In 1876, Scottish emigrant Alexander Graham Bell was issued a patent for what would become one of the most revolutionary inventions since the birth of Christ, the telephone. As the decades followed and improvements were made to the device itself, the basic technology of the phone lines themselves changed relatively little over the next century.
As telecommunications companies raced to link communities, homes and businesses together they encountered numerous challenges in connecting a nation that is 3.79 million square miles in size.
In an effort to bring the wonders of the telephone to all Americans, they devised a plan that was as ingenious as it was primitive: Connect all phone customers to the outside world via a single phone line; a party line. This line served as a local loop in which multiple customers shared the same line.
For all of its benefits, i.e. more affordable pricing for customers, bringing phone lines to rural America, etc., there were also severe negatives that accompanied life on the party line — there was absolutely no privacy and one’s neighbor needed only to pick up their phone to silently listen in as the other party talked.
Party lines worked excellent in the early days of telecommunications, as the phone was not used for chatting endlessly for hours but instead served as a tool for contacting someone in a distant location in order to quickly disperse factual information and then hang up.
As the phone became more of a staple of American life in the century that followed, one by one telephone providers began doing away with party lines except in very rural areas, where the costs of supplying each distant home with its own line prohibited this from being done in a cost effective manner.
While party lines were a faint and distant part of history for the rest of the nation, in many parts of Appalachia and the American West, party lines remained in place through the 1980s and into the early years of the Bill Clinton Administration.
These lines were extraordinarily unpopular, due to the lack of privacy each phone user was subjected to every time they spoke in a phone conversation. They were frequently used as a source of entertainment and gossip.
Neighborhood teenagers would often complain that the elderly woman next door was listening in to their conversations, while the older people in a community denounced the younger generation for clogging up the line and prohibiting everyone else from placing important calls.
One fun joke that kids soon discovered was that if they dialed their own number then hung up the phone, all phones on the party line would ring.
During World War II, 75% of Pennsylvania used a party line and in many Appalachia communities this percentage did not change for many decades. Telephone companies encouraged customers on party lines to limit their phone conversations to a maximum of five minutes and various state laws required that in case of an emergency, all individuals had to yield the party line to the person seeking help.
It was not until 1989 that the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company replaced party lines with private lines in Talcott, West Virginia, a rural area which once had as many as sixteen subscribers on a single line.
One of the greatest things which led to phone companies discontinuing the practice of party lines was the invention of answering machines and computer modems, which were not compatible with party lines.
If you remember the days of party lines, you can take great pride that you lived through what can best be described as “the good o’le days”, though many kids today would hardly describe having the contents of their phone conversations available for the entire community to enjoy.
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