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"Hindsights"

Looking back at:

Party Lines

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

Imagine 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 no. 2.

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 gone public.


By 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 spreading gossip.

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?

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" November 15, 2023
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