I’ve been a historian, collector and dealer of antiques & collectibles for years. I know what is sufficiently scarce as to warrant the term, rare. UFOs, Sasquatch, sincere politicians… all rare. So too is the Western Electric “mushroom phone”, also known as the 500H, 500P or 500U. So what is it, and why is it so rare?
The mushroom is basically a run-of-the-mill model 500, with a difference. Located next to the dial, right by the number 4, is a dome-like, a mushroom-like protrusion, a light to illuminate the dial. It fits the space so well, looks so appropriate, it’s hard to believe it was an afterthought. It’s also hard to understand why more of them aren’t around. The button-like hood that covers the bulb is directional, casting the light towards the dial and illuminating the clear plastic fingerwheel. It works great, looks great. So why weren’t they popular?One can only assume that their rarity today is due to subscriber apathy “back in the day”. [An old magazine ad for the phone can be found on the Vintage Advertisements page - Mark] Did cost, either on the Western Electric end or the consumer side, play a part? It’s difficult to imagine where this great idea, and smooth execution thereof, failed. Anyone know what brought on its demise? I should mention that this isn’t the first time such a gadget for dial illumination was marketed. In the 1930’s the W.J. Baker Company came out with what was called Phillip’s Handy Light, a multi-purpose light that could be fastened to a candlestick phone. (It’s featured in the April 2005 issue of the ATCA Newsletter) A surprising resemblance can be seen!
There’s a lot more that isn’t known about the mushroom phone. The 500U has a twist-button (a “key” in Western Electric parlance) to control the lamp, whereas the H and P do not. The U’s button, located just outside the number 7, can be adjusted so that the light stays on dimly when not in use, serving as a night-light. (Rather like the Princess phone that would appear years later) Without the switch, the light comes on only when the handset is picked up, and those models would be an “H” or a “P”. Then how do the H and P differ? How many mushrooms were made? Unknown. What years were they produced? They seem to have been introduced during the earlier years of model 500 production (mid-’50s), but actual year is unknown. Last year for the mushroom is also unknown, but it appears to have been available well into the ’70s. (Possibly discontinued in 1976) What colors were available? Moss Green, Aqua Blue, Rose Pink, Cherry Red, White and Black are known, but others were almost certainly made as well. If you see one at a local thrift shop for $20, should you snap it up? Yes.
Many thanks to Dennis Markham from VintageRotaryPhones.com for providing the photos!