The party line

This vintage dial phone is exactly (except for the colour; ours was black) like the one we had in the Manse, which was on the proverbial party line. This red one, which I bought years ago at an antiques-and-collectibles shop on rue Notre-Dame in Montreal, works perfectly. I like to call it the hot line. For when I have to get Khrushchev on the blower.

In a comment on a recent post I did about how the news gets around in a tiny community, my friend Lindi Pierce noted that one sure way was the old-fashioned party line. In 2012, mass communications being what they are, you can hardly believe that we once had party lines. (Actually, I think we still do. I am pretty sure the phone at the old farmhouse at the Sedgwick family farm in Haliburton County is on a party line. Incredible!)

I suspect some readers won’t even know what a party line is. Basically, it means that instead of having your own private phone line, you share it with a few other households. If someone from one of those other households is on the phone, a) you can’t use it yourself and b) if you’re naughty, you can listen in on your neighbour’s conversation. Not that anyone ever did that, of course.

A party line was cheaper than a private line, and was very common when I was a child.

There was a different ring for every household on the line, so that you’d know if the incoming call was for you. At the Manse, ours was one long ring. Others could have had a long and a short ring, or two long rings, and so on.

My father was used to having a party line, and followed party-line etiquette. Whenever he picked up the receiver he’d immediately ask “Using?” That was, I think, considered politer than just waiting to see if a conversation was taking place.

We kids were strictly forbidden from listening in on neighbours’ conversations, but of course we tried it from time to time. I will never forget my embarrassment one time when two women in the community (I don’t recall who) were chatting away about nothing very important, when suddenly one of them said, “I think there’s someone listening in on this.” Of course I immediately hung up as silently as I could. That was doubtless the last time I ever tried it.

The other thing I remember about our phone at the Manse is the number: 473-2110. But in small places in those days you didn’t have to dial the full seven digits; 3-2110 would do it. We would have thought it strange that in 2012 we would have to dial the area code and the full number, even for a local call.

There were a lot of good things about those older, simpler times. Short phone numbers being one of them. Party lines? Maybe not so much.

8 thoughts on “The party line

  1. Long..two short. And the phone number? (which a prospective caller would have to request of a real human operator) – 31O W12. Not long ago I found a 1958 phone book, while I was rummaging a shelf at the archives where I sometimes volunteer, and looked up the number listed beside my dad’s name. Dad was always a bit timid about using that phone – mom would coach his occasional phone orders to the grist mill for animal feed. Time travel. Thanks for this one, Katherine.

    • More and more I think that what I am doing with this blog is reminding myself (and all who care to listen) of what (in retrospect particularly) was interesting and memorable about those days. I’m so happy it brought back a good memory to you, Lindi! One thing I do not have in my memory bank is telephone numbers that included letters. I think I must have just missed that.

  2. I can remember visitors shifting uncomfortably as we all sat around and just let the phone ring (this was long before answering machines or voice mail). We’d finally realize what they were thinking and tell them that ring meant it wasn’t for us. I can also remember multiple clicks from increasingly irritated neighbours during overly long teenage conversations about very little. And suddenly I sound about 200 years old, don’t I?!!

  3. I was lucky enough to have a house hold that ran a business & the party line we were connected too was also a business.. so when they were closed it was just us.. Sundays were home free. Private line all the way.. I also remember my mom & dad using a phone on the wall that they would wind & pick up the receiver.. is that dating yourself? We also had a black phone with a tab you would pull up to talk. So when you picked up the phone it would still ring & who ever answered the call you could hear without anyone hearing your breathing.. but of course you would never listen in on another private call.. right? Katherine you do bring back many fun memories:)

    • Oh my lord, Marykay, you say I bring back memories, but you do too! I had totally forgotten about how you could have two settings for the button on the cradle for the phone receiver so that if you didn’t lift it up to the top setting, no one would know you were “on the line.” I would never have thought of that again if it weren’t for you. Thank you for the memory!

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