Brooklyn in Love and at War

History of World War Two Told Through Letters

Let’s talk about talking…

I feel compelled to respond to a comment that Cookie herself (Aunt Adrienne) posted on the last entry. She noted, importantly, that Sylvia wrote that she would call the doctor from the drug store. The note itself was replacing what would today be a telephone call. (Or a tweet, facebook post, text, BBM, etc… No comment.)

Today, after a number of years together, my phone went kaput. It had been acting up for a few months now and it finally received it’s last message and shut off, never to turn on again. I took it to the dreaded Verizon store to see if I could replace the battery. Instead, I was told that “old reliable” was beyond repair.

This has a point, and I’m getting to it. As my dad made fun of me for anguishing over whether or not I should take the plunge and get a smartphone, with internet access and all, I thought about Sylvia’s note. While I couldn’t fathom leaving the store and being phone-less for a night, she had to accept that her cheerfully crafted note would come into her husband’s hand soon enough and that he would promptly meet her at the hospital. I think that, as we read these letters, the patience then required in communication will put our expectation of instant communication into perspective.

Before World War II most Americans did not have private telephone lines. Instead, party lines connected a number of residents to one service. What I find most interesting about party lines was the lack of privacy that the phone provided.

“To make telephones more affordable to working-class families, Bell Telephone and other companies began offering party lines in 1891. Within a few decades more than 60% of Bell’s residential customers shared a telephone line.” (When Eavesdropping Meant That You Had Some Nosy Neighbors. Cynthia Crossen. Wall Street Journal. Eastern edition. New York, N.Y.: Jun 5, 2006. pg. B.1)

If one person was on the phone, someone else could easily pick up another phone and listen or join in. Just imagine the neighborhood gossip! In the 1950s it became much more common for middle class households to have their own private lines.  I see this as reflecting the expanding desire for privatization and individualism in the post-war era. But beware, in the McCarthy era private lines still did not guarantee privacy.

5 comments on “Let’s talk about talking…

  1. Adrienne
    April 12, 2010

    I remember how important the family felt to get a call and how fantastic it was to hear your “special” ring on the party line. The event of being able to make a call from the house was so important, that now, even after many decades, I still remember the phone number, MAIN (MA) 5 5078.

  2. Mom
    April 12, 2010

    Not being a fan of being on call and capable of being reached instantly, I might have liked the time lapse of old time phone communication. Except when I went into labor!

  3. Adrienne
    April 16, 2010

    And then there were the other ways of communicating. Writing letters, of course, and the bang on the pipes way.

    If you had something you wanted to communicate with someone else in your line of apartments in the building (there were eleven floors) you banged on the pipes. There were different bangs for different ideas. There was the “Come, look out the window, I want to talk to you, neighbor” sequence and the “come home, it is time for supper.”

    Then there was letter writing and the fact that the mail was delivered twice a day! You could actually talk to someone, in an up to date way, through the mail! Now that most of the mail is commercial mail, bills and ads, the US Postal Service wants to cut the 6 day a week delivery system to 5 days, once a day!

  4. Diane
    April 17, 2010

    I remember when we had party lines when I was very young. I used to think that cake and ice cream should somehow be involved. I have to say, though, that email is the way to go.

  5. lilpunk
    May 4, 2010

    there’s a movie based on this. “Pillow Talk”. It starred Rock Hudson and Doris Day. It took me forever to figure out why there were sharing a line!

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This entry was posted on April 6, 2010 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , .
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