JACK BATDORFF: The infamous telephone party line

Party Line.

Do those two words ever reverberate with memories!

Whewee!!

And what a history!

The party line system was first used in 1878, when the first commercial telephone switchboard was installed.

The Bell System started out using young boys/men as switchboard operators … and ran into a little problem.  They discovered young men were a bit tainted with their phone etiquette and tended to be a bit pranksterish.

They therefore switched to women, who they found to be far more dependable and professional.  Imagine that!

During the middle of the 20th century, there were still a majority of Bell subscribers in the U.S. and Canada who still were being serviced by party lines.

Why? It offered a discount for users over individual services …which makes sense.  And … during the wartime years and the few years that followed … these were often the only lines available due to wartime rationing of strategic metals such as copper, a critical metal in phone lines.

With the advent of the party line, a whole new set of problems were spawned.  The biggest one was this thing called PRIVACY!

Party lines, not meant to be used scandalously, were.   They often served as an entertainment source (how well I can remember) and a source for this thing called gossip!

Multi-lines soon became a vital source of information for the advice columnist.  And it spawned the term “rubbering,” which explained it with some accuracy!

On the flip side, party lines did have their good side.  They was often used to quickly notify entire neighborhoods of emergencies, such as fire.

Party line users were encouraged to limit their calls to five minutes.  If there was an emergency, they were told to immediately get off the phone to allow the person where the emergency was originating to call the police, an ambulance, etc.

This caused several difficulties and many jurisdictions mandated you to end your call immediately if someone on the party line needed the line for a crisis.

I can vaguely recall somewhere during the early 1970’s, a young girl and her mother in Colorado were given stiff sentences after refusing to relinquish a party line to allow an emergency call as three boys were drowning in a pond.  It made the national news circuit.

We had a party line in Manistee.  Although it didn’t last long, I can still remember our “call letters” or coded ringing, as it was called. It was one long ring and two short rings.

There’d be dead silence in the house when the phone started to ring … everyone wondering if it was our ring … or one of several other people along the loop.  I can’t recall how many phones were on our line, but there were a bundle.

When you were on the phone, you could always hear the clicks as someone else along the line checked to see if it was their call.                                                                                     

AND … you could always tell when someone was listening in on your conversation.   The first click was normally followed by a second click as that person checking the phone supposedly rang up.  Sometimes … imagine that … it didn’t happen.

I suspect every party line had at least one Sneaky Pete, who would push down the disconnect release on the phone by hand…and then, without hanging up, release it and try to listen in.

How do I know?  Dah.   Because I, being a bit mischievous in those formative years, was one of them.   I did it a few times for entertainment…and then I felt too guilty and quit.  Naw…my nose is growing … truth of the matter is my mother caught me and threatened me with bodily harm if I did it again!

And I didn’t.

However, I did argue the point I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t do it while my mom’s mother…my grandmother Annie…did it all the time “for entertainment,” as she used to say.

But … I lost that argument too!

One person on our line … I never found out who ( but had my suspicions), used to always listen in on our conversations. I knew it was an older woman, because she could never mask her breathing.  Plus her raspy hand-covered cough was always a dead giveaway.   

As a kid, I remember plotting with a classmate on the same party line to teach this person a lesson.  We came up with an outrageous plan and gave a detailed snippet on how we were planning on breaking into high school at midnight on the following Saturday evening…and we discussed in detail all the nefarious things we’d be doing.

When that Saturday night approached, we waited in a nearby alley…in full view of the school.

Just like clockwork, city police quietly approached the high school from the front and rear just before 11 p.m. and settled in to catch the despicable school pranksters.

We left shortly after the anointing hour chuckling and chortling all the way home.

The next evening we got back on the party line and applauded our success over the phone.

And gave raspberries over the phone to the gal who we knew was also on the horn.

We never had a problem with the party line gal after that little episode.

I can still remember a friend of my parents who was always miffed because she knew someone was rubbering on her line.   This gal finally taunted the eavesdropper by saying, over the phone, “I’m really tired of having Mrs XXXXXX XX listening in on our phone conversations.”   At which point, THE Mrs. XXXXXX XX replied with indignity “I am NOT!”   Ooops.

I recall another similar event which occurred on Prince Edward Island.   It seemed this visitor was trying to make connection with his home base in New York…and knew there was always someone listening in. Frustrated, he finally said into the phone “I don’t mind your listening in, but would you PLEASE quit your wheezing.”   With a great deal of outrage and defense, the culprit answered “I do NOT wheeze!”   Ooops again!

Ah yes, those were the days.

Simpler? Yep.

Wanna’ go back?  Nope.

Now… this is for our more mature (old) readers that might remember the party line system. Do you remember what your first private phone number was?  Mine was 411. 

Have a super weekend … and watch out for pranksters!

Jack Batdorff is the chairman of the Pioneer Group. Email him at jbatdorff@pioneergroup.com.

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