The Old-Fashioned Party Line

We are in the process of winding up work on the 2011-2012 phone directory, which will come out in August. While the project was going on, talk turned to times gone by, when we were kids and the party line reigned supreme. The party line was not just a rural phenomenon. I was a city girl, growing up in 1950’s Milwaukee, and my family was on a party line when I was a young child.

In the years before World War II, party lines were the primary way residential subscribers received local phone service. The same telephone line was shared between two or more customers who were directly connected to the same local loop. Usually just two to four urban residences shared the same line; in rural areas as many as twenty parties might be connected, although ten was the average limit.

Different systems were used to identify the customers on a line. Originally, operators used individualized rings for each subscriber, in patterns of long and short rings. Other subscribers heard each ring and might decide to pick up the phone and listen to your conversation.

All this noise was annoying to most folks, and, as time went by other methods of ringing were developed. Later systems applied multiple ringing frequencies for fully selective ringing. Equipment at an individual subscriber’s location could distinguish several different ringing signals so only the desired party’s phone would actually ring.

With this system, the only inconvenience of a party line was occasionally finding the line in use when picking up the receiver to make a call. This lack of privacy was a cultural fixture of life for many decades, providing both entertainment and gossip.

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.

Those were not the days for teens to hang on the telephone either, a practice which later became the equivalent of today’s constant texting. Keeping calls brief in the party line era was considered courteous. In fact, many areas still have laws requiring a person engaged in a call on a party line to end the call immediately if another party needs the line for an emergency.


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