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?

It’s Too Hot to Write

You don’t need anyone to tell you that in practically every area of the country this past week, it’s been unbearably hot. In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, like many others, there has been a heat wave.

Mister B has recounted in earlier posts how we boomers used to keep cool in the age before air conditioning. There was another family tradition of sorts in the Mister Boomer household that occurred during heat waves back then, that probably will resonate with many boomers. That is, once the temperature started rising for a few days in a row, Mister B’s mother would declare, “It’s too hot to cook.” And that was that. She had the first and last word on the subject, so the stove was off-limits. She couldn’t stand the heat, so she was staying out of the kitchen.

Instead, her declaration was the starting gun for Mister Boomer’s dad to grill in the backyard. On such short notice, the meal would have to be whatever was on hand. That usually meant hot dogs or hamburgers, as these were made from inexpensive ingredients that were always stocked. Mister B and his brother would trek down the basement stairs to the storage area where the circular charcoal grill was kept in its original box. One carried it while the other grabbed the charcoal and charcoal lighter. We brought them up the stairs, through the back door and into the yard. There, the Boomer Brothers would flip the box over to spill the contents onto the grass. There was the shallow, black circular charcoal pan, a grill top, and three legs. One brother held up the charcoal pan while other slid the chromed legs into the pre-formed sleeves on the bottom of the pan to form a tripod cooking station. They placed a crumpled page of newspaper in the bottom of the pan and dumped charcoal on top of it. Mister B’s brother then took great delight in squirting charcoal lighter over the entire contents. After a quick run to the kitchen, where matches were kept, he ripped off a paper match, struck it on the cover strip, and tossed it onto the charcoal. With a big woosh of flames the pile came alive, setting the stage for cook-master dad.

So, in the spirit of Mister B’s mom and her “it’s too hot to cook” declaration, I’m declaring it’s too hot to write this week. Instead, please enjoy this encore presentation of classic Mister Boomer posts about how we beat the heat:

Keeping Our Collective Cool

Boomers’ Cars Breezed Along … Without Air Conditioning