Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Hold The Line

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 13, 2013

Sometimes holding the line has nothing to do with taking a position and defending it. Sometimes it simply has to do with waiting on the phone while an operator or administrative assistant puts you through to another extension. The caller holds the line instead of hanging up.

In the Boston Globe edition of November 26, 1962 the news story by Lloyd Shearer entitled “The President’s Time Of Decision” questions why any man in his right mind would want to become the President of the United States. Found on page 3 in section B6 of the newspaper, it included this line:

He asks Mr. Khrushchev please to hold the line and picks up the SAC phone.

On April 29, 1947, the Evening Independent of St. Petersburg, Florida reported on the telephone company strike and its effect on customers placing long distance calls. The writer — known only as The Rambler — wrote about a long distance call he placed to his daughter in Washington. Setting up the story, he wrote:

He asked the operator here if the call could be put through quickly. She said she would try and told the Rambler to hold the line. He heard her asked [sic] Jacksonville for a line to Washington, then heard the Washington operator answer and get then umber of the telephone in Alexandria. Then he heard the ring of the bell in his daughter’s home and almost immediately, she answered.

The Boston Daily Globe published a serial story under the heading “The Web Of Intrigue” by Coralie Stanton and Heath Hosken back in 1913. Not every story or novel written by Coralie Stanton (1877 – unknown) and Heath Hosken was published in volume form, and many were serialized in various newspapers and magazines, including Munsey’s Magazine. Coralie Stanton was actually Mary Alice Cecil Seymour Keay and Heath Hosken was her husband, journalist and author Ernest Charles Heath Hosken (1875 – 1934) who sometimes went by the pen name, Pierre Costello. Their co-written stories as well as their solo efforts focused on romance and intrigue in exotic locales. The serialized story was described thusly: “The Snares of Clever and Designing Women Appear in High Relief in This Romance, the Plot of Which Centers About a Baffling Murder Mystery.”   It’s in the May 16, 1913 edition that the expression is used, when the question is asked of one of the story’s characters: Hadn’t he better hold the line?

It was in the book, “Regulations for United States Military Telegraph lines: U.S. Signal Corps” prepared under the direction of Brigadier-General James Allen, Chief Signal Officer of the Army in 1909, the following was written:

US Military Signals_Rule 89_1909

Although the U.S. Military rule has to do with the telegraph, in 1908 telephone companies also talked about holding lines — and giving them to others as they saw fit — as seen in this advertisement published in the American Telephone Journal (Volume 18) on page 9.  In fact it states that no subscriber “can hold the line to the detriment of services nor against the Emergency Signal.”  Don’t forget to check out the three-minute rule comment!

American Telephone Journal_Volume 18_1908

During the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) newspaper reporters competed for open telegraph lines and to hold the line while preparing their breaking news dispatches, they would have operator punch out verses from the Bible to their editors back home.

American painter and inventor, Samuel Morse (April 27, 1791 – April 2, 1872) had approached Washington almost two decades earlier with the proposal that he build an experimental 38-mile telegraph line between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland that would follow the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad right-of-way. Congress set aside $30,000 USD in 1843 for that purpose, and the line was unveiled on May 1, 1844. Exactly one year later, the Magnetic Telegraph Company was established, and Samuel Morse patented the telegraph in 1847. In 1851, his telegraph was adopted as the standard for telegraphy in Europe and the United States.

This is important because it shows that holding the line was not possible before Samuel Morse invented the telegraph (which pre-dates the telephone by 25 years). To this end, Idiomation pegs the idiom hold the line as it pertains to communications to the start of the Civil War in 1861.

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