Times Past: The Owseichik family’s first telephone

  • From left to right, Alan Owseichik, his son Alan, daughter Arlene and wife Edith pose for a photo in front of their Greenfield home in 1974. The family’s “bootleg” phone sits on a stand to the right, for use outside. It was typically plugged in when in use and unplugged when not in use to avoid detection by the Bell Telephone Company. Contributed photo


Published: 11/2/2018 2:31:34 PM

The telephone quickly became a favorite mode of communication in business and government offices after being patented in 1876. The physical wires created a spider web across the country, getting connected to the homes of anyone desirous of a phone.

Around 1953, my family obtained its first telephone. A Bell Telephone Company lineman wired up our house from the utility pole, giving us service to the outside world (so to speak).

The telephone itself was large and very heavy, and had a rotary dial. To its credit, the phones were made nearly indestructible by Alexander Graham Bell. Our Greenfield number was 8409, and we could call other Greenfield numbers for free. However, all other places were expensive toll calls. My mother came from Turners Falls, which was considered long-distance to my parents’ irritation.

Long-distance calls were made by the operator at her switchboard, and were billed individually based on the distance and time of talk.

Our phone was a “party” line where four different numbers shared one common line. We did not know the other people. The ring on the phone was distinctive so each party member could pick out his. Ours was “short ring, short pause, short ring, long pause, and repeat.” You answered your calls and none of the others.

My mother and father, Edith and Alexander Owseichik, were courteous, making sure everyone used the phone as briefly as possible so the other parties had an available system. Other than picking up the receiver, one could not tell if the line was in use. This was a little irritating to the children, but we were monitored into compliance. Making only short calls with a purpose is a habit that remains.

Eventually, things got better. The number of phones in town increased and our number became 3-8409. Nearby towns, including Turners Falls, became local calls, which made my mother happy, and our number received a prefix “PR” to identify Greenfield.

Our house had only one phone, as did most others. The Bell Telephone Company owned the phones and billed each household according to the number of phones. Supposedly, Bell could identify customers with “bootleg” phones by the amount of current the ringing took.

We ended up with a bootleg phone somehow. Through luck, one of my father’s friends was a phone lineman and wired up the new phone. It was plugged in when in use and unplugged when not in use to avoid the Bell detection system.

Eventually, my father changed ours from a party line to a private line. We no longer had to concern ourselves with Mrs. Pionteck or the other users wanting the line. This was great as we could talk in our area for as long as Dad would let us.

Payphones were also commonplace. When you wanted to talk to someone in a long-distance area for quite a while (say Orange), a drive to a booth on the highway in Erving — believe it, one was on the highway — allowed for calls that only cost a dime. Payphones even allowed credit card calls, which companies issued to employees with appropriate jobs. I had one and used it often at phone booths.

But payphones also allowed for pranks. A person with a grudge could call his foe with a payphone and drop the receiver after the call was answered. This left the line open until someone hung up the receiver or notified the phone company. I never did this, but I know of others who did. Newer payphones were developed with a maximum call time, which prevented this practice.

Telephone directories were mailed yearly. A phone book was great because pretty much everyone had a landline phone through Bell. Such a book was pretty much a census listing for the multiple towns because each line had a name, address and phone number.

The phone number itself used to be a significant number. The area code and the first two digits of the local number identified the location of the landline phone. So, area 413 and PR (77) pinned us to Greenfield. Moving required a change of number. The number is no longer significant as people can travel from their original area codes and keep the same number.

When the Bell Telephone System broke up in 1984, many of the restrictions went away. Lightweight and cheaply built push-button devices became the norm, and wireless as well. Cell phones are connected to the internet, and sending photos and text messages is now commonplace.

If you remember rotary dial phones, party lines and telephone booths like I do, you are an old timer.


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