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?