For many years I have been an amateur genealogist and spent many hours studying my family history. Both from family documents and online research, I have been able to compile a large database of both Helen’s and my ancestry. Every year more and more old documents from our past have been scanned and uploaded to the web making online research easier and more thorough each year.
Recently, while looking for my grandfather’s information, I ran into a draft-registration card that he completed in 1942. That card shows his personal information including his phone number as “Pres 1688.” That phone number’s format brought back memories of the old phone-number system from my childhood.
In the days before area codes, mobile phones and the internet, most homes and businesses had just one phone number. Those phone numbers consisted of an “exchange” and a unique number. The exchange was often represented by a word that was relevant to the town where it was located. In Quincy, Massachusetts we had three exchanges. Being the birthplace of two presidents, one of those exchanges was “President.” As an area known for its granite quarries, another exchange was “Granite.” Finally, having descendants from the ship “Mayflower” in our community, our third exchange was “Mayflower.”
I remember our family phone that sat in the corner of our living room from the time we moved into my parents’ new home in the mid-1940s until many years later when my mother finally got a push-button model telephone. Her new phone sat in the same spot on that same desk. She gave me that old rotary phone, and I still have it to this day. Somewhere along the line, the label that was in the middle of the rotary dial was lost. Typed on the label on my parent’s phone was *”PResident 3-7050″.
In 1959 when I came home from Navy boot camp, my dad shot a photo in our living room of me and my two brothers in our uniforms. That phone is sitting in the same place on the top of the desk in the upper left-hand corner of this photo.
With the development of dial phones, those exchange names became digitized. In Quincy, “President” became “PR3” “Granite” became “GR2,” and “Mayflower” became “MA9.” As time went on, the exchange names were dropped and just the numerals 773, 472, and 629 were used.
In 1955, AT&T (then the monopoly phone company) distributed a list of recommended exchange names that were the result of studies to minimize misunderstandings when spoken. The recommendation was intended for newly established exchanges and did not mandate any renaming of existing historical names. The number sequences 55x, 57x, 95x, and 97x had no exchange names specified, as the mappings for the digits 5, 7, and 9 had no vowels, thus making it difficult finding names with those consonant combinations. As a result, those numbers were seldom assigned to exchanges. However, KLondike was used for 55x in San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio, and WRigley 5 (975) was used in Chicago (Wrigley Field).
Fictitious phone numbers that we often see in TV series and movies originally started with 55 and used the fictitious exchange name KLondike (55). Later, they were simply shown as 555. The letters Q and Z were never used in the naming system, but Z was often mapped on the telephone dial to the digit 0 (zero).
The NumberBarn Blog provides some interesting information in its post, “History Lesson: All About Phone Numbers” where it describes the growth in the number of phones in the United States and the addition of three digits indicating Area Codes in the 1951 North American Numbering Plan. NumberBarn explains the process that area codes were numbered as:
Area codes were selected based on the population in that city, and the areas with the largest populations received codes that were easily dialed on a rotary phone. States that needed more than 500 central phone operator offices were split into multiple areas. Each area then received its own code, with the middle digit being “1,” while area codes that covered an entire state kept the digit “0” in the middle, such as with New Jersey. District of Columbia received the second code of 202 and New York City claimed area code 212, with only five pulses, the shortest of all area codes.
Thinking about the old phone exchange names and the influence of those names on our culture, brings up reminders of the John O’Hara novel and Elizabeth Taylor movie “Butterfield 8” that takes place in 1931 Manhattan. *BUtterfield was an exchange that provided service to Manhattan’s well-to-do Upper East Side.
Those of us who are old enough to remember Glen Miller’s and the Andrews Sisters’ 1940s recordings of “PENNSYLVANIA 6-5000” will be interested to read Burner App’s blog where they write:
This phone number, immortalized in a Glen Miller song, will, to this day, connect you to the front desk of The Hotel Pennsylvania in New York. All you have to do is add on the modern area code. Let’s break it down: The Pennsylvania Hotel was located nearest the Pennsylvania telephone exchange, or PE, named for Penn Station in New York City. So, to reach the hotel in the 1930s, people would dial PE6-5000 or 736-5000, swapping in numbers for letters. Tack on the modern 212 area code and you’ve got a modern, 10-digit phone number. Not so different from what it was in the 1930s.
BurnerPhone describes the addition of emergency phone numbers in the 1960s:
The standardization of an emergency phone number did not become a reality until the 1960s. Children of the ‘60s were taught to call “nine-eleven” when they were in trouble, but the number was soon rebranded to “nine-one-one” when people realized time might be wasted by callers searching for a number eleven on the dial pad.
That site goes on to describe “vanity numbers” and how they started being sold with some of those numbers becoming very expensive:
According to The Washington Post, the most desired and expensive numbers end in -HURT or -PAIN, “since they’re desired by personal injury attorneys.”
Locally, here in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, we have Wilson & Wilson Optical whose phone number ends in 2020 as in “twenty-twenty vision.” Many tax preparers around the country have phone numbers ending in the number of the most well-known tax form, “the 1040.” In the early 1980s when I opened my first tax and accounting office, I waited several years for the number 246-1040 to become available. That has been my business number ever since.
If you would like to see what your phone number spells, take a look at the PhoneSpell website where you can enter a phone number and find all the word combinations that it spells. Also, you can search there for a vanity number that is for sale.
Do you have any interesting phone-number stories to share? If so, I’d love to hear them Please feel free to post them in the “Comments” section below.
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