don’t count on clear reception even if you live in an area with favorable surroundings.

Compared with the 1.7-MHz channels, the new 46-49-MHz channels are less prone to interference from electric motors, fluorescent lights and power switches, says Julius Knapp, an electronics engineer at the FCC.

Knapp told Changing Times the new channels should make it easier for companies to design better sound quality, but there’s no guarantee they will; quality still depends mostly on the manufacturer and model.

Vintage Uniden cordless phones

Hearing protection

Most manufacturers have redesigned their cord-less receivers so the ringer doesn’t send loud blasts into your ear if you forget to switch it off when you answer.

Some manufacturers, including Uniden, Pace, Cobra and Southwest-ern Bell, have new models with ringers on the back of the handset, away from the ear. A few other models protect the ear by ringing first at 25 percent of power and then getting louder with each successive ring.


Several cordless phones now have a home intercom system that lets someone at the base converse with someone using the handset. The Freedom Phone 1100 ($150) has a speaker at the base; others, such as Radio Shack’s Duofone ET-410 ($180), function as an intercom when a regular corded phone is connected to the base.

When shopping, look for features you would want to get for any phone, such as automatic redial, memory dialing or two-line capability. Pulse-only, as opposed to tone-dialing phones, usually cost less.

Cobra cordless phone from 1987

When manufacturers introduced the new 46-49-MHz phones last year, some 3 million older models still sat in stores and warehouses. Dealers have been offering them at big discounts. Many stores are out of the old inventory, but you can still find a 1.7-MHz model at half the price of one of the newer phones.

Some 1.7-MHz models cost less than $40, but you might have to pay at least $60 for a quality phone from a manufacturer that is still in business and handles repairs promptly. Features like switchable channels and digital security coding could bring the price to more than $100.

Dayna Ruliffson, president of Good Connections, a New Orleans retail store, told Changing Times the most popular high-quality older models include the Phone Mate 4210-4220, Electra Freedom Phone 4000 and several models by Pace.

Price cuts on older models have forced manufacturers to introduce phones in the 46-49-MHz range at prices averaging around $150. Mura is offering $5 and $10 rebates on its five 46-49-MHz models that range from $100 to $250. Expect to see higher prices and a greater number of new models to choose from in the near future, as soon as the 1.7-MHz models are sold off.

It’s quite possible that within the next five years the 46-49-MHz channels will become overcrowded, forcing the FCC to assign another new set of cordless phone channels.

By then, you might need a new phone anyway, because today’s phones, both cordless and corded, are made to last less than a decade, not the 20 years or so that rental phones were built for.

Vintage 1980s cordless AT&T phones at Sears (1987)

Every AT&T Trimline phone, feature phone, cordless phone and answering system is on sale…

Cordless ATT phones at Sears 1987

See some vintage touch-tone phones with old-fashioned push buttons

Make and take calls from anywhere in your home – without wires (1982)

No cord to tangle or restrict you — Once you’ve used it, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without one.

Radio Shack’s new ET-320 all-electronic cordless phone lets you move about and talk — indoors or out — without trailing a cord that tangles, burns or knock’s things over. There’s no monthly rental, so you actually save money on your phone bill!

Its Universal Dial System works on all lines — rotary or tone dialing — without extra service charges. The pushbutton dial is in the handset, so you can call, answer, hang-up and redial up to 50 feet from the base unit.

And you get one-button Auto-Redial of the last number called if busy or no answer, and a privacy button so there’s no need to cover the mouthpiece with your hand.

Ready to use — just plug AC wall outlet. Adapts to mounting. The handset has built-in rechargeable batteries, automatic recharger in base. Our lowest price yet for an all-in-one cordless phone — $139.95.

Radio Shack – A division of Tandy Corporation

Radio Shack cordless phone in 1982

How do you use a rotary-dial phone? Find out, plus get top telephone tips from the olden days

Sharper Image vintage cordless phones (1981)

Sharper Image cordless phone from 1977

Trimline, cordless & answering machines (1987)

AT&T makes the right gifts for everyone. And Sears has them at the right price. Right now!

sears telephone ads 1987 2

1987's hottest TVs, VCRs, stereos, cellular phones & more

Radio Shack cordless phones TV commercial (1988)

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Comments on this story

4 Responses

  1. I’m ISO a 1980’s At&t digital answering phone system model 1539..I had one back in the day and got rid of it and wished I had never now I can’t find one that’s in New and working condition can u help me?

  2. Can anyone identify this make and model cordless phone. I’m pretty sure it was AT&T branded, but I want to find the exact device.


    Vintage cordless phone

  3. I knew people who had the first generation of cordless phones in the 1980s, and in many cases they were more trouble than they were worth. People lost the receivers, and the batteries didn’t last long. Worst of all, the analog signals weren’t encrypted, so anyone with the right kind of radio could eavesdrop on personal calls. We had a baby monitor around that time that would often accidentally pick up our neighbors’ cordless phone conversations — and let’s just say that many of these calls were quite private in nature…

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