Bell System Oppression

For many years, most phones in the U.S. carried the Western Electric name, and a stern warning: Bell System Property. Not For Sale. People paid to rent phones, month after month; and a phone could earn back hundreds of times its cost.

AT&T once ran an expensive ad campaign -- possibly the only TV commercials ever broadcast for consumer phones -- promoting the virtues of "Genuine Bell." The campaign was a sham because many Bell (and, later, AT&T) phones were made by others. Sometimes an AT&T-made plastic shell contained non-AT&T innards. Sometimes a phone was AT&T inside, and the shell came from someone else. Often, it was all from someone else, but the quality was usually quite good.


AT&T's spinoff Lucent was in an ironic situation as it tried to sell its consumer phone business in 1999. There was nothing very special about its factories and product designs. Its biggest asset was the AT&T label, which it twice planned to give up, but could not live without. In 2000, the Lucent/AT&T package was sold to VTech, an Asian company that had previously made cordless phones that carried AT&T labels (and lots of other labels), as well as electronic toys.

AT&T's Bell System was protective, stern and oppressive. It insisted (falsely) that its products were the best in the world and implied that if any customer was foolish enough to provide a "foreign attachment" the results could be disastrous.

The Bell System "Tariffs" (rules) had the status of state laws. They limited competition by scaring customers, implying that if you plugged an IT&T phone into an AT&T jack, vital communication satellites would fall from the sky and linemen would be electrocuted on the telephone poles.

Theoretically, you could be arrested by a state trooper if you put a shoulder rest on your rented phone's handset or protective cover on your phone book (which you were allowed to throw away when a newer book was distributed).

Some phones are labeled "Bell System Property. Not for Sale." Is it legal to buy or sell them?

Usually yes.

Since the Bell system has not existed since the end of 1983, nothing is Bell System property.

Many phones with the "property" label were sold by local phone companies to the people who had been renting them, and were subsequently given away, junked, or sold.