People think telephone surveillance is a new thing but then, they’re not old enough to have grown up with a party line. Eat your heart out, NSA. Sixty years ago, the entire country was listening in on each other’s phone conversations.
Back in the Pleistocene Era of telephonics, which is to say my youth, phones were just these clunky black things with a handset and a rotary dial. In my area at least, the only thing the rotary dial was good for initially was to dial “O” (for operator) and wait for a nice lady (always a lady) to say, “what number, please?” which you’d tell her using your actual voice. It was the precursor of “Can you hear me now?”
When direct dialing came out and you could dial local numbers yourself, it was the hottest thing since sliced bread (which, by the way, revolutionized commercial baking in 1928. All those nice even pieces!) But direct dialing also put most of those operator ladies out of business. There must be a special home for them where they sit serenely and stick plugs into a big switchboard and say “I’ll connect you now.”
In many areas, especially rural ones, party lines – multiple families sharing the same phone line – were the only option. On party lines, only one household could use the line at a time, and the phone company implored people to be considerate and restrict their calls to five minute. Like that happened.
Complaints about line hogging were legion. Even the 1959 Best Picture winner, Pillow Talk (Rock Hudson, Doris Day), portrays a party line feud that turns into romance. That was not how it usually worked out in real life. It was probably good that party lines existed in an era where fewer 9 mm Glocks were in circulation.
Party lines were the original Information Superhighway, an early version of social media. You could listen in on everyone else’s conversations which, of course, was pretty much the favorite national pastime. (Sorry, baseball).
Now that virtually everyone has a private line, we’ve all gotten out of the expectation that anyone is listening in. So we’re offended when we find out the NSA has been recording our private phone calls. I’d like to point out that at least the NSA doesn’t gossip about you. Maybe harass you at the airport but you don’t have to worry about them spilling your private information to your neighbors in the produce aisle.
Actually, this trip down telephonic memory lane was inspired by a question from my 6-year-old granddaughter about a built-in alcove in the hallway of our 1947 home. I was explaining that it was something called a “phone nook” which housed the single largely-immobile phone that most people owned at the time.
“So, it’s a charging station?” she replied after some thought. This was as close to her reality as this was going to get. “Where do you plug it in?”
Pondering how to explain this to her, I could see that it was going to be a long way from rotary dial to iPhone 7. In fact, I remember one of the greatest improvements of my teenage life was the invention of the curly-cued phone extension cord so you could drag the handset around the corner into the coat closet and get some illusion of privacy. (Believe me, it was an illusion.)
Privacy would only come with the invention of cordless phones and then finally cell phones which have replaced pretty much every other piece of electronics heretofore known to man.
From a 68-year-old’s view, old-style phones have some distinct advantages over cell phones.
First, there is a lot to be said for a phone that can be used without (a) a manual, and (b) an operating system whose constant upgrades make everything you previously knew how to do on it obsolete.
The other really big loss with cell phones is that you can’t slam them down. There was always something so inherently satisfying about being able to slam down a telephone receiver. Clicking an Off button – or worse, tapping some wussy touch screen – does not give one the emotional release that the solid slam of a plastic receiver on a telephone base could ever give. No wonder the whole country is so full of pent up anger. For that reason, we still keep one wall-mounted landline with traditional receiver in our home for use during election years.
Considering the changes in telephones since I was a child, I try to imagine what my tiny grandchildren will be telling theirs about the archaic devices of their youth. Will phones still be an actual physical “thing” that you carry around and drop into the toilet at inopportune times? I’m guessing not.
And as far as the NSA is concerned…. I know you’re listening, so would you mind spreading the word that Book Club has been changed from Tuesday to Thursday, and while you’re at it, that Susie Smith’s husband was overheard flirting with the nanny?
Typical hallway phone nook in 40s-era homes: