AT&T Tech Channel

About this video

"Party Lines" is an etiquette film for a long-gone part of rural life: the party line. Shared/group telephone subscriptions were an integral part of American culture until they were phased out primarily between the 1950s and 1970s.

In 1930, 63% of residential customers in the Bell System were on party lines, predominantly in suburban and rural areas — New York City had no party lines left at this point in time. By 1950, 75% of all residential customers (nationwide) were on party lines — due in some part to the growth of the system overall, and a backlog from WWII in catching up with private line orders. By 1965, that number was down to 27%; it was still a part of many people's daily lives and the culture of communication.

Party lines had a few features that affected telephone usage greatly: you could listen to your neighbors' conversations, so phone lines weren't always thought of as secure or private; telephones on party lines would ring with a particular pattern unique to a household, so the customer would only answer the phone that rang with "their" ring. In addition, sharing a phone line required etiquette guidelines (that, reportedly, were frequently broken). This film offers some advice, mostly through the "what not to do" method — it shows how customers could abuse the system, to potentially disastrous results.

Most large phone companies eliminated party lines for good between 1988 and 2000. By 2000, according to USA Today, there were still over 5,000 party lines still in existence in the U.S., but the majority of them were hooked up to only one remaining household. They were party lines in name only.

Trivia: The same year the Bell System made this film for distribution (1946), the company also produced a comic book on the same topic, titled "Bobby Gets Hep."

Producer: Bil Baird; Eddie Albert Productions

Footage Courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center, Warren, NJ

Release date: 06/06/2012