What’s Rubbering?

I learned about rubbering from my mother when I was writing her life story. She told me her family had a wooden wall phone in their dining room. They were on a party-line with six other families.  Each house had its own distinctive ring sound. You heard the rings for all the other families on your line when they were receiving calls, but you were only supposed to pick up the phone when it was your ring. Mom said their family’s ring was one long and four short. 

Apparently, some people on their line were notorious for picking up the phone every time it rang for anyone on the party line, not just when it was a call for them. Mom said this practice was called rubbering.  My grandmother disapproved of rubbering and thought it was rude. She never allowed my mother or her siblings to listen in on someone else’s conversations.

Mom told me about an aunt of hers who was notorious for rubbering. She kept up to date on what everyone else in her neighborhood was doing by listening in on their telephone conversations. 

Mom wasn’t sure why the practice of eavesdropping on your neighbors’ phone calls was called rubbering but I found out it was derived from the term rubbernecking which was the act of gawking at something of interest. 

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), "The Gossips," 1948

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), “The Gossips,” 1948. Painting for “The Saturday Evening Post” cover, March 6, 1948. Oil on canvas. Private collection. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN

The idea of rubbering reminded me of Norman Rockwell’s painting The Gossips. Rubbering was a great way to hear and pass on neighborhood gossip. 

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Filed under Culture, History

4 responses to “What’s Rubbering?

  1. Sherry

    Thank you for the information. I came across the term in a book and have never heard it called that before.


  2. I thought “rubbering” was a bit of local lingo (Faulk County, So.Dakota). But I’m reading “Child of the South Dakota Frontier “. “Rubbering is mentioned in it )p. 166). Out of curiosity I did several Google searches for a better definition of the term and ran across your blog….Your comment has proved to me that it’s not just a localized phrase. We all did it in the 40s with party phone lines!

    Liked by 1 person

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