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Tin-Can Telephone

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"Can you speak up? Your voice is a little tinny."
"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, playing baseball in the vacant lot, 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.

Even before the ubiquity of cell phones, they had largely been supplanted by cheap walkie talkie sets by The '70s. Of course, now that cellular phones are cheap enough that even children have them, this is a sadly disappearing relic.


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  • 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".)

    Anime & Manga 
  • 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.
  • In Bloom Into You, the episode ending animation for the anime has the paper cup version of this crossed with Red Stringof Fate for good measure.
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean: Jolyne's Stand "Stone Free" allows her to unwind her own body into a string which can transmit sound. The author even notes that the ability uses the same principles as tin can phones when describing it.
  • 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 Sound of the Sky 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 Monthly Girls' 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 Wagnaria!! 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.
  • Time Stop Hero: When the dragon Bahamut is in the sky, he or his rider can lower one of these with a very long string to communicate with people on the ground.

    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.

    Comic Strips 
  • 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."

    Fan Works 
  • 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.
  • In Absolutely Not, Dumbledore has Snape and Harry use one which is charmed to be perfectly audible no matter where the participants are.
  • In Harry Potter and the Miniature Magical World Professor Babbling mentions that Fred and George got the idea for their Extendable Ears from seeing two Muggle children talking on one.
  • In Through the Cupboard Caleb created one which works very much like Fred and George's Extendable Ears.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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. Cindy still attempts to use them when she and Buddy are trapped in a freezer.
    Cindy: "There's no signal! Must be the walls..."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A poster for In the Loop depicts two politicians holding one of these with a tangled-up piece of string, accompanied with the tagline "The Fate of the world is on the line."
  • The talking tube variant appears in The Happening, as Elliot and Alma end up talking to each other through this as they are separated from each other during a chemical attack by the plants.
  • The Little Hut: The three castaways marooned on the island use conch shells and string to place phone calls to each other.
  • The Wasteland (2021): Lucia gives Diego one of these for his birthday. They use it to communicate at various points in the movie.

  • 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.
  • In the picture book Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon, Molly Lou's new neighbor Gertie starts to call her on her cell phone, only to be impressed when Molly Lou instead dangles a tin-can phone she made herself through her window and calls her.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the Neighborhood of Make Believe has tin phone cages that lower out of nowhere, allowing for communication.
    • This is referenced in the spin-off Donkey Hodie. The telephone system in Someplace Else, as seen in episodes such as "Panda Hodie" and "Poetry Problem", is a tin-can telephone system.
  • 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. It's a holdover from The Pee-Wee Herman Show, which was even more absurd: Pee-Wee had a tin-can switchboard!
  • Dad's 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".
  • Murr from Impractical Jokers had the challenge of trying to sell wireless cans with antennas.
  • In one of the team tasks in series 4 of Taskmaster, tin can telephones were used to hide the fact that the contestants were being given different, contradictory tasks.
  • Mayday: The captain of Northwest Airlines Flight 85 discusses this in an interview as an analogy for the sound quality of communicating with the flight operations center while out over the ocean.

  • The two hosts of the weekly WrestleCrap Radio podcast, R. D. Reynolds and Blade Braxton, are implied to be conversing on one of these.


    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 Animation 
  • Homestar Runner:
    • The Homestar Runner (the 1930s version) was implied to be talking to modern-day Marzipan's answering machine on one of these in "Marzipan's Answering Machine 13.2".
    • At the end of "Strong Bad is in Jail" cartoon, Strong Bad is somehow able to use one of the cans in his jail cell (the one labelled "EWW") to prank-call Marzipan.
  • One episode of Happy Tree Friends had Cuddles and Lumpy playing with one. This being Happy Tree Friends, it results in Lumpy's eardrums being blown out, rendering him deaf for the entire episode.

    Web Comics 

    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.
  • Sponge Bob Square Pants:
    • In "Fools in April", 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.
    • "Drive-Thru" sees Mr. Krabs using this as a makeshift microphone and speaker when he decides to use the hole in the dining room wall as a drive-thru. When Pearl and her friends speak into it with a megaphone, badly damaging Squidward's ears, he demands that Krabs replace the microphone system with a real one, as well as pay for his ear replacement surgery. Mr. Krabs, of course, refuses.
  • 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.
  • Danger Mouse: Crumples the Clown uses one to feed DM information on the aliens' culture in "Attack of the Clowns".
  • The Smurfs episode "The First Telesmurf" uses the talking tube variant with overgrown smurfmelon vines, where a Smurf uses the same blossom both to speak into and to listen from.
  • Goof Troop: Max and PJ have tin can telephones connecting both their bedrooms.
  • Variation: The Looney Tunes film "Heir Conditioned" has an alley cat ringing a cowbell in a gutter downspout to contact another cat sleeping on a roof to tell him about Sylvester's inheritance windfall.
  • Family Guy: In "Throw It Away", Lois chides Peter for wanting to keep a tin can on a string, asking why a grown man would even have one, before cutting to his friends listening into the other can in their treehouse.
    Joe: Sounds like things aren't going well at the Griffins'.
    Cleveland: This is why no girls allowed!
    Quagmire: I hate to do this, guys, but Peter's been compromised. [cuts the string]
  • Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum: The crew attempts to use tin can phones in the intro for "I Am Alexander Graham Bell". They can't get the phones to work (clearly, they hadn't been told that the string has to be stretched taut), and they quickly end up getting tangled up as they walk around trying to figure the phones out.

Alternative Title(s): Tin Can You Hear Me Now