When you pick up the telephone at your home or office, it’s a given that the call will take place over a private line.
You know that whether you initiate a call with one, two, three, or more individuals, only those you’ve specifically included will be on the call.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, party lines, which are a type of shared / group telephone subscription service, were the dominant type of phone service for decades.
By the 1950s, when they were just starting to fall out of favor, roughly 75 percent of all residential customers in the United States were on party lines.
What is a Party Line?
A party line is a local telephone line shared by two or more subscribers. When the party line was in use, any other subscribers could pick up their telephones and listen in. This meant that there was absolutely no privacy. If you needed to make a phone call and the line was in use, you’d simply have to wait your turn. In most states, if you had an emergency and announced your emergency as such, the other parties were legally obligated to hang up so you could make your emergency call.
Whose Line Is It? How Recipients Recognized Calls Intended for Them
When someone called the group party line, all of the telephones within that group would ring. Can you imagine the chaos with dozens of people answering at once? Fortunately, the telephone company had an answer for this: custom ringtones (or “signal codes” as they were called back in the day)!
According to the Cyclopedia of Telegraphy and Telephony, the signal code for each “station” typically consisted of combinations of long and short rings, much like Morse code’s dots and dashes. For example, station 1 would be notified with one short ring while station 2 would receive two short rings. Recognizing that people would have difficulty interpreting ring sequences above five, the higher numbered stations would use long and short rings. For example, station 11 would have a signal code with one long ring and one short ring while station 12’s signal code was one long ring and two short rings.
Thus, if your home was designated as station 11, you’d keep your ear out for one long ring followed by one short one.
While common sense would dictate that people would only pick up the telephone when their signal code rang, reality was a different story. Eavesdropping was a serious concern, so much so that the Bell System produced a short film and a comic book about party line etiquette in 1946.
Not only was eavesdropping considered rude, as it is today, having multiple parties connected to the line at the same time drained local batteries and impaired the ringing efficiency of the party line due to the way the current passed through the infrastructure.
Determining the Size of a Group Party Line
The phone company had to weigh several factors to determine how many stations to place on a single party line. It wasn’t a matter of the central office’s capacity, but rather finding the balance where multiple parties could use the party line without undue interference from other users and easily interpret their own signal codes without having to suffer through non-stop ringing.
Telephone “traffic” was also analyzed. In general, city dwellers tended to make short, two or three-minute phone calls whereas rural callers tended to chat for much longer – up to a half hour or more. Thus, rural party lines typically had fewer subscribers than their urban counterparts.
Party Lines Phased Out
As you can imagine, having to wait a half hour or longer to maybe get a chance to make your own phone call was annoying — and knowing that your conversations were likely being listened in on unsettling. Private lines were available, but there was a backlog during World War II. By the 1950s, private lines became more readily available and party lines fell out of favor between the 1950s and 1970s. Local circuit loops, however, found a small niche with young adults for a time, with topic- or interest-specific party lines serving as a pre-Internet social network. Between 1988 and 2000, most big phone companies had eliminated party lines altogether.
Looking back at the way phones were used in the past, we realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Today, three-way calling and conference calls are excellent choices for family and business communications. Fortunately, all the negatives of the old party lines, such as lack of privacy and having to listen for your own signal code out of many, are long gone.
Old Bell Party Line Etiquette video here: