A princess phone is a compact telephone that was presented to the public in 1959 by American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T). It was touted as the best phone for small spaces, specifically bedroom nightstands. Besides being compact, it had a dial in the phone base that was lit at all times, making it a nightlight as well as a telecommunications device.
At the time of its introduction, the princess phone design was unique to the industry. Since electronic components were not as advanced—or as small—as in later years, the light in the dial had to be powered by an external transformer. The ringer could not be sufficiently miniaturized to fit into the body of the phone, so it too required externalization.
Other design flaws included the phone’s weight and balance. It was engineered with all the internal parts situated on the left side, the thinking behind the design being that the empty right side could be used to add future component features. This imbalance made the unit impossible to dial without holding it secure with one hand and dialing with the other. This necessitated the handset to be balanced between the user’s shoulder and neck.
Consumers were also critical of the princess phone’s weight. It was so light that it easily fell off any surface on which it was placed. Lead weights were added to later models to correct this problem.
Despite its design challenges, the princess phone was popular with teenagers and women, the two groups the first advertising campaigns targeted. The teenage angle was that the phone’s size made it perfect for a teenager’s bedroom, taking their fabled long conversations out of the kitchen or living room. Women were wooed with the lightweight feature of the device, as well as its availability in 11 colors that could complement any décor.
The princess telephone underwent many changes in design and features over the next 35 years. These upgrades included touch-tone dials, modular plugs and handset volume controls. Available colors came and went depending on fluctuating customer tastes and cultural influences. Production of princess phones by AT&T ceased in 1994, although their last design was available for leasing through 1996.
The history of the princess phone contains several pop culture references. When it was originally released to the public, it was available in every color except black. Urban legends claim that black was added to the color choices in 1963 when then First Lady Jackie Kennedy requested a black princess phone. It is also commonly believed that the princess phone was the most popular phone model for toy phones in the 60s and 70s.