Boomers Tossed the Party Line

In telephone parlance, a party line was one phone line shared by two or more households. According to Bell Telephone history, the practice of sharing a line started in the late 19th century. At that point, the telephone was not yet in every home, and a party line was an economical way to introduce new users to phone service. It became the predominant package for home use. Into the early twentieth century, the telephone was thought of primarily as a tool for emergencies and the spread of pertinent family information (which usually meant bad news). Consequently, each phone call lasted no more than a few minutes.

As early as 1899, Ma Bell sought to make the party line undesirable so people would opt for the more expensive single, or “private,” line. Bell would place up to 20 houses on a single line to purposely complicate a consumer’s use of the phone. By the 1920s, people were moving off the party line, but the Depression put a crimp in Bell’s big picture. By the time the country’s economy was recovering, World War II came along. Many people, whether through tradition, inertia or family economics, kept their party line — much to the chagrin of Bell Telephone.

After the war and into the early boomer years, the use of the phone grew from an emergency tool to one of increasing social communication. Women were required to return to their homes after “manning” the factories while the men were at war, and now, at home and having babies, they used the phone to “reach out and touch” family and friends. As phone call times increased in duration, the frustration factor grew for party line users. It would seem that no matter when you wanted to use the phone, another person on the party line had beat you to it. Some neighbors used the direct link as an opportunity to eavesdrop on another neighbor’s conversation, while others were flummoxed by its inconvenience.

The 1959 Rock Hudson/Doris Day movie, Pillow Talk, portrayed scenes of a one-on-one confrontation between neighbors in New York City who were sharing a party line. Of course, the party line in the movie was used as a plot vehicle to get the two characters together. In real life, party lines in New York had all but disappeared after 1930.


The Rock Hudson character in Pillow Talk was a real ladies’ man, while Doris Day’s character was more of a homebody, career woman.

In the Midwest of Mister Boomer’s youth, party lines comprised about half of all telephone lines until the mid-60s. Mister B’s family had a party line connected to at least three or more other households. Often times, merely picking up the phone meant you were in the middle of someone else’s conversation. By picking up your receiver, a click could be heard by the actively speaking parties. That would prompt a terse, “We’re on the phone!” comment that would require you to instantly hang up for the sake of phone etiquette.

Mister B’s mother was constantly exasperated by the perpetual chatter on the phone every time she wanted to make a call. He recalls his mother yelling into the phone, “You’ve been on the phone over fifteen minutes! Give someone else a chance!” or, in periods of extreme frustration, “This is an emergency! Will you please get off the phone!”

Around 1962, she had had enough, and petitioned Mister B’s father to get a private line. That time period coincided with Bell moving people away from the two-letter phone number prefix to one of all numbers. Mister B’s household received their private line and new phone number that enabled direct dialing to and from anywhere in the world. It consisted of a three-digit area code and three-digit exchange, followed by an addition four-digit personal number (see Boomers Dial Up Some History).

As the Bell System introduced push-button phones around 1963, touch-tone dialing was replacing the older pulse dialing of a rotary dial phone. This technology conveniently required a private line, so it became another way Bell could move people off the party line and into a higher monthly payment bracket. Most households had dropped the party line option by the 1970s.

Do you have family memories of a party line, boomers?

Boomers Dial Up Some History

Everyone knows the first practical application of the telephone predated the boomer generation by a hundred years. Nonetheless, we boomers have seen our share of telephone history, not the least of which was the gradual transition from phone exchanges starting with numbers, then names, then letters and on to the ten-digit numerals of today.

In the late 1800s, phone calls were placed through an operator (they were mostly women). The operator would literally sit in front of a switchboard that had a slot for each of the phone numbers in any particular exchange. She would plug a call from one number to another on the exchange by way of a cord with a plug at each end, thus connecting the caller to the home of the person he or she wished to reach. At first, phone exchanges were named by two to five numbers.

By 1910, however, there were more than 10,000 phone numbers for operators to sort through in New York City. As the amount of phone numbers grew — especially in the larger cities like Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and New York — the urgency to change the naming system became a practical necessity. The prevailing thought of the day was that people would have a hard time remembering a series of more than five numbers, so recognizable names were chosen to represent telephone exchanges. The person placing the call would then tell the operator the name of the exchange — such as Murray Hill, Butterfield, Dunkirk, Fairmont or Glenview — and the one to three numbers that followed it that made up the person’s phone number. You could tell a lot about a person by their phone exchange name, because it placed them into a geographical area and neighborhood.

This system served the telephone industry well for nearly four decades, even as long distance calls became more feasible through the 1920s and into the ’40s. Boomers will recall famous movies that had references to these telephone exchanges, such as Butterfield 8 with Elizabeth Taylor and Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

As direct dialing appeared during the boomer years of the late 1950s, letters had been placed in positions around the phone dial to correspond to the ten numbers of zero through nine so the exchange names could be shortened to the first two letters for dialing purposes. Ultimately, it was decided to add five numerals after the two letter digits (i.e., Murray Hill 45678 was dialed directly as MU4-5678).

Naturally, as boomers began to make and listen to their own music, phone exchange names found their way into the mix. Most notably, the Marvelettes recorded Beechwood 4-5789 in 1962. Bell Telephone had started a transition to all-number phone numbers as early as 1958, but the Marvelettes would show that it was to be a slow transition that had not reached every area four years later. For most boomers, it would be the mid-60s before all-number phone numbers would affect their family’s home phone. In fact, all-number phone names weren’t universally accepted nationwide until 1980, as immortalized by yet another song, 867-5309/Jenny by Tommy Tutone, in 1982 — twenty years after the Marvelettes made that Beechwood number famous! How’s that for spanning the boomer years with telephone history?

Mister Boomer recalls as a wee boomer having to learn his two-letter and five-digit home phone number and write it on the first page of his school books — in pencil, as required, of course. Somewhere around 1962, however, the letters were replaced with their numerical counterparts. The area code, which added three numbers at the beginning of the phone number, would only come into play when dialing long distance. For some families the transition necessitated a change of phone number. For Mister Boomer, his family moved to a “private number” from a “party line” (which we’ll discuss at a later date in more depth) at that time and their long-held phone number changed. If your family is anything like Mr B’s, that “new” phone number still rings on the phone situated on the kitchen wall four decades later.

What memories do phone exchange names bring back for you, boomers?