I was standing by the beach watching the sunset when a man (more than six feet away from me) took a call on his cell phone and carried on a personal conversation for quite a long time. He was speaking loudly to be heard over the waves, and I thought that I really didn’t want to know that much about his personal life. Then I realized that some people love to be able to eavesdrop on private calls and in the past had to rely on the party line.

A party line is a telephone line that you share with other homes. During and after World War II the lines used for telephones was expensive and not readily available. This was especially true in rural areas where the houses were far apart. Basically, a single phone line, dedicated to your home, was expensive. But if you shared that line, phone service was much more affordable. Many people could only afford to have a phone at all if it was a party line.

As is still true, affordability is sometimes inconvenient.

It was inconvenient to want to make a call and discover that someone else was on the line and you had to wait, and hope it wasn’t a long conversation. Teenagers before the age of texting actually liked talking on the phone. For hours. And hours.

c. mid 20th century rotary dial telephone, Williams Research Center, Chartres Street, French Quarter, New Orleans. Author: Infrogmation of New Orleans via Wikimedia Commons.

Maybe someone left their phone off the hook, making it impossible for anybody else on that party line to make or receive calls. Or imagine one of the parties was not home, but someone called them and let the phone ring and ring and ring. That call rings in all the homes that share that line and they all hear that ringing.

The guy by the beach sharing his personal call? That was one of the inconveniences of party lines. Since you shared a phone line, anyone on that party line could pick up the phone and listen to your conversations. I imagine many people thought of that as a form of entertainment and a good way to learn all the latest gossip.

I don’t remember ever having a party line, probably because we usually lived in housing on military bases. But I do remember visiting my grandparents in Minnesota and being told not to answer the phone because it wasn’t their ring. People on the party line had their own rings (1 long, 2 short, etc.) so they knew when the call was for them.

Because of all the possibilities for annoyance and rudeness, some areas distributed rules of etiquette, or common courtesy, that should be followed if you had a party line. It was all about playing well with others. These included recommendations to keep your calls short, and to space them out if you were making more than one call. Don’t listen to the conversations of others as that is totally rude.

One of the most obvious courtesies in my mind is that if someone gets on the line and says they have an emergency, you should get off the phone immediately so they can place their emergency call. Unfortunately, there were people who abused that courtesy both ways. In 1954 New York passed a law that you could be prosecuted for either refusing to get off the phone for an emergency, or falsely saying you had an emergency just so you could use the phone.

The last operating party line system was shut down in 1991.

I would really love to get comments from people who had party lines. Did you personally know all the others on your party line? How many were on your party line? I want to know what my readers think are the pros and cons of the party line system. I’m sure things that would annoy me now, were not seen as issues when the party line was either your only option, or your only affordable option.

Help me out, please!