Sunday, October 22, 2006


The party line

Last Sunday, NPR aired an item about Ten Chimneys, the Wisconsin house of vintage stage stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The house was restored and turned into a museum in 2003, 20 years after Ms Fontanne's death. The web page is worth a look even if you don't want to listen to the audio, because there are some good photos there. I particularly like the "cottage" on the grounds, which is bigger than most people's houses.

Anyway, my memory was tweaked by a passing reference of one of the neighbours to whom they spoke. Karen Rosecky said, of the visitors to Ten Chimneys while the Lunts lived there, "We had a party line, we always knew who was coming." It's odd what sends one back, isn't it? Today when we talk about "the party line" we refer to a standard statement reflecting one's organization's policy or stance. But back then....

Back then, when telephone service was rather less robust than now, one often shared a single telephone "line" with one's neighbours. All those on the same "party line" would hear the same thing when they picked up the telephone, as one would now by picking up two phones in the same house. In earlier days of telephone service, that was all that was available. Later, one could get a "private line" as a luxury service, and eventually the party line was phased out and everyone had private lines. In the early 1960s we had a private line, no longer a "luxury", but a number of my relatives still had party lines, so I remember them, and how they worked.

One had to be careful about having private conversations in those days, listening closely for the telltale click of a neighbour picking up the phone to put an ear into one's business. Cooperative, polite neighbours would avoid listening in, but many were not so polite. And in some communities it was accepted and acceptable to pick up the phone openly, and join in the conversation. It's that environment that Ms Rosecky evokes, where everyone shared their comings and goings, and the party line was used to communicate freely throughout the neighbourhood. We only have her implication, of course, that this was all fun and consentual.

As I remember, my family was decidedly less sanguine about it. People with party lines and nothing better to do would often pick up the phone just to see if anyone was on, and would listen in on whatever they found there. That fed the gossip channels, as word got around about Aunt Sylvia's fight with Aunt Rose, or Cousin Fred's liver disease. And, of course, it meant that if someone else was talking on the phone, you couldn't be — it was a shared resource. So it was common to have to pick up the phone and say, politley or less so, "I need to call someone, and you've been on for ages now!"

Party lines. Assistance from "the operator". Mnemonic "exchanges" — phone numbers in Croton-on-Hudson all used to start with "271", which was rendered as "CRoton 1"; the Peekskill exchange was "PEekskill 6" (736). Artifacts of a bygone day. Even "long distance calls" barely exist any more, with "anywhere in the US and Canada" phone service. We'll no longer hear, "It's for you... and it sounds like it's long distance!"

The party line contributed to both conflict and closeness within a community, a bit of Americana that went away with advancing technology.

1 comment:

Paul said...

I remember having a party line at our cottage when I was young. If I remember correctly, our ring was long-long-short.