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.
Years 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.
Image by qousqous
The original social networking was the party line telephone of the 1900's.