A nostalgic trip back to the 50’s has to include a discussion of life before cell phones, smart phones, instant messaging, Twitter, Instagram and all those new-fangled gadgets that we take for granted these days. The advances in communication over the last 50 years are truly remarkable.
My family got their first telephone in the 1950’s. It was one of those oak, wall-mounted boxes with a crank handle. It was rather complicated to use and I don’t think anyone besides my mother ever used it. To use it the receiver was picked up and the crank was turned a certain number of times. The caller would be connected with the switchboard operator. She would be given the name or number of the person being called and make the connection. In the earliest days the numbers would be just a 3 digit number, like 3-9-7.
We lived on our farm out in the country. Farm families did not get phone service until long after the cities and towns had it. It took money for the telephone poles to be erected and the telephone wires to be strung to connect rural areas to the phone system. In the 40’s and 50’s Congress provided funding to provide long-term, low interest rate loans to rural telephone systems. The goal was to provide all Americans regardless of where they lived with quality telephone service at reasonable rates. There was no doubt that many rural families benefited from the government program.
When our family moved in 1958 to a new farm, we had a different kind of telephone and phone service. Now we were the proud participants in a party line. We no longer had to go through a switchboard, except for long distance calls, and could dial direct. Our phone was a black, wall mounted phone. When we wanted to make a call, we had to pick up the receiver and listen to make sure that no one else was on the line. The expected behavior was that if someone else was on a call you would hang up immediately thus respecting your neighbor’s privacy. Did this happen? Probably not. How else could people find out what was going on in their neighbors’ lives? We learned to not discuss anything on the phone that was not meant for the rest of the world to know. On the other hand, some people would purposely share some kind of titillating (and untrue story) just to have fun and to see how far the grapevine would carry the tale.
Each phone on the party line rang with its own particular ring: 2 shorts and a long: or 4 shorts; or 1 long and a short. The phone would ring constantly at all hours of the day or night because all of the phone calls rang in every home. Each family had to listen to the ring and only answer the call that rang with their ring. We all could recognize the ring of each neighbor and some people would always listen in to certain others calls. For some people the best source of gossip and entertainment was listening in on those phone calls. The word is in small town areas everyone knows everybody’s business. Party lines certainly helped with that.
There were huge problems and complaints when one party monopolized the phone line and stayed on the phone for hours. A gregarious neighbor might spend entire mornings on the phone. If there was an emergency, accepted etiquette was that you could cut into another call and state you needed to call the doctor or the veterinarian. Once the original call was disconnected and the emergency call was initiated, the previous callers probably picked up the phone to get the scoop on the emergency. That worked for an outgoing call. However, if someone was trying to call you because of an emergency they might have a very hard time and constantly receive a busy signal. They could dial “O” for operator. The operator could check the line and determine if there was talking on the line or if perhaps the phone was out-of-order. The operator could cut into the call and state that the line was needed for an emergency and could connect the emergency call.
It was not unusual to be on a call and hear breathing or coughing or other background noise which indicated someone was eavesdropping. People on calls would frequently make comments like, “We can’t discuss this now because someone is listening in.”
If any handset on the party line was off the hook the line was tied up for everyone. We had two sets of buildings on our farm. In the second set of buildings the phone was in the barn.Unfortunately, wayward animals would sometimes knock the receiver off the hook, thus preventing anyone on the party line from being able to use the phone. If someone picked up the receiver they would hear cattle bellowing. Neighbors would automatically know our barn phone was off the hook. More than once a neighbor had to drive to our place to ask us to hang up the phone in the barn.
Once the phone company converted everyone to private lines, a great source of neighborhood entertainment and gossip was lost.
Party lines in days gone by, another thread of my life.