How Did Party Lines Work

>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.

Same here. Our neighbor used to listen in on our calls. I still remember my mother saying, “Are you listening in again, Ethel? You just hang up!”

In the 1960’s where I lived, there was no choice for private residential lines. The phone would ring normally if they called your number. You might hear one short ring if they called somebody else on the party line. Once the line was in use by anybody on the line, anybody trying to call in for any household on the line got a busy signal. You had to sometimes ask the other person to hang up, because of an important call. This is definitely a major reason for people to not talk for a long time on the phone. The phone company even had in print to not use the line excessively, and to let somebody call out in emergencies and such.

The old crank phone system did give everybody on the same line a different combo of long and short rings.

thanks for the info. I was confused because I never saw them turn the crank on the phone and I was wondering how they got the bell to ring. How many combinations could be on a line? For instance if “Gussie’s” number was 2 longs and a short that is a total of three rings. But would that mean you couldn’t with the same party and have a ring that was longer or shorter than three rings (regardless of whether they were long or short?)

Hell; That was my Dad’s old number!

My wife had a party line in Vermont in the mid '70s. I suspect they really went away when SLCs (Subscriber Loop Concentrators) were introduced. These are the boxes that sit on lawns, and multiplex n subscriber lines to m < n lines to the office. No additional copper needed for the long loop - and no extra lines in the switch either.

What did local doctors do? Even in the 1960s it would seem essential for a physician to have a private line in his or her house.

Quite possibly. In a real rural area though, where you’re talking about a handful of houses in a couple miles of road, you may still have a long run to an SLC.

Another reason was probably purely for marketing reasons - it was hard to encourage people to use the phone more and make lots of long distance calls to keep in touch with relatives when they also had to be careful of tying up the party line. Reducing the cost of a private line until you effectively phase out party lines will be more than offset by increased toll call and long distance revenue.

When we moved to the fast-growing suburbs of St. Louis in the early 1960s we were given a two-party line because the houses were going up faster than the phone company could add lines. After a year or so, we finally got our own line.

Someday I’ll have to tell you young’uns about my father’s 1970-style answering machine, which was the size of a standard desktop computer.

There was no technical limitation to the number of rings that could be on a line, (And I’m sure your grandmother was glad her ring wasn’t 1 long, 2 short, 2 long, 3 shorts and a long!) but there was (and still is) a technical limit to the number of ringers on a line due to the power needed.

Off the top of my head, if the phones all had “long-distance” 5-bar magnetos, (to make a stronger ringing signal than the smaller 3-bar units) they could probably handle a dozen or so phones on a line, but more likely, they’d only have closer to five to seven phones on the line, just to keep the combinations simple for humans to remember.

Our party line afforded me lots of entertainment when I was a child and listened secretly to old biddies gossiping. Occasionally, one would hear a noise on my end and start asking if anyone was listening in. Then she could hear the sounds of me trying to keep myself from snickering. They were a lot of trouble if YOU needed to make a call, though, and the other parties stayed on a long time.