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Party Lines

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.

Listen! 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. Listen!

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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