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Amish Telephones

Visitors to Lancaster Countyís "Amish Country" often come with misconceptions and inaccurate information gleaned from a wide range of books about the Amish. Many people think the Amish use nothing modern. So, when they notice an Amishman making a call from a pay telephone booth, they might be surprised. They may wonder why Amish sometimes use the phone of their "English" (non-Amish) neighbors. Many visitors are even more shocked to discover that some of those buildings that resemble "outhouses" sitting near the house or in a field are actually private Amish telephone booths!

Dr. Diane Zimmerman Umble, Professor of Communication at Millersville University, recently gave a lecture on the evolution of telephone usage by the Amish. She began by noting that she is aware of some Amish carpentry crews having cellular phones, some use of the FAX as well as answering machines and services, and even a dog that barks to alert the household to the phone ringing out in the booth! Following is a summary of her remarks.

Before 1910, there was no real position given by the Amish church concerning telephones. In the early days, there were many phone companies and "farmer lines" to link them with their neighbors. Some were not even connected to the commercial companies. A split in the church actually resulted. The Old Order Amish interpretation was that the phone be banned in the home as contrary to the spirit of humility, not being a necessity, contributing to pride and individualism, and as something coming from the outside world.

But there was concern that the phone removed people from the physical, face-to-face context of communication so important in Amish society. Elders were concerned about "unmonitored" private communication and the effect on young people. The act of using a phone, however, was not forbidden.

By the 1950ís, as more plain people were forced to go into businesses and hotels to use phones, and the need to have access to one for emergencies arose, the bishops allowed the use of the "community phone." The idea here was that the phone was not in the house, the number unlisted, and that it could be shared by several families, basically for outgoing calls, not socializing. This accommodation to the phone was to allow access, but maintain the distance. Today there is often a log book for each person to write down long-distance calls made, and the phone bill is divided up for monthly payment accordingly. There are listings of emergency phone numbers for Amish communities across the U.S.

In the 1980ís, the increase in Amish enterprises resulted in more creative phone use. Many Amish entrepreneurs today say that the phone is critical to their competitiveness and success in non-farming businesses in Lancaster County. Even many farmers find access to the phone important in caring for their dairy cows and calling the veterinarian. The church is trying to keep the phones from becoming "exclusive" and unavailable to the community. In the Amish community today, there is some debate as to how much of the new telephone technology will be allowed, and what impact it may have. The fairly common use of pagers, beepers, and even cell phones among the Amish is raising even more questions...not to mention "palm pilots."

As is typical of the Amish, when a new technology comes along, the Amish examine its effect on the church and community. The technology should not be an intrusion into the home, but rather serve the social purposes and goals of the group. In a sense, the Amish "re-organize" the technology.

Amish Country News Article by Brad Igou, (1991)

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