Party Lines—Not Just Politics!

Grandma’s family has a long history with telephones. When her mother graduated from eighth grade—around 1910—she worked for the telephone company and remained there until her marriage ten years later. Women commonly quit their jobs upon their marriages.

My great grandfather, TJ Downey, was a successful businessman in town and therefore had the money for luxuries such as an iron and a telephone.(Can you believe those were luxuries!) As one of the first families in Boonton to have a phone—with a number of just “4”—friends would regularly call from New York and ask Grandma’s mother to pass on a message to their family informing them that they had been detained at work. If she was busy, she would send one of the children on a mission to pass on the information.


When Grandma was young, they had what was known as a “party line,” which had nothing to do with politics. This was a system whereby several families shared the same telephone line. I believe this was while the telephone company was expanding and could not get enough wires for every family to have their own line.

From what I understand, each family had a unique ring, so you could distinguish a call intended for your family from one of the other households sharing the line. As you can imagine, this was a great way to sometimes catch up on the local gossip. If you timed it correctly, you could pick up someone else’s call at the same time as they did and listen in on their conversation.

There were two teachers at my high school who were dating at the time. One was a math teacher and the other taught French. One of them shared a line with Grandma’s family. Apparently, Uncle Bob and Uncle Don just loved eavesdropping on their calls. One time, Mr. Backus asked the future Mrs. Backus if she was ready to be picked up, and she said something to the effect that she was not yet dressed and was still wearing just her slip. I can imagine the giggles that this caused.


Today, that private conversation would quickly be shared on Facebook and Twitter–#BHSnews! Ah, those were the days!

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