Some summer reading has reminded me that I might belong to the last generation with any direct memory of party lines, a form of phone service that required customers to share the same line with their neighbors, depending on an honor system to limit eavesdropping.
Party lines were already fading into antiquity during my 1970s childhood, but my rural grandmother still had one, though it was replaced with a private line by the time I became a teenager. I hadn’t thought about any of this for years, but it all came back to me while reading “The Farm in the Green Mountains,” an old memoir, newly reissued in paperback, by the German émigré Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer.
Fleeing Nazi persecution, Alice and her husband, two city dwellers, ended up in rural Vermont during World War II, falling in love with New Englanders. One of the ways she got to know them, she tells readers, was sharing a party line with eight other people. With the war raging, the local phone company lacked what was needed to expand private phone service to the area. In this way, tolerating party lines became a form of patriotism.
Each household on a party line was assigned a distinctive ring; one short ring and two long ones, for example, might indicate that the call was for you. If other kinds of rings sounded, party line users would know that the call was for another family. Anyone else on the party line could listen in, though etiquette forbade it.
During one visit to my grandmother's, the temptation proved too much. When a strange ring signaled that a neighbor had taken a call, I crept to the receiver, lifted it as gingerly as a loaded revolver, then cupped my ear to the chatter. Time has erased all the particulars of the exchange; all I can remember was how unremarkable it was. The shameful experience taught me that most daily conversation is prosaic, involving the price of roast beef at the corner grocery, the intrigues of Aunt Sally’s hernia, whether Thursday was hotter or colder than Wednesday. To this day, government agents forced to monitor wiretapped conversations have my undying sympathy.
In Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer’s Vermont hamlet, more relaxed rules for party lines allowed eavesdropping, up to a point. She notes that sitting silently as the third party in a two-way conversation could yield rich dividends. That’s how, she confesses, she gathered “all the delicious recipes for pies.”
No amount of nostalgia can make party lines seem ideal. Customers sometimes abused them, and laws had to be passed to force callers to surrender the line when other households had emergencies. As in today’s world of social media, some party line users could be bullies.
So I’m not sad that party lines are gone. But it was fun to revisit a time when “party line” meant something besides bitter division on Capitol Hill.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.