Tin-Can Telephone

"It's The Homestar Runner, speaking into an empty soup can, with a length of twine coming from the 'neath. Hello, empty soup can. Hello, length of twine."

"Tin can you hear me now?"

Ah, childhood. Treehouses and sleepovers and talking to your friends on tin can telephones. It's made of junk: just two old tin cans and a length of string, but it's the stuff that memories are made of. Occasionally you can see a variant that has a tube that travels underground. This variant is derived from early nautical vessels.

Truth in Television, of course, although the real thing only works if there is no slack in the string at all. In visual media, the string is just as likely to be portrayed as slack or winding its way around, under, or over things, which wouldn't work.

Of course, now that cellular phones are cheap enough that even children have them, this is a sadly disappearing relic.


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  • The Mueller commercials used this.
  • Also used by Progresso Soup here, among other examples.
    • They also now have their soup cans showing video. In one scene, the chef responding looks into the video screen on his tin can and says to the customer, "Let me put you on webcan." (Which is a cute pun on "webcam".)

  • A chapter of Yotsuba&! has Yotsuba, Miura, and Ena playing with paper-cup versions. Yotsuba keeps hers, which shows up in later chapters as her "cell phone".
  • An episode of Hanamaru Kindergarten has two toddlers playing with one of these only a few feet long, in a very loud classroom.
  • Negima!?: Kaede and Setsuna tried to make these work between their rooms however as Konoka explained they don't work between doors, much to their dismay causing them to gain +5 Absentmindedness and -3 intelligence, however it lets them hear the invisible Cute Ghost Girl nearby leading to screams.
  • Black Butler officially takes this trope Up to Eleven in chapter 71: paintings and gramophones?!
  • Tamako and Mochizou from Tamako Market uses these to communicate from their rooms. In episode 2, Dera sabotaged their discussion by standing on the line. Actually, their line was not taut enough for the vibrations to pass through some of the time.
  • The pirate captain in the first episode of Spaceship Agga Ruter has several paper cups attached to strings on the bridge of her ship, which she uses to, among other things, communicate with other vessels. The rest of her ship is fairly normal.
  • In Black★Rock Shooter, Yomi and Kagari communicate with this, as they are next door neighbors.
  • Ninja Scroll has a variant. The baddies can communicate over moderate distances by holding wires in their mouths, because one of them is a user of Razor Floss and can control it to make the sound transmit well.
  • Shown exactly as the picture above in "So Ra No Wo To" episode 8. In this universe even a regular phone is very rare, so even the cool soldier in charge of the platoon's hotline is impressed by this device!
  • Chapter 61 of Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun has Nozaki and Sakura communicating via paper-cup phones for ideas for Nozaki's manga. Sakura becomes so attached to hers that her friends comment on how neglected her actual phone has become. Suzuki and Mamiko keep their flip-phones in the end, however the experience affects Nozaki enough that he accidentally draws the two holding and talking into their phones as if they're paper-cups.
  • Used in episode 4 of season 2 in Working!! by Popura to Jun as a way for him to talk to Mahiru without getting hit by her as the latter Does Not Like Men and usually hits any guy who gets too close to her. He immediately tells Souma to call Mahiru on his cellphone, but Souma refuses, stating that not using the cup phone would insult Popura. Jun attempts it, until Souma starts laughing at him, prompting him to angrily yank at the phone while crushing the cup. They end up using the cellphone afterwards.

    Comic Books 
  • One of the official Sly Cooper tie-in comics shows the gang pulling their first heist as gap-toothed youngsters in the orphanage, the cookie jar caper, using one of these as a communicator. When Sly is almost sprung, it, seemingly accidentally, doubles as an extraction device, with Sly being pulled to safety before he is spotted when Murray pedals the getaway trike away.
  • They've probably done this in The Beano or The Dandy at least a hundred times.
  • One Donald Duck comic had Huey, Dewey, and Louie set one up between Donald and Neighbor Jones after their feuding starts taking its toll on their house. "Have a war of words!" Unfortunately, Jones feeds the business end of a live wire to his can, giving Donald a nasty shock.
  • Used and mocked (because of the need to keep the string taut) in a Harvey Comics story involving Little Audrey with Melvin and Echo (two of the main male characters). When Audrey wants to ask if the girls can borrow the boys' clubhouse for a meeting, Echo tries to "contact the chief on this" via a tin-can telephone - with the string just lying on the ground leading into the nearby bushes. Naturally, he has to shout to Melvin (hiding in said bushes) and Melvin likewise has to shout back since the tin-can phone is useless with the string slack. Echo dutifully relays the message even though Audrey can obviously hear Melvin clearly. Then, to cap it all off, Audrey takes the tin can Echo was holding and shouts her reply to Melvin into the tin can instead of just plain shouting (which obviously would have been just as effective). Although perhaps justified as Audrey "playing along" with the game, it's still funny from an adult POV.

  • In RainbowDoubleDash's Lunaverse, Trixie and Lyra use this when confronted by Octavia, a pony with remarkable hearing. Knowing that Octavia will hear Lyra if she's anywhere in the room, they go outside and run a tin-can telephone to her. This lets her eavesdrop on the talk between Trixie and Octavia without Octavia sensing her presence.

  • Exactly what the boys use to communicate with the girl across the street in 3 Ninjas.
  • Scary Movie 2 parodied this. After getting high-tech goggles and weapons, the heroes didn't have enough money for cell phones. So they used Dixie cups. Dixie cups that have only about 3 feet of string between them.
  • Used by the kids in Milk Money.
  • Short appearance in Walk the Line.
  • Shaggy and Scooby-Doo do this in Monsters Unleashed, except Scooby gets confused and holds the can to his mouth when he should be listening and to his ear when he should be talking.
  • Used by Adam Sandler and the kids in Grown Ups.
  • Played for laughs in Adele Hasn't Had Her Dinner Yet, where Detective Carter and commissioner Ledvina use a tin phone to communicate while sitting tables apart during a cabaret show.

  • One of Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings novels features a brief craze for tin can phones at the title character's school.
  • In Henry and the Paper Route (in the same world as the Ramona Quimby books), Henry Huggins is excited when a boy his own age moves into the neighborhood. In his first conversation with the kid, Henry suggests a tin can phone, but he's told that it probably wouldn't work and, at any rate, they both have actual phones in their houses.
  • Kristy of The Babysitters Club recollects doing this with Mary Anne when they were children.
  • Also appears in Alfons Zitterbacke, a children's book from East Germany. It doesn't work, probably because the kids knot the string to places (they're trying to make a really long line, between their respective rooms).
  • In Nancy Springer's They're All Named Wildfire, the two main characters live in the opposite sides of a duplex. They drill a hole in the wall so that they can pass a string through to use a tin can telephone. (Interestingly, the fact that the string has to be taut rather than slack is mentioned, as it affects the position of the hole they create.) The tin-can telephone becomes thematically important as a symbol of the Power of Friendship in opposition to racism.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the Neighborhood of Make Believe has tin phone cages that lower out of nowhere, allowing for communication.
  • Used in Pee-Wee's Playhouse with the Picturephone, except this one is actually a telephone. In Pee-Wee's world, *everyone* uses a tin can on their Picturephones.
  • Dads Army attempted to use this as a form of emergency communication in one episode but were foiled by the verger with his hedge shears.
  • This exchange from Friends:
    Ross: It would be so cool to live across [the street] from you guys!
    Joey: Yeah—hey, then we could do that telephone thing! Y'know, where you have a can, and we have a can, and, and it's connected by a string!
    Chandler: Or, we could do the actual telephone thing.
  • Mentioned in the second series of Torchwood. Apparently they don't work when the "entire. telephone. network. is down."
  • Young Blades: In "To Heir is Human," Siroc invents a tin can telephone-like device using metal cups and some string, which he uses to eavesdrop on the Cardinal's Guards.
  • In one episode of Emu's World, the "Boggle's Kingdom" segment had the villains use this to communicate. In the next episode, King Boggle adapts the idea by replacing one of the tins with a bucket mounted on the outside of the castle, to create "Radio Boggle".

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Used in Calvin and Hobbes once or twice.
  • Peanuts had them at least twice. In a 1980s Sunday Strip, Lucy gave Charlie Brown part of a tin-can telephone for use during a baseball game. In a 1999 strip, Sally was playing with one when she asked, "How do you get an outside line?"
    • One of the very earliest Sunday strips shows Shermy giving one of these to Charlie Brown. After failing to contact him a few times, Shermy finds out that "the line is busy" - Snoopy is chewing on the string.
  • A cartoon in Future Life magazine showed a flying saucer hovering next to an observatory. The alien pilot is talking to the astronomer on a tin can telephone, explaining (paraphrased): "Yes, our technology is ahead of yours in many ways but behind you in others."

    Video Games 
  • Referenced in Kingdom of Loathing, during a side-quest to the Frat/Hippy War quest if you offer to help promote a hippy jam band. If you go back right after accepting the quest, the promoter will complain that he'll have to use tin cans on a string for the PA system if you don't get some more publicity for the concert.

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 
  • The Homestar Runner (you know, the 1930s version) was implied to be talking to modern-day Marzipan's answering machine on one of these.
  • The two hosts of the weekly WrestleCrap Radio podcast, R. D. Reynolds and Blade Braxton, are implied to be conversing on one of these.
  • One episode of Happy Tree Friends had Cuddles and Lumpy playing with one. This being Happy Tree Friends, it results in Cuddles' eardrums being blown out.

    Western Animation 
  • The Wonder Pets receive their calls of distress primarily through a tin can phone.
  • In The Simpsons, Bart's tin can phone was once wiretapped.
  • D.W. once bugged Arthur's room with one of these.
    • Also, Arthur and Buster sometimes communicated this way.
  • Used on the Super Mario World cartoon, with coconut halves and vines.
  • Used a few times on Ed, Edd n Eddy, with some very bizarre Split-Screen Phone Call effects going on (people actually travelling through the string, for instance, or Ed using a sponge instead of a tin can).
  • Played with in South Park's "Wacky Molestation Adventure": After the kids have taken over the town and the actual phone system is ruined, we see a scene where Cartman yells into a tin can that isn't connected to anything. Then another kid puts a lid on the can and leaves with it. He ends up coming back, Cartman removes the lid and gets a response.
  • This was done a few times in Hanna-Barbera's version of The Little Rascals.
  • The farm on the U.S. Acres portion of Garfield and Friends has an entire system of tin cans for when intrabarnyard communication is desired.
  • In an episode of Spongebob Squarepants, Squidward used one of these to apologize to SpongeBob without actually doing so to his face; however, the attempt was foiled because Patrick was using the string as dental floss.
  • In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Party of One", Pinkie Pie uses this to eavesdrop on Twilight Sparkle.
  • In the Schoolhouse Rock short "Where the Money Goes", the father facetiously suggests to his son that if they stop paying the phone bill they can always resort to using "tin cans and a string."
  • The Powerpuff Girls: In "Impeach Fuzz", when notorious hillbilly Fuzzy Lumpkins is elected mayor, he replaces the Powerpuff Hotline with a tin can.
  • This has been used a few times in Recess.
  • In the Tennessee Tuxedo And His Tales short "Telephone Terrors", Tennessee and Chumley set up a network of tin-can telephones throughout the zoo to tell the other animals about Stanley Livingston's upcoming piano recital. Guess where Chumley got the wires?
  • Mr. Bogus and Brattus both communicate on one of these at the beginning of the episode "Bogus Private Eye".
  • On Rugrats, Angelica turns her lemonade stand into a drive-thru service by using one of these as an intercom system.
  • The Clarence episode "Goldfish Follies", to keep up with its retraux theme, has a scene where Clarence and Sumo use cans to text each other.
  • In the Wander over Yonder episode "The Hat", Sylvia and Wander get separated and communicate with each other with tin cans with transmission antennas in place of string.

Alternative Title(s):

Tin Can You Hear Me Now