My question is related to this question I asked earlier on the cost of a telephone call in the 1920s in the United States of America.

Now, I am interested in the whole period from 1920 until 1960 and I would like to know which way of calling was more popular at the time: Station-to-station calling or person-to-person calling?

As I understand, calling station-to-station was cheaper, but one ran into the risk of being charged for a call where the call would have been picked up by someone other than the desired person. Person-to-person calls, on the other hand, were operator assisted and made sure that the dialing person was not charged unless the call reached the desired person at the other end.

In a very informal source, I have read that person-to-person calls were more popular when calls overall where more expensive (and the people not used to the technology). This would make sense because people would not want to risk paying an expensive sum for a call picked up by the wrong person.

I appreciate any anecdotal evidence (if you have experienced this personally at some time) and any sources or statistics that can make me credibly identify which method was more common in any of the decades between 1920 and 1960 (or even later).

  • 1
    Another factor might be the need to use directory assistance to find out whether the desired party even had a telephone.
    – bgwiehle
    Feb 2, 2017 at 17:15
  • True. The way I currently understand it, though, is that both station-to-station and person-to-person calls were assisted by an operator who (I assume) could also have given directory assistance. So the difference between both methods was not in the amount of assistance but in what the dialer was billed for as I described above. I think. Maybe it is not correct, what do you think? Feb 2, 2017 at 17:34
  • 3
    @bgwiehle In the good old days, directory assistance was free.
    – bof
    Feb 3, 2017 at 10:27
  • @bgwiehle As in "Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call Because my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall Help me, information, get in touch with my Marie She's the only one who'd phone me here from Memphis, Tennessee..." May 2, 2019 at 2:23
  • The clever workaround was to set up an understanding with the other party in advance. If one of you called the other person-to-person, you would deny being that person to avoid being billed and then call them back station-to-station. Oct 8, 2019 at 0:08

2 Answers 2


Your question misses the key point that across all of U.S. and Canada the various Bell companies sorted all long distance conversations into three distinct tariff classes based on the start time of the connection in the Caller's time zone. In Bell Canada's jurisdiction (most of Ontario and Quebec) those tariff classes were, as best I recall, the following:

  • Business Hours:

    • 9:00 am to 5:59 pm, Monday to Friday (except statutory holidays);
  • Off-Business Hours - typically a 30% to 50% discount:

    • 7:00 am to 8:59 am Monday to Friday & Sunday and holidays;
    • 6:00 pm to 10:59 pm Monday to Friday & Sunday and holidays;
    • 7:00 am to 10:59 om Saturday (except statutory holidays);
  • Family Hours - typically a 70% discount:

    • 9:00 am to 6:59 pm Sunday and holidays;
    • 11:00 pm to 6:59 am everyday.

Further, most medium or larger business rented their own WATS (Wide Area Telephone Service) lines, between specific cities, for intra- and inter-business calls at a discount.

The pattern of calling would have been very different in each tariff class, based on the purpose of the call.

Anyone making their call during the full rate Business Hours tariff often had to speak to a specific person - so would make a person-to-person call. But if you just need to speak to whichever receptionist or clerk was on phone duty you made the call station-to-station.

If the call could wait - one would wait until the Off-Business Hours or Family Hours tariff time, and call station-to-station - again unless it was necessary to speak to a specific person.

One also had, for longer conversation, the option to make a person-to-person call first to confirm presence - being charged the minimum time which was I believe 5 minutes - and if successful follow up with a station-to-station call at the cheaper rate.

Finally, there was the well known scam - forever made famous in an All in the Family episode conversation between Archie and Meathead - of making a person-to-person call for the wrong name. This was commonly done for binary acknowledgements such as "I made it home safe-and-sound" messages - where no other message was needed.

And finally, one could make an outgoing call in a high tariff class requesting a call-back from the destination, if they were sitting in a lower tariff class at the time of calling.

  • Perhaps worth mentioning is that WATS lines were also broken into zones, which were based on distance from the originating number and had accordingly higher fees. Basically, the farther the distance, the higher the price of the WATS line. Oct 8, 2019 at 0:13
  • @CareyGregory: To be honest, I never had the opportunity to learn much about WATS - but all long distance calls were charged based on station distance, likely using the same zones. Nothing different here about WATS. Oct 8, 2019 at 0:20

In my recollection of telephones in the late 1950's: first, rarely did anyone attempt any sort of long-distance phone call, exactly because of the various troubles mentioned in the question.

My parent's house had a "party line", and our "ring" was "two shorts, and a long".

To place calls "locally" we had to talk to an operator in all cases.

Given the unreliability and expense of "long distance" (or, actually, local) calls, we rarely engaged in this.

Yes, to save money, but in an emergency, one would make a "station-to-station" call... but that might fail. "Person-to-person" was another grade of expense up, and only as a last resort... and might fail, anyway...

  • 1
    Yes, "party line". Oct 8, 2019 at 14:23

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