Welcome to the Party Line

Two longs and one short. One short and one long.

These were my parent’s phone numbers back in the 1940’s and 50’s. They both lived in rural Wisconsin and were on party lines. Back then several houses would be connected by one phone wire. Each house was given a different ring for their crank phones. When you heard your particular ring you knew to pick up the phone because someone was trying to reach you.

old crank phone

old crank phone

The disadvantage to this system is that everyone on your circuit could listen in on your conversations.

The advantage to this system is that you could listen in on everyone’s conversations!

I love when my Dad tells me the story about his mom (my Grandma) and the party line.

You see, my grandma was a sweet, soft-spoken lady. She was a farmer’s wife living in a house with no running water and no television. She worked hard raising her four children, tending to the garden and taking care of the chickens. She couldn’t drive a car. The one time my Grandpa did try to teach her, things didn’t go so well, so she refused to try again. Therefore, she only made it into town every few weeks when my Grandpa drove her.

My Dad tells me that many times he would walk into the kitchen and there would be Grandma with the phone to her ear. She would be perched on her chair sitting still as a mouse and listening intently. She would shoot my Dad the “look” and put her finger to her lips to ensure his silence. My Dad knew the drill and would mosey on his way.

I had never heard about this until she passed away some years back. The thought of my dear old Grandma Freda eavesdropping just puts me in stitches. The grandma I remember was always full of news. She would update us on everyone in the family and tell us the goings on in the town. She wasn’t a gossip…just an informer of all the important tidbits!

I think back to that woman who was around the age I am now, listening in on the party line. In all likelihood I may have very well done the same thing.

In a way, I do listen in on the party line. In a way, we all listen in on the party line.

I think it’s human nature to want to know what other people are doing and how they are. It’s interesting to see how other people live. It’s nice to have connections with others and to learn from other people’s experiences.

If this wasn’t true then Facebook, Twitter and blogging wouldn’t be so popular.

Our whole life is submerged into one big party line. The only difference nowadays is you can hit a “like” button or leave a comment and let the person know you’ve been by to catch up on all the juicy news! There is no need to sit in silence or shush the children!

Grandma Freda in 1942 with two of her children. My dad is the baby on her lap.

Grandma Freda in 1942 with two of her children. My dad is the baby on her lap.

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41 responses

  1. Your grandma is awesome! I love that all your dad needed as a look, and he wouldn’t say a word. The people on the other end were probably doing the same to her conversations!

  2. How I laughed at this one. We were on a party line when we first got married. I hate to admit it but I listened in on a conversation once and found out that our neighbor was having an AFFAIR with a truck driver. Of course I never told anyone. How could I tell them that I found out because I was listening in on the party line. Besides that you know that I am just not that kind of person.

  3. aww how cute! my mum and dad ran a rest home (for elderley) since I was 4 years old, there was a lovely lady who worked for british telecom on phones just like that, her name was twits! she sooooo used to listen in on all the hot goss how cool would that be now! xxxx

  4. We used to have a party line in our house when I was a little girl. It was just a regular phone. If you picked it up and someone was talking, you had to quickly put the receiver down. I have a recollection of eavesdropping for a few seconds. If I did it any longer, my mother would have put me in the corner.

    • I actually need to ask my parents what their phones looked like. Theirs may have been regular phones too and I just imagined them this way! I guess you can be rest assured that your mom wasn’t an eavesdropper!!

  5. One of my favorite Doris Day movies is Pillow Talk – and it centers around the party line. I for one am very nosy, so I love social media so that I can stalk and eavesdrop and not feel guilty! I love learning stories like that about our grandparents- it gives them a new dimension.

  6. I love her!!!!! Adorable picture too. Okay, now we have to do a party line post. That would be a hoot. I can post a conversation and you listen in, and then post what you heard. Then the next one posts what they heard of your conversation. Lets see what the town has to say!

  7. Sweet memories from childhood …… I find it amazing .. as she was such a hard worker and oh so busy that she had time to indulge … especially considering you were really stuck to the wall … that telephone receiver had a short cord and of course the other hand had to stay covering the mouthpiece so the party hopefully wouldn’t hear anything on your end to let them know ( YOU ) were RUBBER NECKING !! All housewives need a diversion from toil and labor though … even today with the busy schedule … Mom’s have time for Facebook ….. and Blogging, so life is just about the same … Isn’t it wonderful ….. wives aka Moms are still the same … they need a bit of Diversion !!

  8. Very nice photo, but doesn’t show she was the party line kind of person. She has that quiet look. Dad then look more of the party line baby, lol. Thanks for sharing, Melissa. Be Blessed, Mtetar

  9. How gorgeous Mel , indeed we could imagine Grandma Freda sitting their shooshing your Grandfather! I am glad your dad is laughing in the photo, they were so serious with their picture taking back then! Loved the phone 🙂 xx

  10. There is a story behind this picture that Grandma Freda loved to tell !! Grandpa Dale was off working away from home for an extended period of time. He was missing the family and wished he had a photo of them. Freda made arrangements with her brother-in-law to take her & the boys to a photographer and surprise Dale with a wonderful photo ! Your Father was the rip-tail-peeler of children always making Freda’s life CRAZY !! Lonnie was the good son, compliant and obedient, so getting him ready was no problem, but, baby Mike need to be chased down multiple times .. physically restrained to get him dressed and ready !! By this time Freda was disheveled, worn out and ready to throw in the towel, but her ride was there, so off they went ….. Baby Mike was really a terror on the ride there, so they arrived even more disheveled than before and poor Freda even more distraught !! Right before they were called in by the photographer …. Freda discovered … Mike had filled his breeches and smelled as bad as the outhouse, so she undertook the challenge of changing him … no easy feat under any circumstances. Freda had no fond memories of the days outing to surprise Dale with the picture … she always said, ” Look at that picture, Mike looks a mess .. his rubber pants are sticking out from his romper and poor Lonnie’s shoes are untied and I just look I would like to be anywhere but in this picture … of course Mike was gleefully happy !! I think this was the perfect picture to send to Dale !! It was real life in a day of the Muller Family and he could see exactly what he was missing !!

  11. I’m dying to know if you still have this old crank phone? This a wonderful heirloom to pass down to the next generation.

    And, yes, you’re absolutely right about the modern day “party line,” we all have a desire to connect with others and check in on their lives. The only difference is, now, we just point and click. We also use cute emoticons –> 😉

  12. This brings back memories as I was the baby of the family. I remember that phone & having to climb on a chair to answer our ring. Actually Mom didn’t eavesdrop much. …maybe I kept her too busy! We had a party line for years even when we got the new-fangled dial phone. The neighbors told my parents about every call with my boyfriend. …they knew more than I did!
    My Mom listened to soap operas on the radio as that’s where she got me the then uncommon name of Wendy, but she didn’t have time to sit & watch TV when they finally got one. We only got one channel anyhow!
    She hated that picture too. Not only did she dislike having her picture taken she said Mike was making her head explode & she was mad at my Dad for even wanting a picture!
    I think she would’ve enjoyed Facebook as she never wanted to stop learning something new & she was a voracious reader, but she didn’t get over her fear of computers before she died. She was sure she’d hit a wrong button & shut down the entire power grid!
    Thanks for the memories Melissa & Jackie…oh how I miss my Mom. She would’ve loved your blogs!

  13. P.S.. ..she was great with “the look” or just saying your name in a deep voice. …that’s all it took to be good as I only remember 3 “spankings”. (Maybe I should’ve had more? )
    I learned “the look”for my own boys & it worked well. .. along with having them convinced I had eyes in the back of my head to the point they’d search through my hair to find them 🙂

  14. All so very true. Try as I might to say that I’m not a gossip, I totally am. I LOVE having the dirt and getting the back story.
    When my brother was in jr high, he got a phone in his room. When we plugged it in, it was a party line with a house up the street. Boy were they shocked to find out we were hearing their conversations!

  15. I remember party lines! (We didn’t have one — we shelled out the extra fifty cents a month for our own line, but I knew plenty of people who did!) I think, once they went by the wayside, viewership of soap operas really picked up, LOL!

  16. Pingback: Memories, Like the Corners of my Mind | Motherhood Is An Art

  17. so funny that your dad knew to not make any noise when she would give him a look! 🙂 you are right, I guess with all this social media we all do it! 🙂 Beautiful picture of your grandma; she was a beautiful lady!

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