Can you imagine sharing your smart phone with 5 or 6 other families? In rural Arkansas when we were born, the party line was the only phone service available. Our mother recalls only 3 homes that even had a phone, and they were connected to 5 other families. Luckily, there was a phone at the general store, and the owner was generous enough to let his customers use the phone.
Our mother shared a story that speaks volumes about the times. A young man asked to use the phone at the store. The owner inquired of the young man who he would be calling and the purpose of the call. He replied that he was calling his friend to make plans for later. It took seconds for the owner to respond-since the friend only lived a couple of miles down the road, he suggested that the young man just walk to the house to talk to his friend.
My earliest memory of the party line was my grandfather’s casual approach to just picking up the phone regardless of whose personalized ring he heard. He would sit in the rocker eavesdropping on everyone’s call, and then happily share the news with all those around.
Sometimes, if more than one of the partly line members would be listening in, the connection would get weaker and weaker. Finally, the proper recipient of the call would angrily call the others by name and tell them to hang up!
Just to put it in perspective, however, eavesdropping was a constant complaint to the phone company-it wasn’t just my grandfather being nosey!
“The 16-party line service was basically used as an intercom. One person would call somebody else on the line and everybody would pick up,” said Kenneth Pitt, a spokesman for Bell Atlantic.
The other major complaint? Phone hogs-people who would not release the line, knowing others were picking up to dial out.
The party line speaks to a slower, simpler time. For me, I kind of like not sharing my phone. Sometimes, nostalgia is overrated.