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.