Party Lines

This post has nothing to do with the Democratic position on anything.

It’s not about snorting drugs at a teenage bash.

It’s about the old-time party line. Today one might call it a conference call but when I was a kid, it was just the way the telephone system worked.

I swear I can still remember the old-fashioned box-like wooden phone hanging on the wall at my grandparents’ house. Is that possible? Were they still around in the late ’50s? When that old phone went to telecommunications heaven, a newer version hung in its place. One with a real dial – not just the receiver you rattled to wake the operator.

Our phone line was not our own. We shared it with the neighbors – three or four if I recall correctly – in a system that was known as the “party line.” Party lines were the way to go; they made it cheaper to own a phone. I doubt that anyone in our farming community could afford a private line. We each had our own number and our own distinctive ring. Ours was two consecutive rings. I remember waiting for the second ring before dashing to pick up the phone.

One sharer of our party line was Esther. Esther was the quintessential party line snoop. We were warned at an early age to be careful what we said while on the phone since Esther would surely spread any and all news. When we answered the phone we carefully listened to hear the click of someone – likely Esther – picking up their handset to listen in on our conversation.

Not that the “snooping” never worked in reverse. Sometimes you would pick up the phone to make a call and discover that the line was already in use. A polite person would hang up the receiver as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the conversants. But ohhhhh, it was soooooo tempting to simply listen. Of course we didn’t consider it snooping – we were just listening in case there was something important to know.

And then there was the fire ring. As a member of the volunteer fire department we were privy to a “special ring.” An emergency call was made not to 911 or the county emergency line. It was placed to a local number which belonged to a phone in the home of a designated volunteer. When the call came in, the special ring went out to all volunteers. It was one long ring which continued until you picked up the phone. At that point the designated volunteer would relay the information regarding the nature and location of the call and off we’d go. Since we lived on a four-corners about 2 miles from the firehouse it was often my dad’s (or grandfather’s) job to “flag traffic,” making sure the trucks and volunteers could safely navigate the crossroads. If there were an accident or house fire we might share our home with the “victims” – giving them a meal, shelter until relatives came, or a place to sleep for the night.

When I was a kid, so many households didn’t have phones at all. They were expensive to own, even if you were on a party line. Long distance calls were pricey, made through the operator – and long distance might be as close as across the road. What we see now as a necessity was, back then, somewhat of a luxury – right up there with owning a television.

It’s interesting to consider all the things that are considered necessary now that were mere pipe dreams then. We should make a list…but that’s a post for another day.

3 thoughts on “Party Lines

  1. It's not only odd to think of how much has changed in so little time, but also how short some people's memory is; I imagine a lot of people would be aghast at the idea of having to share their phone line with others. It also strikes me how much it encouraged a sense of community and responsibility, which makes me wonder: is the luxury of the private line partly responsible for making us such increasingly self-centered people?


  2. I recently read an article about these services being grandfathered to people who had them personally and refused to get a new service plan with the telco. But now I guess with MIDs and smartphones the new thing is maybe going to be a engineering problem of increasingly merging the old PDA concept with cell phones and with portable media players. Maybe if we ever manage to free ourselves from capital, the next thing could be universal WiFi VOIP as a public utility, with metro area WiFi connections providing a publicly owned 'cloud' of wireless VOIP service to something like the MIDs that we're starting to see now. Maybe even optionally attach our identity to them and do things like vote while riding in a car. heck maybe a passenger could look at maps on the internet on a MID.


  3. This was really interesting to read, as you forget how many people went without the \”necessities\” throughout their daily lives. The telephone, television, internet. We consider these as part of daily living and essential to our happiness and the structure of our households. Maybe we would actually be happier without them sometimes, though.


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