From their invention back in the 19th century, well into the 1970s, all telephones and telephone networks in the United States with the exception of a few areas, were owned directly or indirectly by American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) or "Ma Bell." AT&T was composed of regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs) such as Pacific Telephone or New York Telephone; other divisions of AT&T and parts of the Bell System included Bell Laboratories (Bell Labs), AT&T Long Lines and Western Electric, the manufacturing arm. All telephones, all components of the public switched telephone network (PSTN), and all devices connected to the network were made by Western Electric and no other devices were allowed to be connected to the network.
Western Electric telephones were leased by subscribers and never sold, and so had to be repaired at no charge if they failed. This led Western Electric to pursue extreme reliability and durable in design. In particular, the work of Walter A. Shewhart, who developed new techniques for statistical quality control in the 1920s, helped lead to the legendary quality of manufacture of Western Electric telephones.
AT&T's only serious competitor in providing phone service was General Telephone and Electronics (GTE), which operated its own manufacturing arm, Automatic Electric.
Western Electric innovations included the Princess and Trimline telephones of the 1960s, and the development of touch-tone dialing as a replacement for rotary dialing.
When AT&T was broken up by court order after an antitrust lawsuit, telephones and telephone equipment was and continues to be made by numerous competing manufacturers; and Western Electric no longer exists as such. As a result, modern telephones are more cheaply made than were Western Electric models.
Some people never purchased telephones after the AT&T breakup and continue to lease their existing Western Electric models from their RBOC, such people have paid for their telephones ten times over!