The Telephone in the Early 1900's

The party lines on the early 1900's phones were a community experience.

My grandmother was born in 1907. In the 1980's she wrote down dozens of her memories from her childhood for her children and grandchildren. This is one such story she wrote about her experience with the telephone in the early 1900's.

antiquetelephoneYears before there were big telephone systems, many very small companies were in use in our area of Indiana. It was not uncommon for neighbors to have different lines, and be unable to communicate by phone unless they had both lines. The more affluent had at least two phones. We had only one, and it served our need well except at cherry-picking time, when Auntie took calls on one of her two lines and then relayed them on her second phone which was on the same hook-up as ours.

How did they work? There were always six or seven on one line. To reach the operator you turned one long crank of the little handle on the side of the phone box, a lady answered and asked who you wanted, and she rang them. If she wasn't busy, sometimes she would chat a bit before ringing the number desired. No one on your line heard you call the operator, but if a call came to someone on your line, all line members heard.

How did they distinguish who the calls were for? There was a system of rings — as two short-one long, one short-one long, etc. — and neighbors soon learned who was being called by the code of rings. If someone wanted to know what was going on at some home, all that was necessary was to listen for the ring, and quietly slip down the receiver off the hook and listen in. This was such common practice that a third party (listener) often joined in the conversationg making it three-way, or, at times, four-way, if another decided to join in, not far different from the modern day coffee break.

In case of illness neighbors seldom phoned the home, but depended on the neighborhood listening service for information.

While there was much non-essential talk, there was a dearth of boy-girl conversation or even girl-girl talk. Who wanted to whisper sweet nothings, or have the talk about "him" literally broadcast over the community.

It was complicated, inefficient, often out of service, but it did form a link of togetherness that scattered farm families would not otherwise have.

There was a class distinction of a sort because those who could affort two phones were considered in a higher socio-economic group, but in the case of emergencies those who had shared willingly with those who had not. Thus the community was bound together by a myriad of wires and brown boxes with a hand crank on one side. Another time, another era — but definite progress in the evolution of communication.

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The original social networking was the party line telephone of the 1900's.

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  1. Kimberly Hall says

    This is such a great thing to have to pass down to your children and for generations to come. I tried to interview my grandmother before she died to get stories about my mother, uncle and my brothers and I when we were little, but she was too ill at the time to be recorded. Never miss the moment to write down the stories about your children when they were little so that they will have them forever! It is a wonderful treasure to have. When mine were born, I started a diary for each of them. The times I write get farther apart, but doesn't mean they are less important. I think one day they will mean a lot to them when I am gone.


  2. American Texan says

    What a treasure! I know a lady born in 1909 and while she tells stories occasionally, I wish she would write them down.


  3. says

    OK so telephone systems have advance but when you hear stories like this it makes you question whether it is for the better. It seems to me that these older ways of working on telephone systems used to add something to society and this is maybe why communities don't have such good communications overall. The question is whether 21st century telecommunications has lost a little for our communication on a neighborly basis. Even winding the handle on the phone seemed a lot more involving.
    .-= Ringo Bell´s last blog ..Telephone Systems Direct =-.


  4. Joyce Sheets says

    This article brought back many memories. When I was about nine years old, my sister (who was a year and a half older) and I would work all day and into the evening for a lady who had other things to do. We had the old upright switchboard and the rack of fuses (I think) bbehind it. Whe it stormed and there was a lot of lightning, the little room would light up. My grandma had the old wall phone and her ring was two longs. We moved next door and ours was two longs and a short. 37R221. If one of the farms around town had a fire, they called in and we plugged in all lines close to them and pulled back on all the keys four long rings. If one of the neighbors didn't answer their phone, we could tell those trying to reach them that they had gone to town for the day. They would call in and tell us. My parents nad one ot the old wall phones in their home and now my brother has it. I know I am going on too long, but it shrely did bring back many memories. When the phone exchange turned over to dial, my Mother took over as secretary. She had been the operator since 1950. Of course, back then the switchboard closed at midnight except for emergencies.


  5. Heidi Mittiga says

    Don't be nostalgic for those days. We had a 2-party line in the 1960s because the private line was more expensive. One lady monopolized the phone every afternoon. If we needed to make a call, we had to ask her politely if we could just use it for a few minutes, as if it belonged to HER. Whenever my friend and I were talking, she'd pick up the receiver every few seconds to see if we were still on the line. Sometimes she'd pick it up and listen in on our conversations, and there was nothing we could do to stop her. It was infuriating! My dad didn't understand our plight, because he never made calls. Thankfully, the problem resolved itself when the phone companies did away with the party line!


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