The Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum exhibits rotary dial phones.

Meet the Curator: Sharon Krist of the Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum

Wednesday May 10, 2023

By Rachel Huffman

Whether you remember life before smartphones or not, we think that you’ll have a blast poking around the Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum.

The self-guided history museum in Jefferson Barracks Park has hands-on displays alongside an extensive collection of telephones manufactured from the late 1800s through 2012. By acquiring, preserving and exhibiting telephone-related artifacts, the museum aims to engage visitors in experiences that inspire interests in the fields of history and engineering.

Its exhibits also invite people to reminisce about the comical lack of privacy on a party line, the juvenile joy of three-way calling, the newfound freedom of cordless phones and other happy memories of telephonic communication.

There are approximately 1,500 artifacts on display at the Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum at a time. During your visit, you can marvel at military telephones from World War II through the Gulf War, operator switchboards from the 1920s and 1960s, a variety of novelty telephones and a telephone poll complete with climbing equipment.

“We try to immerse people in the exhibits,” assistant curator Sharon Krist says. “We have a pay phone demonstration, for instance, where visitors can drop coins into the telephone, and they learn that telephone operators used to listen to the sounds of the coins to determine how much money was added. Back in the day, there wasn’t a mechanism to tell the operators how much money you put into the pay phone – that’s unbelievable, isn’t it?”

If you have any doubts about it, ask to speak with the museum volunteer who started working as a telephone operator 42 years ago. She did just that!

Everyone who works at the Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum volunteers their time – and most of them worked for telephone companies throughout their careers. “Personally, I spent 33 years in the yellow pages business,” Krist says. “We also have people who worked on telephone equipment, while others worked in IT.”

A variety of phones are on display at the Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum.

Here, Krist shares more information about the most interesting exhibits at the Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum, including the new character telephone exhibit, which runs through July 31.

What are some of the must-see exhibits at the Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum?

We have everything from wood wall phones to candlestick phones and rotary dial phones to touch-tone phones. Many people have never seen these telephones, which adds to the intrigue of the museum. The fun doesn’t stop there, though. We have St. Louis phone books from 1880, 1889 and 1904, which was the year of the World’s Fair, and visitors can flip through the white pages from 1967, which is neat because some of them find the phone numbers of their grandparents or their aunts and uncles. We also have a Strowger switch [the first commercially successful electromechanical stepping switch telephone exchange system] which was invented to bypass telephone operators. Our stepping switch is connected to two rotary dial telephones, so you can pick up the first phone, dial the second, and when the second phone rings, someone else can pick it up. It’s fun to see the faces of kids when they interact with that exhibit.

Why is the preservation of telephone-related artifacts important?

Historic preservation, in general, is an important way for us to transmit our understanding of the past to future generations. It helps us tell stories. Without places like the Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum, kids might never know what it’s like to use a rotary dial telephone or a pay phone. It’s also a nostalgic experience for adults. I hear a lot of people talk about the party line or three-way calling or their first cell phone. The museum brings up a lot of good memories for people.

You can see character phones in the shape of a basketball, Mickey Mouse and more at the telephone museum in St. Louis.

Tell us about the new character telephone exhibit at the Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum.

We have approximately 150 character phones in our collection, and we exhibit half of them at a time. Character telephones were introduced in 1968, when Walt Disney released a Mickey Mouse-themed rotary dial phone. After that, Snoopy and Bugs Bunny got their own models. Over the years, more and more character phones were produced as giveaways to loyal customers – that’s how our Keebler elf telephone came to be. Character phones are cute and photogenic, but they also give us a glimpse into the past. We have a Cabbage Patch Kids telephone that debuted in 1984, when the dolls were really popular, as well as a Pac-Man phone from 1980, when the video game was up-and-coming. My personal favorite is Mickey’s Dixieland Band, an animated phone that doesn’t ring; instead, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy all play their instruments when someone calls.

A real hidden gem, the Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum speaks to people of all ages. What will you learn during your visit?