Party Line Telephone

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The Party Wire (Norman Rockwell, 1919)

The bane of rural telephony for about a century from the late 1800's onward, the party line telephone is a low-cost but inferior grade of landline service on which a telephone company has connected multiple subscribers to the same physical line. More Tin Can Telephone than Shoe Phone, these "shared service lines" were a common (but annoying) fixture on every rural road, in every college dormitory and maybe in more than a few rapidly-growing 1940s or 1950s outer suburbs in the early years in which many of them still had well water, septic tanks and rural-style infrastructure.

Picking up the handset when a neighbour is making or taking a call gives not a dial tone but an opportunity to hear both sides of their conversation. Drop What You Are Doing without hanging up properly first, and you've tied up the entire line for your neighbours too. The shared line was fodder for newspaper etiquette columnists for decades. If someone needs to call the emergency services? They cannot, until whomever is already on the telephone ends the call. If they'd put a motorcar into a ditch far out into the countryside? They may have had to walk a country mile just to reach a farmhouse which had the party line telephone.

And the gossip that's fuelled by all of the neighbours being able to hear each other's calls? That could pretty much be a trope in itself... especially in small-town rural areas where everyone knew everyone else already.

In rural communities, many subscribers were glad just to have a telephone at all; in a few places, they had to run their own wires as far as the main road just to connect to the utility services. Manual switchboards with live operators who knew everything going on in the village were common in the most rural areas, where numbers often had odd formats like "123R41" (which asks the operator to ring line 123 with four long rings and one short) to reach distant farmsteads. Automated exchanges (which, in party line, invariably means rotary dial) typically had numbers which looked the same as the number for a private line telephone.

In both world wars, shortages of copper and strategic metals meant that these were the only lines available to most new subscribers, with shortages continuing in many areas for a few years after the armistice. In the most remote rural areas in the 1930s and 1940s, ten or more subscribers on one line was not uncommon – and a call to one of the phones often sent half (or all) of them ringing in some particular pattern. The furthest points in the desert may have had "toll stations" - phones where every call in or out had to go through the long-distance operator as the lone telephone line had no local calling area at all. In the most truly remote places, even a Pay Phone might have been sharing the same line with everyone else... and there would be no Cell Phone service in the most remote places, even today.

In the postwar era, telephone companies offered four-party suburban residential service as an inexpensive alternative vs. more expensive rates for two-party and private line subscribers. Most of the rapidly-growing suburbs upgraded to private lines and city-style infrastructure relatively quickly, with party lines largely forgotten by the end of the 1960s. Quite a few universities kept party lines in individual student residence rooms until the late 1980's. Their inability to support client-owned equipment like modems and answering machines ultimately became a fatal limitation; the US dropped from 4.6 million party lines in 1985 to 2.8 million in 1987, with their use tumbling rapidly as home computers began to go online en masse in the 1990s. University dormitories which were constructed in The Fifties, originally with one pay phone per floor and no in-room telephones, may well now have hard-wired broadband network connections in every room as Technology Marches On.

Now largely a Forgotten Trope. The last holdouts were, predictably, rural with maybe five thousand US subscribers still connected to some form of party line at the turn of the millennium. Even there, party lines were dying as they didn't qualify for most government rural infrastructure subsidies, didn't support Enhanced 9-1-1 for distress calls, didn't support any of the features of electronic or digital switching systems (call display, call waiting, call forwarding...) for which landline telcos could routinely charge extra. Mobile service is now available in at least a few of the rural areas which once had party lines, and the adoption of fixed-wireless (or, in very remote areas, satellite) Internet was the final nail in the party line coffin. Arguably, the worst of the rural Internet is still a poor-quality shared connection, but at least the loudest of the grievances have been silenced as neighbours are no longer hearing each other's conversations when they pick up the receiver to try to make a call.

Examples of Party Line Telephone include:

Advertising

  • In the 1940s and 1950s, telephone companies routinely ran newspaper ads promoting proper etiquette, such as not tying up the party line and putting emergency calls through first. This film and this comic from 1946 were telephone company adverts sharing this theme.
  • Various modern telephone "chat lines" or conference bridges are prone to promote themselves as "party lines" in advertising, but this is a misnomer. A conference bridge merely joins multiple calls which arrive separately on individual private lines.

Comic Books

  • A rare few titles aimed at adults (like [1] and [2]) did mention gossip and overheard calls on party lines making or breaking an engagement or romantic relationship.

Film

  • Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962). An annoying telephone party line, on which two snoopy ladies are constantly gossiping, allows Mr. Hobbs to learn of a dance at the nearby Yacht Club.
  • Party Wire (1935) is about Gossip Evolution. A lad is in a romantic relationship with a local gal; the moment he makes a sudden-and-unexplained trip out of town, the local gossip mill spins into overdrive, arbitrarily speculating that he has fled due to causing an accidental pregnancy.
  • Pillow Talk (1959), a romantic comedy, tells the story of interior decorator "Jan Morrow" (Doris Day) and womanizing composer/bachelor "Brad Allen" (Rock Hudson), a pair of apartment dwellers who share a telephone party line. Likely a Period Piece even in that era, as the big cities were usually the first to ditch the party lines after the 1940s wartime shortages ended.

Literature

  • The Dunwich Horror (H. P. Lovecraft, 1928) uses the party-line telephones to warn the townsfolk of a monster afoot in Dunwich, a fictional town in Massachusetts.
  • The Party Line (Sue Orr, 2015) is a novel about a 1970s New Zealand farming community with share-milkers, calf club days and a 'do' in the local hall. There is an established local pecking order and everyone knows everyone else's business.
  • The Party Line (Karen Alkofer, 2014) describes an American teenager (a daughter of a defence contractor's worker) whose family has been posted to 1977-era Tehran. She picks up the telephone one night to hear her downstairs neighbours discussing the imminent Iranian Revolution.

Live-Action TV

  • Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("Party Line", 29 May 1960, Season 5) devotes an episode to a party line subscriber (Helen Parch) who shares a line with two neighbours, Betty and Emma. Helen hears that Heywood Miller is back in town; when she formerly shared a party line with him, his wife died after Helen refused to get off the phone so he could call the hospital. Helen is terrified that Heywood is coming to kill her and, hearing noise coming from her basement, she tries to call police. Unfortunately, Betty and Emma refuse to believe that she is in danger and stay on the phone while Heywood appears upstairs to kill Helen.
  • The Beverly Hillbillies ("The Party Line", 14 Sep 1966, Season 5, Episode 1) One of the items in a box which Granny received from Cousin Pearl in the hills is an old fashioned crank telephone. Granny asks Jethro to connect it to a party line on the pole so she can listen in.
  • Dennis the Menace (TV series - "Party Line Trouble", 15 May 1960, Season 1, Episode 29) devotes an episode to a new neighbour's moving day. Dennis and his pals have gotten into the empty house and kept themselves busy by making constant calls on the newly-installed phone. Dennis' father, fed up with all the yakking on his party line, decides to in no uncertain terms tell the phone-hog off – only to find he's now talking to his new neighbor sharing the connection.
  • Fireside Theater (Season 3 Ep 12, 14 Nov 1950) - "The Party Line". An American anthology drama series, Fireside Theater launched on NBC in 1949.
  • Green Acres: Everyone in Hooterville infamously shared a single party line, and a frequent Running Gag was their lack of compunctions about commenting on any conversations they might be listening to.
  • Lassie ("The Phone Hog", 3 Apr 1960, Ep 212, S6 E30) – Paul is trapped in his truck by fallen power lines. Timmy tries to call for help but a local gossip keeps tying up the party line.
  • Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey bought a half-hour on West Virginia TV for a call-in show during his 1960 Democratic primary battle against Kennedy. The broadcast was plagued with harebrained, nasty, rambling or off-the-wall questions (all of which went out live); the crowning moment was a live caller being interrupted by a neighbour and told to get off the party line to allow an emergency call to a doctor to be placed first.

Music

  • The Kinks, "Party Line" (1966, the opening song on album "Face to Face"). The narrator speculates about the other subscriber silently listening to his calls. "I'm on a party line / Wonderin' all the time / Who's on the other end? / Is she big, is she small? / Is she a she at all? / Who's on my party line?"
  • Hoosier Hot Shots, "When The Lightnin' Struck The Coon Creek Party Line" (26 Sep 1941), a hillbilly 78rpm shellac record. "T’was a summers day in May, we were busy makin’ hay (hey-hey)..As we drove into town for binder twine (binder twine)..As we started down the lane it began to look like rain..When the lightning struck the Coon Creek party line. Aunty Min was on the phone, tongues were waggin’ at each home..All about the gossip goin’ on in town..There was talk of bathtub gin they were servin’ at the inn..And that Thelma Jones was chasin’ Parson Brown. Then there came a great white flash, followed by a fearful crash..All the telephones went dead at ten to nine..All those tales went untold, they were left out in the cold..When the lightning struck the Coon Creek party line. Oh the poles and splinters flew, and the wire snapped in two..And wound around the wild cucumber vine..It sure was an awful thing, not a single phone would ring..When the lightning struck the Coon Creek party line.”
  • Hank Williams, "Mind Your Own Business" (from album "Honky Tonkin", July 1949): "Oh, the woman on our party line's the nosiest thing / She picks up her receiver when she knows it's my ring"

Radio

  • Monticello Party Line, a 1930's syndicated radio soap opera, originated at WLS Chicago and is Older Than Television. The original premise of the show, a serial with 15-minute episodes, revolved around two couples and a telephone party line (though the party line was rarely used). The series is set in Monticello IL as its sponsor (Dr. Caldwell's Syrup Pepsin) was based there.

Western Animation

  • In the Rocky and Bullwinkle network TV cartoon series, the primary villains were "Boris Badenov" and "Natasha Fatale" as Slavic spies from the imaginary Soviet satellite of Pottsylvania. One episode "Painting Theft" (15 June 1962) depicts Boris Badenov listening in on a phone call on a party line, then uttering "The party line is my country's answer to the thinking man's filter" as an obvious play on words: under a Soviet-backed communist dictatorship, citizens would have to stick to the "party line" (as opposed to being a "thinking man") or face retribution.