Traverse City Record-Eagle

Northern Living

August 19, 2012

Hello operator: Using the telephone in the good old days

We were recently enjoying a family gathering of summertime guests. A phone rang, and it rang again. We looked at each other and a few of us even grabbed our phones. It was at that moment, I realized there were seven people in our cottage and nine telephones. After our guests had gone to bed, I began to think about the day. I remembered the aforementioned telephone experience and began to wax nostalgic.

During the 1950s, my family lived in a farming community in central Illinois. Our house was an average home on a tree-lined, brick-paved street and everyone knew their neighbor. Most homes, including ours, had a telephone, as in "one telephone."

Our telephone was located in a central hallway which seemed to be equal distance from every corner of the house. It was black, heavy, sported a rotary dial and resided on a telephone bench. A short, cloth-covered wire ran from the phone down to a little box affixed to the baseboard and there the phone remained. The bench had a comfortable padded seat for longer conversations and a cubbyhole to store the phonebook and notepad for important telephone messages. When it rang, the person closest to the phone yelled, "I'll get it!" and hurried to pick it up.

When making a call, it was customary to quietly pick up the receiver and listen for a dial tone. It was the polite thing to do. We were on a "party line" which meant that we shared the telephone line with our next door neighbor. If she was using the line, we quietly hung up the phone without interrupting her conversation. Protocol was to wait five minutes and then check again to see if she had hung up, making the line available for our use.

Our neighbor was an older woman who loved to talk to her friends. She could talk for hours! Polite as we tried to be, she kept on talking. Eventually patience started to wear thin and we began hanging up the receiver with a bit more force, hoping to send her a message. Immersed in her conversation, she never seemed to get the hint.

We normally made long-distance calls on special occasions like Christmas or Thanksgiving but on Sunday we often called Grandma and Grandpa in Chicago. The ability to direct dial from one city to another had yet to be perfected.

In order to accomplish a long-distance call it was necessary to first dial "zero" to reach our local operator. Once contact was made with her, Mom would say, "I would like to call Chicago, Spaulding2-5343. My number is 2304." The operator would respond, "One moment please" while she connected with an operator in Chicago. They exchanged numbers and the Chicago operator called my grandma.

Once that operation was successfully completed, our operator would say, "I have your party on the line, go ahead." The two operators would leave the line and Mom talked over 200 miles of wire, strung pole-to-pole, along highways and railroad tracks from central Illinois to Chicago! Oh, the marvels of technology!

The older I get, the more often I refer to the past as, "The good old days." They were simpler times and we didn't feel a need to be constantly "in touch." Between phone calls we wrote and received letters.

Instant communication in those days was real face-to-face conversation. Our telephone bill averaged $7 a month, which we thought was outrageous, and the phone company furnished the phone.

Ed Hungness and his wife became full-time residents of Fife Lake in 2005 after Ed's retirement. He can be reached at or by mail at P.O. Box 57, Fife Lake, MI 49633.

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