picking up your telephone to make a call and hearing your neighbor
talking. Back in the days of party lines, that sort of thing happened
all the time.
In the early 20th century, telephones hung on the wall and conversations
traveled along a wire. And telephone lines proved costly, especially
in rural areas like the Texas
Hill Country where a wire might have to span many miles of unpopulated
territory to serve a single family.
In remote areas outside of Fredericksburg,
the phone company typically ran wires from the switchboard in town
along the main roads. A person who lived in the country had to install
and maintain his own personal phone line from his house out to the
main road where his line connected to the phone company line.
Rural people, as you might expect, did not take telephones for granted.
Without a telephone they felt isolated and alone. A telephone gave
rural families a connection to the rest of the world.
Because of the high costs of stringing wire, most families, both
in town and in the country, could not afford a private telephone
line. To cut costs, 2 or 3 households, sometimes more, would share
the same line.
Only 1 call at a time could travel along a shared line, called a
party line, which didn't pose a problem unless users failed to practice
patience and consideration.
Hogging the line sometimes caused bad feelings among neighbors who
shared a party line. If a lovesick teenager happened to be in the
house, the line could be tied up for hours.
And whenever anyone along the party line made a call, the people
who shared that line could, and sometimes did, listen in. When that
happened, before you could say Alexander Graham Bell, your private
business had spread all over town.
The telephone company frequently printed rules of party line etiquette
in the local newspaper. Rule no.1 - Wait for a dial tone before
dialing. If you do not hear a dial tone, the line may be in use.
(The words "dial tone" may require some explanation.)
Rule no. 2 - If you hear someone talking when you lift the receiver,
return the receiver gently to its cradle (another term that may
need explaining) and give that person time to finish the conversation.
While most folks followed Rule no. 1, a lot of people ignored Rule
In fact, eavesdropping on the party line became a nationwide form
of entertainment. Telephone users would listen for a click, the
sound of breathing, muffled laughter or other unusual background
noises that would indicate the private phone call in progress had
the 1950s, the phrase "party line" had worked its way into popular
culture. Hollywood made television shows and movies, mostly comedies,
about party lines.
One of the funniest Andy Griffith Shows featured 2 unseen elderly
ladies whose weekly chats tied up the Mayberry party line for hours.
Mostly they talked about why their feet fell asleep.
The movie Pillow Talk, starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, is a
romantic comedy about 2 New Yorkers who share a party line. They
fall in love after eavesdropping on each other's conversations.
Soon the words "party line" moved from telephone talk into our common
vocabulary. "Party line" became synonymous with eavesdropping and
In the 1950s the Fredericksburg Standard ran a popular column
in the "Campus Comet" section of the paper called "Hillbilly Party
Line." In the column, high school students spread thinly veiled
gossip about each other.
A typical Hillbilly Party Line column printed in 1952 read "Susan
J. has been wearing a ring like the seniors in Harper. Could it
be Kenneth M.? If so, why is she wearing James R.'s FFA Jacket?"
Today telephone calls travel through the air and party line quotes
are not used very much. Most young folks don't get the reference.
Besides, modern forms of communication have taken the enjoyment
out of eavesdropping and spreading gossip.
These days most people post their private business on Facebook.
Where's the fun in that?