Boomers and the Singularity: One Was the Only Number — Part 2

We’ve talked about how baby boomers grew up with a series of ones in their households: one TV, one car and one dinner time. Now here’s two more “ones” in the lives of boomers: one telephone and one bathroom.

Before the War, telephones were, for the most part, reserved for use as a means of communication, often used to deliver bad news. People rarely used it just to chat. That began to change in the 1940s, but really picked up steam when baby boomers reached their pre-teen years. It became a running joke for TV sitcoms, and a source of frustration for families everywhere. The reason for the frustration was that if one family member was on the phone for extended periods of time, and there was only one phone in the house, no one else could use it.

More often than not, the family telephone was attached to the wall in or around the kitchen. By replacing the curlicue cord that fixed the handset to the phone’s body with a longer cord, the talker could sit at a counter or table, or wander around the kitchen. This would infuriate family members even more as one person after another navigated around or under the stretched cord. Throughout this nightly dance, pleas of “Get off the phone!” could be heard by parents and siblings alike, uttered in every possible degree of decibels, from a whimper to a scream.

Some say it was the Princess touch-tone phone of the 1960s that helped change the one-phone household. Whatever the reason, it took at least a decade to really catch on. By the early 1970s, more families began to install a second phone, but with only one line, problems of phone usage still occurred.

However, if there was anything that caused more frustration than one phone in growing boomer families, it was one bathroom. As boomers grew, along with their brothers and sisters, small suburban homes got proportionately smaller. Families often consisted of two or more children, so competition for the one bathroom was nothing less than intense when getting ready for school in the morning. Then during the evening hours or on weekends, the distinct cry of the Cross-Legged Boomer Whiner echoed throughout the house: “C’mo-o-o-o-o-o-n-n-n! I gotta go-o-o-o-o!”

Mister Boomer’s family fit this “one” category, with just one telephone and one bathroom for a family of five. The phone was parked on the kitchen wall. The kitchen was a separate room, and the phone was just to the right when you walked through the doorway. If mom was cooking, it was pretty tight in the space so if you liked to roam while talking, you were out of luck. And privacy? There was no such thing.

Mister B’s mother did a fair bit of chatting herself. Whether she called neighbors or family, she held the record for the longest conversations. Mister B didn’t use the phone much. Somehow he adopted an “old school” view of it as a tool to arrange meetings with friends or, say “hi” to aunts and uncles or, later on, a way to attempt to arrange a date. His brother and sister were the main phone abusers. As the oldest, Brother Boomer could talk and talk with his current love interest, but by the time he was seventeen he was rarely home. That’s when Mister B’s sister picked up the slack, talking to friends. Nonetheless, compared to some homes, ours was probably very low on the scale when it came to phone usage. In the early ’60s the family had a party line, so it was difficult to even get a clear line to make a call anyway.

While the one phone didn’t faze Mister B much, having one bathroom was another story altogether. Between a father who could fall asleep on the throne to a sister who used the room as her personal library, it was tough. Then there were Mister B’s mom doing home perms, and Brother Boomer’s Canoe and High Karate days when he would take an hour to get ready for a date. It was a very good thing that the room had a window that opened.

They say you can get used to anything, and that the physical closeness of our boomer families in smaller houses and rooms only made us closer to each other, but Mister B begs to differ. One phone — and especially one bathroom — can drive a family just plain nuts. One can only imagine how today’s families might respond if forced to share a single bathroom. Why, the children might think they were being punished — or, worse — that they were poor!

How did your family deal with a bad case of the “ones,” boomers? Or were you lucky enough to have more than one?

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?