The Party Line (non-political)

Rotary phone
Our original phone, as best as I recall, looked pretty much like this. Photo credit: Infrogmation (talk) of New Orleans.

It is a failing to which old men largely tend, to talk about “the way it was when I was a boy.” We like to imagine that younger people are interested in this information. As a not insignificant bonus, it gives us the opportunity to brag about the sufferings and deprivations of our youth. There’s a subtext that says, “I’m tougher than you, punk, and if you don’t think so, just try me.”

We call this “passing on tradition.”

Somebody on Facebook recently asked about things we did and used when we were young that kids today just wouldn’t understand.

My immediate response was, “Party Lines.” You may have even run across the term “party line” at some point, where it did not refer to the agendas of political parties. This denotes the party lines of my youth.

I shall speak to you now of Party Lines.

I grew up, as some of you know, on a farm. The most common way of having phone service out in the country, back in those days, was the party line. A party line meant that several subscribers shared the same service line. If a call came in for one of the subscribers, it rang on all the phones in the “party.” I think there were three in ours. You knew which call was yours by the ring code. It was like Morse code. Different subscribers had different rings. Ours, as I recall (feel free to check me on this), was “one short, two longs.”

You could tell when a call came in for other members of the party. You didn’t know when they hung up. So sometimes you’d pick up the receiver to make a call, and another subscriber would be talking. You would politely hang up then, and wait for them to finish. Which you would test by picking the receiver up again, as many times as necessary.

I suppose some people eavesdropped. None of our neighbors was interesting enough to tempt me to do that.

This was before direct dialing, of course. If you wanted to make a long distance call (which called for much prayer and fasting, because speaking long distance by telephone was essentially frivolous, and objectively expensive), you dialed “0” for the operator, who would place your call for you.

I’m pretty sure the operator in our town was a woman when I was young. Operators were generally women. But I also have an idea that the last operator, before our town went to direct dialing, was a blind man. I seem to recall a story about him in the local newspaper.

We did not feel deprived. The telephone, though about 75 years old when I was born, was still a marvel of modern technology, and my grandparents loved to tell us how they never had one when they were kids.

4 thoughts on “The Party Line (non-political)”

  1. I don’t remember party lines, but I do remember the term from when they were a real thing.

    H. P. Lovecraft made pretty good use of a party line in “The Dunwich Horror” (perhaps the most anti-Christian of his stories, btw). As i recall, people are listening in as someone on the line is describing terrifying events occurring in his vicinity, till It gets him.

    Wasn’t there a famous short story by a woman that involved someone overhearing, on a party line, a woman who feared for her life — a story that was adapted for radio play, movie, and old TV series?

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