Amish & Phones: How They Use Landlines & Smartphones

Amish use phones to communicate and do business – but restrict their use

Amish are known to reject telephones in the home. But lately, the sight of Amish people on the phone – even using smartphones – is more and more common.

  1. Why do Amish restrict phones?
  2. How Amish use phones
  3. The Amish Phone Shanty
  4. Smartphones & Cell phones

Amish people need access to the phone, like other Americans – to do business, and stay in touch with loved ones. In practice, Amish communities have arrived at a variety of solutions regarding the phone – some more complex than others.

Simple black phone on wall of plywood building
Simple “shanty” phone used by Amish in a community in Virginia.

Why do Amish restrict telephones?

The historical rejection of telephones goes back to the early 1900s. As this new technology proliferated through the American rural countryside, Amish initially installed phones just like other Americans. Shortly thereafter, Amish in Lancaster County, PA decided to ban it. This ban has remained a part of church Ordnung since 1910 (see The Riddle of Amish Culture, pages 190-191).

Reasons for the ban likely included the fact that telephones represented a direct line to the world, offered too much convenience, and promoted gossip.

Kitchen table with blue oilcloth cover in plain Amish home
The home is the center of Amish life

Diane Zimmerman Umble has also noted that phone conversation decontextualizes the Amish institution of “visiting”, weakening this common practice crucial to maintaining codes and standards of Amish life (see Holding the Line, p.107).

Phones in the home continue to be widely rejected by Amish today. This is due in part to the symbolic connection to the world – but also to preserve the institution of the home. Too much phone usage, as any parents of teenagers recognize, can negatively affect family life and time spent with family in general.

How Amish use phones

At the same time, Amish recognize the usefulness – and even necessity – of telephones. There’s one important distinction to keep in mind. Amish churches banned installation of phones in the home. But they never banned usage of phones.

Amish need phones to communicate with relatives and other Amish in distant settlements, to conduct business, and to arrange rides through Amish taxi services. Practically speaking, Amish depend on phones in many ways. This has only increased, as Amish have become more and more involved in businesses dealing with the non-Amish world.

An Amish phone shanty at the end of a long farm lane
Keeping the tech at arm’s length. Amish “phone shanty” at the end of a long lane. LaGrange County, Indiana community.

Amish in some communities may rely on non-Amish neighbor’s phones, particularly in emergency situations. But most Amish have developed ways to use their own phones – while still keeping the potentially threatening technology at arm’s length.

Solution: The Amish Phone Shanty

In most Amish church districts, the use of phone shanties is permitted.  Phone shanties are located at the end of a lane or by the rural road, where they are often shared by a number of Amish families.

Typically a small wooden structure resembling a ticket-taker’s booth, the phone shanty typically contains a telephone, phone book, pen and paper, and call log. Users record calls made and settle up the bill at the end of the month. Nearly all Amish families with this setup will have a voice-mail answering service, and will periodically check messages on the phone.

Two views of a basic plywood Amish phone shack
An Amish phone shanty in Virginia. Inside is a notebook for recording calls

Having the telephone shanty away from the home maintains a degree of separation but allows the technology to be used when needed. Its distance from the home also discourages unnecessary calls. One Amish-raised woman had this to say about using the phone shanty:

I well remember those times. You made your calls very carefully and usually had half a dozen calls to make while in the shanty. The pet-peeve was when the person on the other end wasn’t at home, because I had to walk all that distance in vain. – Katie Troyer

Other Amish may have a phone in a barn or located outside a business, or even inside a shop or office.  Amish typically have allowed higher degrees of technology in the workplace than they have in the home.

By allowing phones in a barn or business, the barrier between home and phone is maintained, though in many cases this means the phone has crept a bit closer to the Amish dwelling place.  Allowances for the telephone varies among Amish churches.

Cell phones and Smartphones

Amish usage of mobile phones has increased over the past decade. In some communities, personal mobile phones have proliferated to the point where high numbers of Amish youth have them, along with adults.

The cell phone, and especially the smartphone, some Amish feel, is dangerous in that it is easily concealed and always with you. Others see advantages with it over a stationary line, noting that the owner can always control who uses it and when.

Amish girl in purple dress looking at a smartphone
An Amish girl in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania checks her smartphone. Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/New York Times

Cell phones and smartphones are nothing new in some Amish communities. One non-Amish “taxi” driver (an “Amish taxi” is a service provided by non-Amish people to drive Amish longer distances) observed the following back in 2012 in her Ohio community:

In my area many of the Amish business men (especially contractors) have and use cell phones on a daily basis, mostly for business purposes. The phones at home are in shops, barns or sheds near the house (many times within 6-10 feet of the house).

I have noticed in my taxi work that most of the young people (age 16 and up) have cell phones. When I’m taking a load to another community on the weekends (Rumspringa) the cell phones come out, the texting starts and both of my power ports are requested so they can recharge phones.

Cell phone usage is not so different from Englisher teens but I think is is not as open at home. Some of my lady customers ask to use my cell phones when they are on taxi trips. This varies greatly between families, some being much more conservatie then others.

And it goes back further than that – much further. Writing for Wired magazine back in 1999, Howard Rheingold shared the following:

At one farm we passed, a woman was sitting a hundred yards from her house on the edge of a kitchen garden. She wore the traditional garb of the conservative Old Order – a long, unadorned dress sheathed by an apron, her hair covered by a prayer bonnet. She was sitting in the middle of the garden, alone, the very image of technology-free simplicity. But she was holding her hand up to her ear. She appeared to be intent on something, strangely engaged.

“Whenever you see an Amish woman sitting in the field like that,” my guide said, “she’s probably talking on a cell phone.”

“It’s a controversy in the making,” he continued. A rather large one, it turns out – yet part of the continuum of determining whether a particular technology belongs in Amish life. They’ve adopted horses, kerosene lamps, and propane refrigerators; should they add cell phones?

It’s an issue which has played out in the ensuing quarter-century – with new, serious wrinkles introduced by the smartphone. Amish parents express concern over what internet-equipped mobile devices may be used for.

Since the smartphone is so small and portable, it has in many cases crept in “under the radar” in some Amish settlements. A humorous (depending on your perspective) anecdote from an Iowa Amish settlement, hints at both the attraction and infiltration of the phone in some communities:

The story in the Kalona community is told of the young Old Order Amish woman who was talking to her bishop about the use of the cell phone. The bishop was denouncing its usage, saying it was not in compliance with the rules of the church. As the young lady was expressing her agreement with the bishop’s remarks, her purse rang. (Source: “The Kalona Amish: Retention and Defection Patterns of the 20th Century”, Erin Miller)

Some Amish, both youth and adults, have regular internet access as a result of the spread of the smartphone. Wide usage has led to acceptance by default in some cases. Once a majority of church members are using a particular technology, it becomes more difficult for church leadership to speak out against it. The smartphone remains a controversial (“gray area”), but increasingly accepted means of communication in some Amish communities.

Amish need phones too

Though the ways individual Amish churches approach the telephone vary, most if not all will agree that phones are a necessary tool. Whether maintaining ties with a distant sibling, keeping in contact with customers or suppliers, or checking weather reports, Amish find the telephone indispensable – for both business and social purposes.

Simple signs for Amish stores in Kansas showing phone number
Some Amish business advertisements feature telephone numbers. Labette, Kansas. Photo: Don Burke

The fact that Amish choose to regulate how the phone is used demonstrates their continuing concern over potential ill effects – were it to be fully accepted. At the same time the Amish take a practical approach. They use the telephone in limited ways, just like they do with most forms of technology.

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    13 Comments

    1. Linda Oliver

      Why Is It?

      Why is it the Amish won’t OWN phones, cars, power tools, etc., but will borrow from or pay for their use to the English? If it’s because they are of the world…the Amish are still using them, so what’s the point of going without?

      1. Using vs. Owning technology

        Linda it’s a good question, but it’s actually more about drawing a line between ownership and usage, with the belief that owning something allows you to use it whenever you want, and it’s easy to become to comfortable and dependent on a technology. Amish see overuse and overdependence on certain technologies as potentially damaging to their family life and society. They look at examples from English culture as cautionary.

        Of course in many cases this also means they have to depend on others (English) to own the technology, for them to be able to use it (ie hiring a driver or borrowing a neighbor’s phone).

        1. Bert

          reply

          hi erik its bert again ive noticed in the community that i drive for the smatyphone with the kids has gained acceptance not from the church leadership or the parents but the kids themselves i fear that greatly will lead to more problems

    2. J

      Very interesting. Well if Amish people are happy having a separation between phone and family life, that makes sense. It may seem extreme to mainstream society, but I think a lot of cell phone use has become extreme on the other end of the spectrum. On any given day you can be having a conversation with someone, and they take out their phone to start texting someone else, or checking their Facebook status. After awhile it starts to feel like face to face human interaction just is not that important anymore, so at least that is one thing the Amish seem to get. I might not want to take their eschewing of technology to the extreme they do, but it is nice to know there is a world where people are not constantly on their cell phones 24/7.

    3. Kirby Matter

      Amish Charging Cell Phone Batteries

      Considering that the Amish are not wired for electricity to their homes, how do they keep their cell phones charged? Are they allowed to have portable generators? Must cell phones be maintained elsewhere? Or what?

      By way of background, I once lived in LaGrange County, in northern Indiana which has a large Amish community. I first noticed the cell phone phenomenon among the Amish a decade ago when I returned to Shipshewana for a high school reunion.

      1. How do Amish charge cell phones?

        Amish do a lot of their charging of battery-operated devices using diesel generators. This is considered an acceptable source of power because it is a limited source which is not connected to the grid. It’s not as convenient, also symbolically speaking there is no direct physical link to the world. Increasingly, solar charges some batteries as well. They may be kept in an outbuilding or even in the basement. Last time I needed to charge my camera at an Amish friend’s home I just plugged in to the same source they used for their cell phones. In terms of using cell phones some Amish may have church or personal rules that you just use them in the work truck, only between certain hours, or that they don’t come in the house.

        1. Kay Schwartz

          Amish and cell phones

          I searched for amish and cell phones because I saw a phone shanty near Goshen, Indiana with solar panels instead of wires. I wondered if it was a place to charge and keep cell phones. Makes sense.

    4. outsider

      how can an outsider experience the amish life? are outsiders allowed to rent an apt inside the amish community?

    5. usage of telephone

      It is quite interesting to observe that Amish consider the usage of telephones with a considerable precaution. However further dialogue with the community and better understanding of how the technology works may bring about a much deeper understanding of the community. We should help our Amish brothers and sisters to stay strong in their beliefs but still offer them a way through which they can adopt modern day conveniences for their own usage and to their own liking. I believe that any belief system deserves its individuality and distinction from the others, however with time I hope the Amish community reflects on the use of technology simply as a tool and not label it as an evil.

    6. Accepting more similar content?

      Hey Erik – I’d love to write more on this topic. Are you currently accepting new contributors? I noticed on your “contact” page, you mentioned that leaving a comment is more likely to catch your attention than an email 🙂 thought I’d give it a try. Would love to work with Amish America. Let me know – thanks!

    7. L.L.

      Smartphones and MLMs among some OOA ladies

      Eeic,
      Can u do post about some.OLA.ladies, esp in the Lancaster area have MLMS and use instagram and facebook and post videos they make for the mlms? How common is this, and would they be disciplined by their districts if the ministers found out? Esp.of the married women who do it?

      1. Clint

        What is OLA and MLMS?

        1. L.L.

          Oops... typos

          Oops typo!- hould have been OOA, and MLM’s are mid level marketing