Telephone and directoryBefore Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, letters and visits were common ways to exchange information. The phone quickly changed how people communicated with the world.

First in Town, Then in the Country

The first telephones in Iowa were installed in cities and towns where homes and businesses were close enough for lines to stretch easily from one building to another. At first woman telephone operator, often called "central," was hired to connect one telephone line to another. She sat in front of a giant telephone board. To call a home or business, the caller rang an operator and gave her the name or telephone number of the person he or she wanted to call. The operator plugged the phone line of the caller into the hole on the switchboard for the telephone being called. This rang the telephone on the other end. When someone at that end answered, the two telephones were connected and they could have their conversation.

Centrals were also important in passing information. Some would give out the correct time. Others would ring all members of the volunteer fire department in an emergency. Some even kept track of where the local doctor was in case there was an accident.

Gradually single telephone lines were run through the country to connect one town to another. To make a long distance call, the operator from one town rang up the operator in the next town who called up the operator in the next town, and so on. Long-distances calls were expensive, and most people limited their out-of-town calls to emergencies or other special occasions.

Telephones Come to the Farm

The first telephone systems served customers in towns only. Beginning around 1900, farmers began to organize their own telephone systems. They strung phone lines from one farm home to another and purchased small electrical generators to provide the electrical power. They could only call the homes in their phone network; they could not call homes in towns or farm homes not on their network.

Farm telephones were on "a party line." That meant that anyone on the line could listen to any call that was being made, even if the call was not intended for that home. To place a call on a farm system, the caller turned a crank to produce a series of long and short rings. These rings were heard on all the phones on the system, not just the phone of the home being called. Each telephone had its own special pattern of long and short rings. For example, one might be three long rings and one short ring. When a family heard the phone ring its own signal, they would answer. However, if other families wanted to listen in, they could quietly pick up their telephones and hear the conversation. There were many stories about farm gossip spreading quickly because of uninvited ears listening on the party line.

Eventually, farm systems were merged with those in the near-by towns and farm families got rid of the party lines.

Telephones were an important invention for both town and farm families. Everyone could keep in touch more easily. Town families could order groceries and have them delivered to their homes. They could call the doctor in emergencies or report a fire. Soon, telephones were not longer novelties or conveniences only for the rich. They were a common feature in both towns and the country.

Adapted from original article written by Amy Ruth, The Goldfinch 17, No. 3 (Spring 1996). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa



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