Who Remembers Telephone Party Lines?

These multiparty phone lines created a lot of problems—and a lot of good gossip.

Telephone technology has come a long way even in my lifetime. As a young child, I loved the tactile experience of churning my great-grandmother's rotary phone. In a hurry, I still grabbed the wireless and pressed the buttons, but I couldn't stray too far from the receiver. The antenna's signal was weaker than a watered-down cocktail.

white rotary phone on table

My niece, now almost 3, snaps to attention every time my grandmother's landline rings. "What's that?" she quizzes, looking around in a near panic. Certainly no teenager will know the horrors of T9 texting, a technique we once had to use to tip-tap our way to messages by pressing 4-4-3-3-9-9-9 just to type the word, "hey."

But even I, as a geriatric Millennial, was amazed to hear that neighbors once shared the same phone lines, and the practice of these multiparty lines didn't end as long ago as you might think.

What Were Party Lines?

It sounds a little like a square dance move, or maybe more like a carnival dance, but it's actually a shared service line for the telephone, also known as a local loop telephone. Phone providers utilized these multiparty lines to connect many homes to the same telephone line at a time when the supplies, especially the wires, needed to install a telephone system were expensive and difficult to obtain.

I first heard of the party line when my mother shared a story about a time they accidentally left their telephone off the hook. Her Aunt Monte, who lived next door and was on the shared party line, picked up the phone only to hear my mom's pet birds merrily squeaking and chattering at the other end of the line.

Phone companies first started using party lines in the late 1800s, and by the mid-20th century, they were used across the country, in populated areas as well as rural ones. But it's in the rural areas where they were most utilized. Connecting multiple homes to a phone service over large distances often wasn't worth the expense to the phone company.

Even in cities or more populated areas, folks had an incentive to keep using the shared party line: Phone companies offered it at a discount to private lines.

My dad recalls his family's phone number: 299L. But he doesn't remember how many families were on the line with them. My mom's family shared a line with just one other family, their cousins up the hill.

Each home often had a unique ring to signify which home should pick up the receiver, too. My mom recalls their line was two quick bursts of the phone's bells. The line next door was a longer ring.

It wasn't uncommon for party lines to have 4, 6, even more than a dozen houses on the same line, each with their own distinct ring.

The Problem With Party Lines

As you can imagine, sharing a busy communication line with other families presented problems. Back before we all had our own mobile phones, it wasn't uncommon for fights over phone usage to erupt in the same house. Now multiply that by multiple families, some known and others not, over a geographic area that wasn't always entirely clear.

Prolific talkers kept phone lines hot—and kept others from using the lines. Legislatures and local officials had to go so far as to pass laws that made it mandatory for people to hang up if someone else got on the phone and said they had an emergency. Even then, not everyone complied.

There's also the ability to listen into other calls. As you might imagine, that was a goldmine for gossip and a source of old-fashioned entertainment.

A family friend relayed the story of the time her younger brothers, sensing she was talking to a boy she was fond of, ran across the street to a neighbor's house and picked up the receiver so they could giggle and babble over the two budding lovebirds. Soon, the whole neighborhood knew the suitor's name.

It also spurred a lot of irritation—and even a letter or two to newspaper columnists. A 1967 newspaper article from the Virgin Islands shared a letter from a disgruntled party line user who asked a columnist for advice on a "line hog." The columnist, Mary Haworth, suggested advice seeker T.P. give the line hog a taste of her own medicine—dial over their protestations.

In 1957, St. Petersburg police arrested two men suspected of running a bookmaking operation out of a storefront and using a party line phone to take all their bets. Their gambit didn't last long, however. They were raided after a month in business, in part because some of the city's well-known local business men were among the clients and called that shared line.

person in vintage outfit talks on green phone

Getty Images

What Happened to the Shared Lines?

Party lines reached their peak in the mid-20th century. As phone installation and supplies became easier and cheaper, installing private lines became more feasible for companies and individual families, too.

In 1971, Southern Bell announced they were phasing out the use of party lines in North Carolina. A newspaper headline, echoing sentiments we hear every time one technology gives way to a new one, called telephone party lines "a victim of progress."

In 1987, 2.8 million people were still using party lines, but that number fell quickly as new signaling systems and technology, like call waiting, call forwarding, and answering machines pressed the need for individual lines. The Internet certainly couldn't work on a shared line.

Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. started shutting down party lines in West Virginia in 1989. Texas held out a while longer. In 1992, Southwestern Bell announced they'd stop offering the service and convert party lines to private.

Today, party lines exist mostly in folklore. Grandparents recall prank calling everyone on the party line or alerting the entire neighborhood to big news with one quick call to all phones. I brought the topic up after running across an old advertisement and seeing a phone number listed with three digits and a letter, the way party line phone numbers were written then.

Party lines are still used today, though rarely. These areas must be built for a distance-limited loop, like camps or small communities, all places that are just a bit too rural for big infrastructure investment even today.

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