By Bill Grosboll
July 8, 2007

Everyone that has ever used an old crank phone, raise their hand. I’m sure there are many out there that raised their hands so those of you who did not, let me enlighten you to an experience you have sorely missed.

Our phone at home, on the farm, was constructed of wood which had the mouth piece permanently fixed to it. Below the mouth piece was a small platform mounted on an incline which was provided for writing upon. On the left side of the box was the “hook”, shaped somewhat like an oversized tuning fork on which the earpiece hung when not in use. This hook was spring loaded so that when the earpiece was removed, it sprang upward and activated the phone and gave the user a dial tone, as it is now called. Since the mouth piece was permanently mounted to the box, it required the person to stand during the entire conversation. This just may have been a deterrent for long conversations. On the right side of the box, was the crank. Now I’m not all that familiar with the inner workings of these old critters but I suspect the crank, when rotated, generated an electrical current to ring the bells of the phone of the party being called. Since I was very young when this device was being used, my memory is a little fuzzy as to how one connected to an “operator”. It was done be either clicking the hook up and down a couple of times or by just cranking the crank for a few spins. It may come back to me before I finish this article, but if not, “Oh, well”!

Now each area had a certain amount of homes on what was called a “party line”. No, this didn’t mean party as in gala event, it meant a certain number of users had the ability to pick up the phone an “listen in” on anyone’s conversation. The homes sharing the line were each assigned a certain signal which was created by cranking the crank a given number of turns. For instance, one home’s signal might be one long and two shorts. To make this particular signal required cranking the crank three revolutions, which made the “long” and one revolution with a pause and then one more revolution. This made the two “shorts”. This caused the bells on all the phones of the party line to ring for one long period and two short periods. Get the idea? An example of signals would be two longs -two shorts, another being two shorts - one long and yet another being one long - one short. You get the picture! Anyway, getting back to calling. When you cranked a certain signal, it rang the bells on everyone’s phones on the party line and ONLY the home that was assigned that particular signal would answer. I emphasize the word ‘only‘, because that didn’t always happen. Some of the neighbors, being bored or nosy, I don’t know which, would pick up their phones, also, and listen in on the conversation. You always knew when someone was listening in because the connection would be just a slight bit poorer or you might hear some loud background noise that neither you nor the party you were talking to could identify. Usually when this happened, the party listening in would hang up (out of guilt), which made a clicking on the phone and was quite apparent. After a time, it was pretty well understood who was likely the guilty party because the rumor mill would begin if the person listening in heard a juicy tidbit. To determine who was listening in is a lot like genealogy, you just start asking the people who were spreading the rumor as to where they heard it and eventually it all lead back to one common party. I always got a kick out of Dad when he suspected someone was listening in. He knew who was most likely to be the culprit, so he would merely say their name and bark at them to get off the line. They couldn’t confront him about his poor manners, since they would be admitting their guilt. Naturally, when you wanted to use the phone, it required lifting the earpiece which made a click, so if someone was already on the phone, they waited to hear the second click of you hanging up before resuming their conversation. If they didn’t hear the first click and continued to talk, Oh Boy, could you ever learn a lot of juicy news!

To call long distance, the caller had to ring the operator and request long distance. If you were making a local call, but to someone not on the party line, this also required going through the local operator and you just asked her to connect you to the party you wanted by name. Pretty simple, but it worked. I remember as a youngster, going upstairs on the north side of the square where the main switch board was located and was amazed by the huge boards filled with plug-in holes and the racks of jacks each operator had in front of her which were required to make the calls. Nowadays, if you have problems with the phone you can’t talk to a human if you tried. Alas!



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Illinois Ancestors

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