The telephone

Party lines were the earliest iteration of call waiting

The ringtone on my granddaughter’s cell phone varies with the person who is calling. Her family members and closest friends – all have individual music. Before she retired as a school principal, my daughter Judith had a ringtone of children’s laughter. My choice is a chirping bird, which has, at times, provoked startled reactions. Are there birds in the store?

Even landlines now have a variety of sounds, but back in the day, telephones gave off a good, healthy, unmistakable “brrrring.” And, back in the day, they were stationary, firmly tethered by a cord to a big black box affixed to the wall.

My family, the Segal family, did not have a phone until 1940. We were not alone. During the Depression years, phone service was something of an extravagance. How did we communicate with people who did not live in the neighborhood?

A penny bought you a postcard. The amount of information you could squeeze on the back (and perhaps trail a bit on the front side) was amazing, provided your writing was small – and legible! Mail was delivered twice a day, so the turnaround time for a reply was quite short.

Most neighborhood stores had call boxes that doubled as the business’ main phone. Some even had booths for privacy. A nickel, no pennies, bought you five minutes, then another nickel every two minutes after that. This called for a bit of strategy to save money if you wanted a longer chat.

When the call came through, you either gave your friend a number to call immediately or you had a pre-arranged signal if you always used the same call box.  Two rings, a hang-up and the nickel was returned, before the other party called back. Of course, if there were others waiting, it earned you, at a minimum, some nasty looks. In any case, you needed to have a roll of nickels handy. In an emergency, you could always visit the one neighbor who had a phone.

Long distance was not a problem. In addition to twice-




daily mail service, there were telegraph agencies.  A telegram cost less than a dollar for 10 words, more for each additional word. A great deal of care and thought went into formulating the message to meet the 10-word quota to keep the cost down. A telegram might cause a great deal of angst for the recipient. Delivered by messenger, a telegram required tipping the delivery person – and who in the house had any extra change? But, more important, too often, telegrams meant sad news.

We had a two-party line, which meant we shared a line with one unknown person. There were also four-party lines, which were the cheapest and least convenient; private lines, of course, were the most expensive.

There was an etiquette, of sorts, to having a party line. If the phone was in use, you hung up immediately and waited a few minutes before trying again. Still in use? A few discreet clicks of the on/off lever sometimes did the trick. But, when the party was still talking – about something other than an emergency – well, that called for a few polite but choice words.

Our phone, a clunky handset, rested in an alcove in the hallway between the bedrooms.

My mother’s cousin Sarah Boyman had a graceful candlestick phone. It reminded me of an amaryllis, with the transmitter like a flower that bends toward you. A switch hook on the pole held the receiver. The phone stood on a little table outside her kitchen. A shelf held the phone book and a little seat fit underneath. She spent most of her mornings there consulting her lists and making calls to members of and donors to Pioneer Women, The Miriam Women’s Association, the Jewish Home, and for fundraisers for Palestine, reminders for meetings and all sort of community activities. She had to have a private line; no one would have had a chance to get a call in edgewise.

Would I go back to a phone-free world? Only if the U.S. Postal Service again offers the penny postcard and two mail deliveries a day.

I have to go. My cell is chirping.

Geraldine Foster is a past president of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association.

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