Party lines were lines shared by several subscribers. This meant
that only one telephone line was installed with connections to a
number of homes. Party lines needed less wire and were more
economical to install than individual lines.
Party lines were a common feature of rural telephone systems into
the 1970s. Sometimes a party line would be shared by as many as 20
farm families. Families that lived beyond the end of the line would
ride to their neighbours’ homes to place their calls.
In Edmonton, party lines for two subscribers were used to reduce
the backlog of several thousand applications for telephone service
in the 1950s, when materials for the network were in short supply.
Historian Lisa Mort-Putland tells the tale of how Rosa Stephansson, daughter
of poet Stephan G. Stephansson, played piano on the party line from
the Stephansson’s household near Markerville, Alberta.
Each household on a party line would be assigned a distinct
pattern of rings, such as two longs and a short. Families would know
that whenever the phone sounded this pattern, the call was for them.
Though they were not supposed to pick up the phone and listen in
when the call was for someone else, some neighbours could be nosy
and enjoyed "rubbernecking" to find out all the news in the
district. The repairman knew who the "rubberneckers" were because
their batteries showed extra use from all the listening.
There was etiquette to using the telephone in party line
situations. When you wanted to make a call, you waited until the
line was free. If your neighbour liked to talk a lot, waiting for
the line was very frustrating. Someone who wanted to make a call
might interrupt a continuing conversation to tell those on the line
to finish up their conversation. In emergencies, you broke into the
call immediately and explained your need for the line.
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Heritage Community Foundation and
Telephone Historical Centre All Rights Reserved