Back in the Day… We had Party Lines, Landlines, and Made Collect Calls

We not only had landline telephones, but what were known as party lines. I’m old enough to remember sharing a phone line with not one, but two other families who lived on the same road. This was not uncommon forty-some years ago, especially in rural areas.

Having a private line back then was kind of like sending your kids to private schools, only wealthy people did that. Having a party line was no party, believe me. We would often yell at each other to get off the phone because we had important calls to make.

When we weren’t trying to get our neighbors off the phone we were eavesdropping on their conversations. We had to pick up the phone slowly to make sure there weren’t any clicking sounds. We also had to move the phone slightly away from our mouths so they wouldn’t hear our breathing. It was always a good idea to have a towel wrapped around the receiver in case someone on the line said something completely stupid and we’d burst out laughing. It was imperative to shut the door to the room we were in if possible. We couldn’t have blabbering family members wandering within earshot of the phone. Preparation was key to effective eavesdropping on a party line.

Of course, sometimes we just couldn’t contain ourselves. Someone would say something so ridiculous that we’d burst out laughing. Or, on occasion, one of our lovely neighbs would say something nasty about us or our friends or our family and we couldn’t resist the urge to jump into the conversation and set them straight.

That’s when all hell broke loose. There would often be yelling and cursing, accusations and counter-accusations. It might end with someone getting the best one-liner in and then slamming the phone down quickly. Eventually my dad broke down and decided it was time to pay for a private line.

In some ways, we were ahead of our time. Party lines were a prelude to the modern day chat rooms. Then again, people in chat rooms wanted to be talking to everyone that was gathered together at that moment. We couldn’t care less what our neighbor’s dog had done earlier that morning or what was going on with Mr. Shaffer’s mother-in-law. We just wanted him to hang up that stupid phone so we could call our friends. We had important business to discuss, like what was happening Friday night.

Today, we all technically have private lines, but they’re still not all that private. Today, instead of worrying about some crazy neighbor listening to our conversations, we worry about the government recording our calls and storing everything we’ve ever said in a warehouse somewhere in Utah.

Besides landlines and party lines, back in the day we made collect calls. This was when the person we were calling had to accept the call and that meant the responsibility of paying for the call as well as the privilege of talking to us.

Sometimes our parents just wanted to make sure we had arrived safely somewhere and had no interest in actually talking to us. When the operator asked if they would accept the call, they curtly said no and hung up.

Sometimes we might even make up a name if we wanted to know if someone was home and we didn’t want them to know we wanted to know.

“Will you accept a collect call from Leroy?”

“Are you kidding? I’ve never known anyone named Leroy in my life!”

The great thing about whether someone would accept a collect call or not, was that we could usually hear what they were saying, even before they officially rejected or accepted the call. Sometimes we tried to get a long message in before the person didn’t accept the call.

“Pick me up tomorrow after school, make sure to bring Joe along, and don’t forget to bring…”

The operator was onto us and would cut off the call before we managed to give our friends an hour’s worth of instructions. Technically, I think collect calls still exist, though they’re primarily used by prison inmates.

Besides party lines and collect calls, just having a landline was like living in another universe compared to today. For starters, with a spiral cord connected to the receiver, we could only venture a few feet from the wall or the table the phone was on. We actually had to memorize phone numbers and, best of all, was the mystery of not knowing who was calling.

Was it our teacher calling to let our parents know that we’d gotten in trouble that day at school? Was it someone we had a crush on? The suspense was exhilarating, and since we couldn’t be sure who was on the other end, we just had to take the chance and answer the phone. Knowing who’s calling each time the cell phone rings has sucked a lot of the anticipation and excitement out of life.

Anyone who gets nostalgic for collect calls, party lines, or even landlines, however, probably never had them to begin with. Everyone loves a good party, but I don’t think anyone, at least not anyone who lived back in the day, loves a party line.


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