Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Party Lines


By Holger.Ellgaard – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Party lines.

No. This is not about politics. It is about the days when, for many of us, our telephones were on a party line with at least one other party.

It meant that if the other party was talking on the phone, you could not dial out, and you had to hope they would be considerate and end their call. They didn’t always. It also meant your own conversations could be interrupted or overheard by the other party (although you would hear a click and could tell when they were on the line). I had several girlfriends, including the woman who is now my wife, whose parents had party lines. Unless you talked late at night, you never knew when you were going to be interrupted. The etiquette was that you were to keep your calls short. When you were a teenager in love “short” had a very elastic definition!

There was a rapid expansion of phone service with the post-war economic boom in the mid-twentieth century. And as a result, there was a shortage in capacity for private lines that necessitated party lines. Phone companies would give a price break for party line service, which helped when you were on a working class budget. Many municipalities had laws requiring parties on the line to hang up in case of an emergency. People were occasionally tried under these laws when they failed to relinquish the lines.

Phone companies began phasing out party lines in the 1970’s. The use of answering devices, computer modems (remember dial-up internet?), and call-waiting and forwarding were all incompatible with party lines. In a Wikipedia article, I learned they were popular in university dormitories, with Illinois State only ending party line service in 1990.

Now, all this seems a bit strange, when every person has their own private line that they carry around in their pockets. “Dialing” a phone really means tapping in numbers on a touch screen, rather than putting your finger in the hole that corresponded to a number and turning the dial clockwise, listening to the pulses that transmitted the number.

Party lines are not one of those things of which I have fond memories. Maybe it was a form of electronic neighborliness for some, or even a source of gossip in some cases. I thought they were just an inconvenience that I was glad to see go by the wayside.

Did you have a party line growing up? What were your memories of party lines?



2 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Party Lines

  1. Bob
    We had a party line for many years when I was in elementary school. All was well until we got a new phone partner. The woman would never get off the phone. My Dad asked her many times to end these marathon calls and she said no. In frustration my Dad asked to speak with her husband–who was never on the line. Dad made his request again and the man growled–make me. Dad met him across the street from our house and Dad made the request again. No success. Dad who was a big strong guy put up his fists up to fake landing a punch and the man ran away. No more problems with using the party line.

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