Party Lines, Porch Swings and Screen Doors
I grew up in a time when party lines, porch swings and screen doors were very much part of most people’s homes. The modern convenience of a small, economical window air conditioner had not yet over taken our country. People just accepted the heat of summer and went about their business. Complaining about the heat was a good way to start a conversation as your neighbors walked by. Back in those days, people sat on their porches, in their swings, hoping to enjoy the evening breeze. I can still see in my mind, people slowly swinging back and forth, while using a hand fan to cool themselves. Most likely the fan advertised a local business, a funeral home or even a church. People hoped that same evening breeze would pass through their screen doors and windows, and cool the house for the night.
As the last days of summer are slipping away, it seems, for many of us, we spend a fair amount of time sealed inside an air conditioned environment. When we step outside, we wonder how we got along before air conditioning was so common. Is it hotter now days than it was years ago? Could global warming be true? Well, it maybe a little warmer these days than it was back then, but for the most part, we just accepted the heat. I know, from personal experience, the body learns to cope with both heat and cold environments. When Mary and I lived out west, in the deserts of New Mexico, the heat was often extreme; 105 degrees in the summer was not unusual with humidity at a mere 5 percent. That’s why they called it a dry heat. The world’s temperatures may have changed some, but it is each of us that may have changed even more.
Fifty years ago, a window air conditioning unit was much higher priced than the ones you can purchase today. A 24,000 BTU unit could cost hundreds of dollars – a lot of money back then when wages were $2 and $3 an hour. Today, modern units are cheap and plentiful. You may ask why they are so much cheaper. Back then, a window unit contained a large compressor that weighed nearly 40 pounds. Inside the compressor was a large amount of copper and steel. It was driven by an internal piston, like a small engine. The coils on each side of the unit were also made using pricey copper. Today, compressors are far smaller in size and weight. Compressors no longer use pistons, but use a different technology to compress gas. This reduces size, weight and power needs. The heat exchange coils are made using more aluminum in their construction. A small single room air conditioner today can be purchased for as little as $99. It can be lifted into a window by one person. Plug it in, and turn it on, and 20 minutes later the room is cool. The new units are cheaper and light weight and plentiful. They are also mass produced overseas.
For my part, I have to believe the invention of cheap window air conditioners was the beginning of the end for neighborhood social gatherings. By that I mean, before mass air-conditioning, people got out of their houses in the evening and walked around their neighborhoods. If they saw the neighbors sitting on their porch fanning themselves, they stopped and talked over the day’s events. Women wore light weight summer dresses and men often worewhite shirts or even just a tee shirt. I still remember seeing my grandfather sitting on his porch swing, wearing a pressed white shirt over his tee shirt. A lot of the times he wore a brown felt hat. An image that was as much about the times as it was about a way of life years ago.
It was a time when people talked face to face. Of course you could use your phone. You may have had a party line in your home. If you are reading this story and don’t know what a party line is… well it was a telephone line shared by two, three, or maybe even four families. It was an arrangement that often worked out well, giving more people access to a limited number of phone lines. The trouble was, if you were on a party line with someone who wanted to talk endlessly about nothing and they did not care about sharing the line. Just as bad, they listened in on your conversations and whispered about them to others in church on Sunday. Party lines were not so great when it came to busy bodies. I personally tend to think they may be the same people you see today with phones stuck next to their ear. You have seen them in the grocery store holding the phone between their ear and shoulder as they talk endlessly about their dog’s hot spots. They spend the whole time while shopping, talking loud enough as if they wanted everyone within ear shot to hear their conversation.
Party lines, porch swings and screen doors have all passed into time, and been nearly forgotten. Those party lines that had a least one busy body on them were a good thing when they went away. And I guess those screen doors that closed with a slam, when the spring pulled it too quickly, that is a good thing too. No more do parents have to yell at their kids as they run out the door and say, “Don’t let that door SLAM!” Of course it was already too late. And with almost no one using porch swings, you don’t have to listen to creaking sounds of the chains each time the swing went back and forth. Come to think of it, I kind of miss the sound of the swing and even the slamming of the screen door. Maybe because it reminds me of times when the world seemed a little slower and nicer. People smiled and waved at those who passed by. Almost as if you could see Andy and Barney drinking a bottle of pop on their porch. Those summer days came to an end, with evenings filled with sounds of locust and slamming screen doors as I listen back Through the Lens.