How Did Party Lines Work

I was watching another one of them “old timey” movies from 1942 (it was American and set in the rural south, I think Arkansas), anyway they had a party line.

The guy says “I need to make a call, what is Gussie’s number, 2 longs and a short?” I thought in a party line you just like picked up the phone and asked for a party and the operator rang it, like on The Andy Griffith Show. I wasn’t aware you could ring it yourself. And if this is so, how did you go about physically ringing “Two longs and a short?”

Also at the end the local boy was killed in World War II and the guy wants to tell the town. He says to his business partner “Well just do five short,” the other man says “That’s the fire alarm,” and the first guy says “It’s an alarm of sorts.”

So just how did a party line work in the “old days.”

To this day, my former father-in-law, when he’s in doubt about someone’s telephone number, asks “What’s his ring?”

I don’t remember how the calling portion worked, but I do remember that the phone would ring, ring, riiiiinnnngggg when the call was for our house. You could also lift the receiver and here other people’s conversations but that was something that you would get a spanking for.

What you’re thinking is a manual exchange; everbody calls the operator and she plugs a few wires around on a switchboard to connect your call.A party line meant multiple households sharing the same telephone line. Only one household could make or recieve a phone call at any given moment (though others could listen in). When someone called all the phones would ring, but each house had it’s own ring. Your ring might be 2 short rings and one long ring and your neighbor might have 2 long rings and 2 short rings. Needless to say privacy was minimal.

Actually, in later days the coded rings were replaced by bells that would ring at different frequencies of the ringing signal. You didn’t have to listen for your ring any more, you just had to listen for a ring.

This didn’t solve the problem of picking up the phone to make a call and finding the line in use.

My grandparents kept a party line on the phone at their vacation home into the late 1980s, as it was cheaper. Then the phone company did away with that service pretty much altogether.

I think that if you were on a party line you could ring one of your neighbours without going through the exchange. So when

presumably Gussie is on the same party line, and you just ring the code for Gussie. The operator at the exchange would not pick up the call, because you aren’t sending the code for the operator, and the other people on the party line would know it’s not for them, so they shouldn’t pick up and listen (though in real life they might, and might even join in the conversation if they were on friendly enough terms).

My grandmother had a party line and I caught hell for picking up the other party’s ring. That was in Tucson in 1968. Seems as though a city of that size in that decade that had department stores and such would have gotten to the individual line system by then, but there ya go.

By how long you turned the crank. Perhaps one turn for a short ring, and three for a long, so to ring up Gussie, you’d walk up to the phone, pick up the receiver, listen and hope to hear silence, grab the crank, and turn-turn-turn pause turn-turn-turn pause turn, then wait for them to answer.

If you needed the exchange, typically you’d crank out one extra-long ring to get the operator’s attention.

This refers to ringing by turning the magneto crank on an old fashioned phone. Generally this would signal the operator, but you could ring in sequence and get the party you wanted as well, as long as they were on your line.

The operator would have to connect you to other exchanges, as well as place long distance calls for you.

All in all, it makes a person glad he has a cell phone. Even if the damn thing rings in church or in the movies.

My grandmother had a party line at around that time. She lived in Cleveland, which had about thrice Tucson’s population. However, individual lines had long been available. My grandparents had had one, but money was tight after Grandpa died and my youngest aunt was still in school, so the party line saved a few bucks.

It should be noted that two different forms of party line have been discussed in this thread.

The older form (as displayed in the movie) required the caller to take some action to set the number of rings on the line. It was probably the crank on the side of the old wall phones, but I do not know that that was the only method.

The later form, (that we had in suburban Detroit at least as late as 1966), tended to be paired phones (although they might occasionally have three or more), for which one dialed the number and the switching equipment at the phone company set the number of rings. It was rather like having two phones on one line in one’s house, today, in that only one outgoing call could be made and a second in-coming call would get a busy signal, but once a call was connected, anyone on the line could pick up the phone and listen or join in. (As noted, that was beyond rude. The phone company would accept complaints about eavesdroppers and cancel their phone line if that continued.)

Even when individual lines were widely available, party lines were also offered as a less expensive option. This was in Minneapolis in the 1970s, maybe also your grandma’s situation in Tucson.

Does anyone know when Chicago gave it up? I know we never had one in the 'burbs. We moved there in 1960.

Just as you’d think that someone who could afford a vacation home could afford a private line for it, but, again…there you go.

I thought party lines existed mainly for people who wanted to save money, rather than because the phone company didn’t have enough lines in an area. But phone service definitely was a lot more expensive in real terms, in the 1960s than it is today, and people fretted over toll charges even if they were comfortably well off. I had a great aunt who lived in a nice little house in Beverly Hills a few blocks south of Wilshire, (d.1964, barely remember her). We lived a few miles away from her, and my father and uncle worked together in downtown L.A. To save toll charges, Aunt Ethel would call my mother, who was then supposed to relay her message to my dad the next time they spoke, as this was less expensive than placing a call to downtown L.A.!

Well, they could afford it. But my grandparents were thrifty people, and didn’t really go on vacation to talk on the phone.

Besides, they were a steelworker and a nurse before they retired. They had some disposable income, but it wasn’t as if they were rolling in dough.

Our cottage STILL HAS a party line. Guess they haven’t updated it from when it was built in the 20s. Our ring is one long and one short. Two other cottages are on the same number (two short or two long). You don’t pick those ones up.

There was definitely some of the latter, too, in rural areas where local loops were very long. We had one in rural PA in the 1960s, and I don’t believe we had a choice. Eventually, the lines in the area became private. To upgrade the number of lines available, the phone company had to run a LOT of copper for a small number of subscribers, and for quite a while it simply wasn’t worth it to them.

I grew up with a party line in rural Ohio in the early/middle 1950. The phone was a box on the wall in the kitchen with the mouth piece bell sticking out of the middle and a crank on one side and the ear bell on the other. To make a call you picked up the ear bell, spun the crank a few times and when the operator came on (“Number please”) you told her (it was always her, usually Clarabelle Kanagy whose husband ran the hardware store) the number you wanted or, more often who you wanted to talk to (“Clarabell, hook me up with the feed mill, please”). The operator was the 9-11 system too (“Clarabell, Dad’s been thrown by the bull. Get Mr Keeling and the ambulance out here right away.”). A long distance call was a real pain since you had to go through three operators, the local operator, some operator at the mysterious Central and the local operator at the other end.

An in-coming call rang all the phones on the line but there was a code. A call for us was three rings, a pause and three more. A call for the Yoders was two rings and a call for the Crofts was two rings, a pause and one ring. You would think the phone would be going off all day long but people were pretty cheap and phone calls, even local calls cost money. As others have said party line people were pretty good about other people’s privacy although I suspect that Clarabell learned more than she should have.

Because my father was a physician we got a private line just as soon as it was available – as much as anything so that midnight emergency calls for him did not disturb, or tempt, two other families.

Yeah, but this still only illustrates the difference between their time and now, when we have multiple land lines in the home without thinking about it, plus a cell phone for every family member.

We had a party line in the house that I grew up in. To call someone else who was on the same party line, you had to dial their number then hang up - otherwise you would get a busy signal. After a while you would pick up the phone to see if they had answered. If I remember right, we would wait 20 seconds before picking up. Also, if you answered a call and there was nobody on the other end, it was probably somebody on the same line calling you, so you would patiently wait for them to pick up.