Party Line Histroy
What technological change has affected the telephone most? And what cultural change has made the most impact?
High strength plastic has probably made the most change to the telephone instrument. For the telephone system as a whole, the vacuum tube and then the transistor made the most change. Cultural? Perhaps the demand for privacy, an insistence for single line service after World War II. The telephone can be a true, personal communicating device only when we are not sharing that line with someone else.
Party lines for non-business subscribers were the rule before World War II, not the exception. In cities and country, most people shared a line with two to ten to twenty people. You could talk only five minutes or so before someone else wanted to make a call. And anyone on the party line could pick up their receiver and listen in to your conversation. I think single line service, which took until the early 1970s to become nearly universal, has allowed the telephone to fully develop into what we know it today, a way to make personal and business calls in a relaxed, comfortable manner. That we don't think about single line service as enabling the telephone is a good thing. You see, it's only when technology becomes secondary, when we no longer notice it, does it become truly liberating.
Mind Your Own Business -- Hank Williams Sr. -- 1949
Oh, the woman on our party line's the nosiest thing
She picks up her receiver when she knows it's my ring
Why don't you mind your own business
(Mind your own business)
Well, if you mind your business, then you won't be mindin' mine.
Digital times, private lives are breaking up party lines, by Rick Hampson
Copyright USA Today Information Network Oct 23, 2000
Abstract: Although party lines are thought of as a staple of rural life, in fact some big cities had quite a few. In the 1920s, they made up fewer than 10% of the phones in Detroit but more than 60% in Minneapolis and Oakland. The 1959 movie Pillow Talk, in which Doris Day silently and indignantly listened in as Rock Hudson wooed other women, was set in New York City. But that was a fantasy; by 1930, neither New York City nor Washington, D.C., had a single party line.
You could try to shame eavesdroppers into hanging up -- I've got more to tell you, Elsie, but someone's on the line -- and wait for the sound of a quiet, guilty "click." Or two people on the same line might arrange to pick up at the same time -- say, 2:11 p.m. -- and not alert eavesdroppers with rings. But mostly, [Eleanor Arnold] says, "you just didn't say too much on the phone. I still, to this day, have the feeling that if it's private, you don't talk about it on the phone."
In Pillow Talk, New York still reigns supreme. To let us know that the film is about S-E-X, it opens with Doris pulling a stocking on a long, elegant leg. She lives alone in a fabulous New York apartment on Park Avenue. Rock lives in an adjoining building. The basic gag of the film is that they share a "party line," which means that poor Doris can hardly get a word in edgewise, thanks to all the "last night was wonderful, when can I see you again" calls that bad-boy Rock gets from his multitudinous girlfriends. Doris accuses Rock of being a sex maniac, while he patronizingly expresses sympathy for her situation: "The only thing sadder than a woman who lives alone is one who thinks she's happy that way."
In olden times, people didn't have individual phone lines. However, the idea that this would still be the case in 1959 on Park Avenue is the second least believable detail from Pillow Talk.
Digital times, private lives are breaking up party lines, by Rick Hampson
Full Article: About 5,000 of 167 million access lines in the nation remain hooked up to more than one household, but 90% of those party lines are telephonic ghost towns.
Maybe you remember when eavesdropping was as easy as picking up the phone; when, instead of urging us to "reach out and touch someone," the telephone company warned not to talk too long; when you counted long and short rings to know a call was for you.
Maybe you remember the party line, once this country's most common, most affordable and most frustrating form of telephone service.
But the party's almost over. Party lines have disappeared from some states and been outlawed in others. In Mississippi, once served largely by party lines, Bell South says it has two left: one with four homes on it, one with two homes. And this summer, the last few hundred Bell Atlantic party lines in Pennsylvania were converted to private service.
Party lines are telephone lines shared by more than one household. No one knows exactly how many remain in the nation, but there are very few true ones -- perhaps 5,000 out of 167 million access lines. No telephone company offers new party-line service, and existing party lines are gradually being converted to single party lines.
Although they are slightly cheaper than private lines, most party lines can't handle digital signals and don't allow users to have services such as caller identification, speed dialing and call waiting.
'The telephone habit'
Homer Benedict, 100, had a party line until a few weeks ago at his home in South Kortright, N.Y. To get Lifeline service, which allows people to summon help by pressing a button they carry around with them, he had to get his first private line.
For years, he shared the telephone line with the woman next door. When he was working in his yard, she would pick up on his ring and summon him inside to take the call. After her death a few years ago, their line became a party line in name only.
In fact, about 90% of what phone companies call multiparty lines are really telephonic ghost towns. They're old party lines that over the years have lost all but one party -- a single household still billed at a party-line rate for what amounts to a private line, and thus might pay a dollar or two less a month.
When John Holdsworth and his wife moved recently into his grandparents' old house in Rindge, N.H., he found that the place technically still has a party line, "but we were the only party on it."
At 70, however, Holdsworth can recall when that same line had several households, and the only way his grandparents could tell a call was for them was to listen for their three short rings. Before making a call, they had to pick up the receiver and make sure no one was already on the line. And while they were talking, there was nothing to stop one of the other parties on the line from picking up and listening in.
Today, when one home might have six phone lines, it's hard to imagine six homes on one line. But 70 years ago, most people had party lines. In the Bell System, 36% of residential customers were on two-party lines, and 27% were on four-party lines.
In the late 19th century, the Bell System had used the cheaper (and less profitable) lines to get more Americans hooked on what company executives called "the telephone habit."
The ultimate goal was to move customers on to more expensive private lines. Accordingly, "the object of this (multiparty) service will not be accomplished unless the service is unsatisfactory," Bell chief engineer Joseph Davis said in 1899. "It therefore requires that enough subscribers be placed on a line to make them dissatisfied and desirous of a better service."
Although party lines are thought of as a staple of rural life, in fact some big cities had quite a few. In the 1920s, they made up fewer than 10% of the phones in Detroit but more than 60% in Minneapolis and Oakland. The 1959 movie Pillow Talk, in which Doris Day silently and indignantly listened in as Rock Hudson wooed other women, was set in New York City. But that was a fantasy; by 1930, neither New York City nor Washington, D.C., had a single party line.
Nosiness and neighborliness
In the Midwest, however, half the residential lines were party lines. On the farm, the phone, even with as many as a dozen families on a line, made life easier. You could summon the doctor, learn farm prices, contact a neighbor down the road. A special "line ring" -- such as nine short rings -- invited everyone to get on the line to warn of trouble or spread good news. Merchants could buy ads via line calls to announce sales and prices.
When a blizzard stranded families in rural Kansas, each family on a party line lifted the receiver and entertained each other with jokes, poems, piano playing or "whatever they could do," says Robin Sherck, director of the Museum of Independent Telephony in Abilene, Kan.
"Back then," she adds, "the telephone was such a wonderful new thing that people didn't mind sharing a line."
However, the bane of the party line was what some called "rubbering" -- eavesdropping. In the days before radio and television, your neighbor's conversation might be your entertainment.
Claiborn Crain, a government public relations man in Washington, grew up on a farm outside Amarillo, Texas, in the 1950s. His family's ring was three longs and a short, "but everybody on the line'd pick up," he recalls. "They wanted the gossip."
A woman who recently visited the Museum of Independent Telephony recalled attending a 4-H meeting at the home of another family on the same party line -- a family she was sure, but couldn't prove, had been eavesdropping. During the meeting, the phone rang her family's ring, but one boy jumped up and headed straight for the phone -- until he froze and looked back sheepishly. "I'd caught him," she laughed.
Sometimes you could judge, from the strength of the signal, how many people were listening in. Sometimes you could hear them.
"My mother-in-law breathed heavily," says Eleanor Arnold of Rushville, Ind., who had a party line until 1969 -- her first 21 years of marriage. "You could always hear her."
Ruth Irwin, who grew up in Mississippi, was on her party line one day describing a ball game when a male voice suddenly cut in: "No, that wasn't the way it was!"
You could try to shame eavesdroppers into hanging up -- I've got more to tell you, Elsie, but someone's on the line -- and wait for the sound of a quiet, guilty "click." Or two people on the same line might arrange to pick up at the same time -- say, 2:11 p.m. -- and not alert eavesdroppers with rings. But mostly, Arnold says, "you just didn't say too much on the phone. I still, to this day, have the feeling that if it's private, you don't talk about it on the phone."
And you didn't talk too long, a point driven home by phone company literature on telephone etiquette. "You'd say, 'We've been on long enough, someone else might be needin' the line,' " Arnold says. "I still get that feeling, too, if I've been talking for a while."
Though the lines lacked privacy, they helped build a sense of community. If several calls in succession to the same number sparked worries that something was wrong, others would pick up and listen in to find out whether there was anything they could do to help.
"It wasn't really nosiness, it was neighborliness," Helen Musselman of Hamilton County, Ind., told an oral history interviewer in the 1980s. Now, she said, "it's cold. . . . You don't know what your next-door neighbor is doing."