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Multiple Years / Party Lines
Millennials will have trouble believing these ever existed, but at one time the majority of North American households did not have private telephone lines. Instead, they were serviced by party lines--basically one common telephone line that served numerous households. Party lines existed in urban areas where private lines were unavailable or expensive, but they are more frequently associated with rural areas where great distances separated neighbors and made private lines expensive for phone companies to install. As late as 1943, three-quarters of Pennsylvania's telephone customers had party lines. Party lines had certain advantages: Important community news could be relayed quickly to everyone who was connected, but of course there were major negatives too. Privacy was a virtual impossibility as anyone else who subscribed to the party line could eavesdrop on others' conversations. Also, there was the obvious problem of one subscriber hogging the line, preventing others from making a call. (If you look at Ann Landers-type newspaper columns from the first half of the 20th century, one person dominating the party line was a frequent complaint.) Phone companies responded by offering protocol tips to party-line users. Among the typical suggestions was a five-minute limit per call. Eavesdropping on others' phone conversations did lead to some amusing anecdotes. Criminal schemes were known to have been thwarted by listeners who heard crooks discussing their plans. One college football coach overheard his rival's plans on how to defeat his team in an upcoming game. Most telephone companies discontinued party lines toward the end of the 1970s.