Does Anyone Miss Old Fashion Telephones? Party Lines? Busy Signals? 411?

We live in an age of cell phones and smart phones. Far before the age of computers, big thick telephone directories along with various shapes, sizes and colors of telephones adorned our walls and countertops. Coiled phone cords could be as short as seven or eight inches or long enough to go from the kitchen to the living room. Now, all of your phone numbers are stored and carried in a device as large as your hand. Some of the younger generation have never experienced an actual telephone affixed to an area of their house or a telephone book so thick that it was sometimes used as a booster seat for dinner. So, here is some nostalgia about old school telephones that the elders can reminisce about and the youngers can be baffled about.

Party Lines

Party lines were local telephone circuits that were shared by more than one user. You could be in your house and on your telephone talking to a friend and someone else on your party line from another location could pick up his phone and listen to everything you are saying. Party lines didn’t allow for privacy. Also, if you needed to make a phone call and you picked up your phone and another person on your party line was talking, you couldn’t use the phone. You had to wait until they were done. There were laws on the books that required a party line to get off the phone in case of an emergency, but it wasn’t enforced very well. You could pay extra to get a private line, but back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, you just learned to deal with a party line.

Busy Signals

Back then, if you were on the telephone and someone tried to call you, he would get a busy signal. A bunch of short beeps.  No automatic voice mail, just a busy signal. If you were the person trying to call in, you would have to hang up and call back later. Until “call waiting” was invented, if you were the one on the telephone, you had no idea that someone was trying to call you, your sibling or your parent. One good thing about the busy signal was that if you didn’t want to talk to anyone, you would just take the phone off the hook. No messages. No incoming. No nothing. Peace and quiet. Well, peace and quiet until the dial tone timed out, then there would be a screeching alarm notifying you that your phone was off the hook. That’s when you would put the phone under your pillow or between your mattress. Now, for those who accidentally left the phone off the hook, once the screeching sound started, you would literally have to go to every phone that was in the house to figure out which one was off the hook. When you have a houseful of children and four or five telephones, this could be annoying to say the least.

Telephone Exchanges

Yes, telephone numbers used to have exchange names at the beginning. The first two letters of the exchange name matched the first two numbers of the telephone number. For instance, we had WARWICK, and the “W” matched the 9 on the telephone dial and the “A” matched the 2 on the dial. To this day, my mother recites the telephone number as “Warwick 8 . . . .” as our old telephone number.

Calling for the Time

The telephone companies always had a phone number you could call any time of the day or night to get the time. “At the tone, the time will be . . . .” said the recording. We used to call the time on New Year’s Eve every year.

Calling Information

If you were looking for a telephone number, dialing 411 would get you someone who worked at the local telephone company. You would give the operator the name and/or the address and the city, and the operator would give you his phone number.

Renting Telephones

Until the mid-1970’s, you could not own a phone. You could only rent, which was a couple dollars a month and added to your phone bill. When you were done with the phone, you had to turn it in to the phone company for credit. The phone company owned the phone so if you didn’t turn it in, the phone company would find you one way or the other. In addition to renting the phone, the telephone company back then had to come to your house to install special telephone jacks in order for your phone to work. If you wanted more than one phone in the house, the telephone company would have to install a jack in each room that you had a phone. What a racket!

Telephone Directories

White Pages and Yellow Pages. The White Pages had names, addresses and telephone numbers of residences and the Yellow Pages advertised businesses. They were both really thick books in our city, so thick that they were eventually chopped up into regional books. This was a poor decision by the telephone company because if I needed a number to a person or a business that was outside my region, I had to call 411. In addition, if I didn’t know the name of the business, but I was looking for, let’s say, a plumber, outside my region, there was no way to get a name or phone number unless I had the regional book. I think businesses lost a lot of money when the telephone company chopped up the Yellow Pages into regions.

Pay Telephone Booths

They used to be at just about every gas station and on every street corner. Not so much anymore.

We have come a long way in telecommunications, but thinking about the old technology takes me back to when the old technology was a fixture in the house, when I fought with my sisters over who was going to use the phone, when I agonized over the decision about whether I wanted a rotary dial or a touch tone phone for my birthday, and when I got excited each New Year’s Eve to call the time so we knew exactly when the New Year struck. Now, that’s nostalgia!


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