Boomers Dial Up Some History

Everyone knows the first practical application of the telephone predated the boomer generation by a hundred years. Nonetheless, we boomers have seen our share of telephone history, not the least of which was the gradual transition from phone exchanges starting with numbers, then names, then letters and on to the ten-digit numerals of today.

In the late 1800s, phone calls were placed through an operator (they were mostly women). The operator would literally sit in front of a switchboard that had a slot for each of the phone numbers in any particular exchange. She would plug a call from one number to another on the exchange by way of a cord with a plug at each end, thus connecting the caller to the home of the person he or she wished to reach. At first, phone exchanges were named by two to five numbers.

By 1910, however, there were more than 10,000 phone numbers for operators to sort through in New York City. As the amount of phone numbers grew — especially in the larger cities like Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and New York — the urgency to change the naming system became a practical necessity. The prevailing thought of the day was that people would have a hard time remembering a series of more than five numbers, so recognizable names were chosen to represent telephone exchanges. The person placing the call would then tell the operator the name of the exchange — such as Murray Hill, Butterfield, Dunkirk, Fairmont or Glenview — and the one to three numbers that followed it that made up the person’s phone number. You could tell a lot about a person by their phone exchange name, because it placed them into a geographical area and neighborhood.

This system served the telephone industry well for nearly four decades, even as long distance calls became more feasible through the 1920s and into the ’40s. Boomers will recall famous movies that had references to these telephone exchanges, such as Butterfield 8 with Elizabeth Taylor and Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

As direct dialing appeared during the boomer years of the late 1950s, letters had been placed in positions around the phone dial to correspond to the ten numbers of zero through nine so the exchange names could be shortened to the first two letters for dialing purposes. Ultimately, it was decided to add five numerals after the two letter digits (i.e., Murray Hill 45678 was dialed directly as MU4-5678).

Naturally, as boomers began to make and listen to their own music, phone exchange names found their way into the mix. Most notably, the Marvelettes recorded Beechwood 4-5789 in 1962. Bell Telephone had started a transition to all-number phone numbers as early as 1958, but the Marvelettes would show that it was to be a slow transition that had not reached every area four years later. For most boomers, it would be the mid-60s before all-number phone numbers would affect their family’s home phone. In fact, all-number phone names weren’t universally accepted nationwide until 1980, as immortalized by yet another song, 867-5309/Jenny by Tommy Tutone, in 1982 — twenty years after the Marvelettes made that Beechwood number famous! How’s that for spanning the boomer years with telephone history?

Mister Boomer recalls as a wee boomer having to learn his two-letter and five-digit home phone number and write it on the first page of his school books — in pencil, as required, of course. Somewhere around 1962, however, the letters were replaced with their numerical counterparts. The area code, which added three numbers at the beginning of the phone number, would only come into play when dialing long distance. For some families the transition necessitated a change of phone number. For Mister Boomer, his family moved to a “private number” from a “party line” (which we’ll discuss at a later date in more depth) at that time and their long-held phone number changed. If your family is anything like Mr B’s, that “new” phone number still rings on the phone situated on the kitchen wall four decades later.

What memories do phone exchange names bring back for you, boomers?

It’s Our First Anniversary!

Mister Boomer is celebrating one full year of postings! During that time, Mister B has been gratified to know that tens of thousands of visitors from all over the U.S. and Canada have stopped by to reminisce and recall our place in history.

It’s been Mister B’s mission to bring you entertaining and informative musings on the boomer age, our youth and the changing times we’ve witnessed by connecting personal recollections with historical events. In the course of our weekly postings, some writings have generated great enthusiasm, which reinforces Mister B’s notion that though we boomers differ in our economic and social backgrounds, we all share a great deal that is unique to our generation.

With a celebratory wink and a nod, here are Mister Boomer’s personal Top Ten favorite postings of his first year. If you missed them the first time around, have a look and jump-start memories of your own. If you recall reading them, visit again and see if you agree with Mister B that these are the cream of the crop!

10. There’s a Kind of Crush, All Over the Boomer World
Posted March 6, 2011
Coming of age in the 1960s wouldn’t be complete for a young boomer without recognizing the beautiful, strong, modern women that graced the TV screen. In this posting, Mister B relates his choices for top celebrity crushes.

9. Boomers Strike Solid Gold
Posted July 3, 2010
Music formed the soundtrack to our lives, and perhaps we owe it all to the advent of the transistor radio. Take a trip down the musical memory lane as Mister B recalls early 1960s music emanating from his personal battery-powered radio.

8. Musical Youth
Posted August 14, 2010
Music appreciation in our schools did not equate to our appreciation of the top 40 songs we were listening to on the radio and playing on our record players. What would happen if a teacher dared to cross the lines to use modern music in her class as a teaching tool? Mister B relates the disastrous results.

7. Home Delivery
Posted August 9, 2010
Of the many things that made our youth different than other generations, home delivery — especially of milk products — was one to which every boomer can ascribe a story. Here are Mister B’s stories of home delivery services in his neighborhood.

6. Boomers Heart Robots
Posted October 10, 2010
Robots were fun playthings at home, but also scary nightmares in movies. Mister B relates that dichotomy in our pop culture that made robots a metaphor for our times.

5. 8-Track Mind
Posted August 23, 2010
High on the list of boomer-time products that are now gone are 8-track tapes. For many of us, it was the first introduction to “music on demand” in our cars. Hated by some for its clunkiness, now the tapes can be rediscovered through the romantic prism of an age gone by.

4. The Final Frontier
Posted September 26, 2010
Perhaps nothing captured our young imaginations more in the fifties and early sixties than visions of space. Travel with Mister B on his journey, following the earliest space missions.

3. Which Cat Was the Coolest?
Posted July 18, 2010
On the surface, the boomer battle of Felix the Cat vs. Top Cat tends to fall along the lines of which decade you happen to be born in; those born in the fifties gravitate toward Felix, while early sixties boomer babies lean to the Top Cat camp. Nostalgia aside, explore the inner feline workings of these classic and smart cartoons and decide as an adult which side you are on.

2. Laughing Through the Cold War
Posted June 20, 2010
While many of us were too young to fully appreciate the meaning of total annihilation, we were able to do our share of laughing at the satire and comedy that it spawned. From Duck and Cover to Get Smart, Mister B enjoyed laughing through the Cold War.

1. See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet, Again?
Posted September 13, 2010.
Where would our country be, or where would we boomers be, without President Eisenhower’s vision for the building of the National Interstate Highway System? Mister B’s personal recollection of the building of the National Interstate Highway System in his neighborhood firmly links this boomer to the historic event that arguably was among the biggest changes in our lives. This is the essence to which misterboomer.com strives.

Thank you for visiting Mister Boomer and making this site a success. If you’ve had a chuckle, conjured a memory or learned a tidbit, tell your friends. As always, your comments are welcome. Here’s to looking forward to another exciting year of looking back!