Phone Exchanges- A Connection to the Past

vintage Telephone ad 1958

I confess. I rarely talk on the phone.

Some might even call me a phone-a-phobe. When it comes to telephone exchanges I rarely make a connection.  Once fun, a phone call now feels like, well, a nuisance. In an age of texting, email, and Skype …why phone?

But there was one phone number that for decades I dialed on a daily basis

A few months ago, I started to call my father as I did every day, my fingers automatically dialing with ease that familiar number. I had just finished dialing IV3- **** as I have done the entirety of my life, when there was the sinking realization that the time might soon be approaching when I will never dial these numbers again.

Now that my parents are both gone, that time indeed has come.

A Long Extension Cord

Vintage greeting cards

Vintage greeting cards over the years often featured telephones

That telephone number followed the trajectory of my life and is as tangled as a coiled phone cord with memories.

It is the first phone number I ever learned and I have dialed it on a rotary phone, a pay phone, push buttons and keypads. I have called that number homesick from summer camp and hung over from college.

It was the number I called to have my mother pick me up from grade school when I fell from the monkey bars and the number I called to speak to her home aides about her declining care. I dialed it heartbroken from some romance and heart full with my first book contract. A lifetime of birth announcements, deaths, tears and joys were shared on that line.

Call Waiting

Vintage Bell Telephone ad 1956

Vintage Bell Telephone ad 1956

Now that number is rendered useless, a memory without function.

I belonged to that rare club of adult children whose parents didn’t join the flock of retirees who headed south to Florida or enjoyed senior living in a community residence. They  still lived in the original mid-century suburban home of my childhood, retaining the same phone number for over half a century.

Sure the phone itself morphed from basic black to avocado green, from rotary to touch tone to remote but the number was as constant in my life as my parents were.

Sorry, Wrong Number

vintage telephone ad Phone directory and operator

The telephone company offered a free booklet to their customers to record their many phone numbers. It was simply known as “The Blue Book.”

The truth is it was one of only few phone number I still retained

I admit I don’t know my brother’s phone number. Or my cousins or most of my friends for that matter.

I’m not bad with numbers. Trust me.

Number, Please, Number Please!

My mind is overloaded, with a numbingly long list of passwords, an endless stream of digits and letters and words, the sequences shifting and shuffling with regularity crowding out any more numerical data. In this crowded mess, contemporary phone numbers can’t compete. Besides, pre-programmed numbers on my smart phone make it unnecessary.

rotary telephone

But one number remains unaltered, comfortably sharing space in this cloud of ever-changing digital numbers. My childhood phone number

And for good reason. The longest running sequence of numbers in my head has been on active duty for 62 years and imprinted in my DNA for nearly as long. And now it is time to  decommission it.

Until a friend gently reminded me that some new family might indeed inherit the phone number, it had never occurred to me. As if it were a baseball jersey of a great player, I just assumed they would retire the number.

Remembrances of Telephone Calls Past

Vintage Bell Telephone Ad

Vintage Bell Telephone Ad

I first learned that phone number in the summer of 1960.

Headed to kindergarten that fall, my parents felt it essential I know my home phone number. All the women’s magazines that year made it clear this was essential information for any school age child to know. Conventional cold war wisdom went that in case of a nuclear attack, schoolchildren of all ages should be able to phone home to inform their parents of their safety.

*Note:Learning my phone number would prove to be a moot point that year, as schoolchildren were issued plastic ID dog tags with our pictures and phone numbers on the back that we were instructed to wear at all times

Telephone Training

Vintage telephone toys and books

(L) Part of the Bonnie Book series for children was Joan on The Telephone published 1955 (R) 1952 Toy telephone from the Gong Bell Manufacturer a toy company from my parents generation that made phones of metal. When the dial is turned, the striker vibrates between bells.

Telephone training had begun for me as a toddler. I had already mastered the all important rotary dial thanks to the toys and books that came to the mid-century tech challenged tots aid.

How to Use A Rotary Phone Instructions

Learning how to use a Rotary Dial. From Bell Telephone System Instruction Booklet for grade school children “The Telephone and How We Use It.” Published in 1950 they were still using it through the 60’s.

Though younger cousins would benefit from the tutelage of  Fisher Price’s Chatter Phone, that classic plastic pull toy telephone  with its smiling face and rolling eyes, it appeared too late for me. I would benefit from an assortment of plastic and metal phones that rang and clang when the rotary dial was turned properly. Some even came equipped with a hidden recording bleeping “Number Please, Number please!”

The toys were not only educational but made phoning fun.

Which was the point.

AT&T made sure Mr. And Mrs. America knew that telephoning was a good time for all.  Far from the future burden it might become, mid-century phoning was darn fun!   “Routine gets a poke in the ribs; the day gets an unexpected sparkle.” the copy read in one 1958 ad. “So dust off your morning, pick up the phone, and just for fun call someone.”

Frequent telephone breaks led to a happier day. Especially for the housewife.

“Try it today when the dishes are done, beds made, clothes in the washer. You’ve earned a break. So relax a little and pick up the telephone. Enjoy a cheerful visit with a friend or loved one.” Vintage ad Bell Telephone 1958 Part of their “It’s Fun to Phone” campaign

Ma Bell wanted all her children to use the phone…and use it often. AT&T ran series of advertisements touting “It’s Fun To Phone”  rhapsodizing on the sheer enjoyment of phoning, taking telephone breaks and the connections with family and friends near and especially far away.

 

There’s a lot of pleasure in that happy impulse.

Take right now for instance. Isn’t there someone you’d like to call? And someone who would like to hear from you? A friend?Brother or sister? Mother or Dad?

There’s always news to share. And fum in the sharing at both ends of the line.

So don’t let friendships lag when it’s so easy to keep in touch. day and night, in town or out-of-town, you are never far away by telephone.

 

Phone Exchange – A Connection to the Past

vintage instruction using a dial telephone

Using Phone Exchange with Dial Phone. From Bell Telephone System Instruction Booklet for grade school children ” The Telephone and How We Use It” Published in 1950 they were still using it through the 60’s.

Now when it came time to familiarize myself with my phone number I was prepared.

Lucky for me I had learned how to count all the way up to 10 but more importantly I could recite my ABC’s. That part was crucial in learning my phone number because of alphanumeric phone exchanges.

Today that may seem as foreign as a rotary phone.

Long before Sesame Street helped children learn words and letters, alphanumeric phone exchanges helped with spelling and even vocabulary.

A concept that may seem as foreign today as a rotary phone, phone exchanges were simple devices to help remember a phone number.

Phone subscribers were given a unique 5 digit number. They were preceded by two digit identification of your geographic location. AT&T gave out specific words to identify the two letter codes.

collage Classic Comics Ivanhoe cover and 1950s housewife and telephone

(L) This Classics Illustrated Comic from 1964 featured an adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s classic Ivanhoe, also immortalized in my phone exchange making it a favorite comic. (R) By 1960 we had ditched our old black fashioned phone for a Tempo Turquoise model in Mom’s bedroom and a canary yellow wall phone in the kitchen.

Phone exchanges were distinctive and even romantic.

There was a literary charm to the numbers like NIghtingale, or  KNickerbocker, but none more so than my very own exchange – IVanhoe. Immortalized in the classic Sir Walter Scott Novel of the same name, the exchange conjured up the romantic world of kings and knights of long ago.

Sure Long Island suburbs had its sophisticated  PErshing  and EDgewood exchanges, but it was in the city that romance abounded with its TRafalgar, RHinelander and ALgonquin. The exchanges are long gone  but the mnemonic names still linger.

Phone Exchanges…. Lost Connections

Vintage greeting card

Vintage greeting card

Exchanges told you something about the neighborhood you were dialing.

I would always know MOnument 2 meant my grandmother Sadie in her hi-rise in Manhattan, and  RAvenswood 8 my other grandmother across the bridge in Astoria, Queens.

Just as my urban dwelling Great Aunts and Uncles were all distinct so  of course were their exchanges. If we wanted to dial up my Uncle Harry who lived a stone’s throw from the Museum of Natural History it was ENdicott 2 while my three bachelorette Aunts further uptown on Central Park West were SChulyer 7.

vintage Bell Telephone ad rotry phone

We would never confuse my East Side Ladies Who Lunch Great Aunt Pearl with her grand limestone building  and her  ATwater 9 exchange  with her beatnik daughter’s lilting  SPring 7, who dwelt  in a 5 story walk up on eighth street down in  Greenwich Village.

Exchanges gave a sense of history too. If you wanted a ticket to catch Mary Martin in Broadway’s Sound of Music, you would dial the theater box office whose exchange likely began with  LOngacre which was the name  given to the triangular path of land at 42 Street and Broadway before it became Times Square.

Connections Lost and Found

Phone exchanges became extinct by the 1970’s but they were a way to connect with my past. It still is.

By the end of the decade phone systems began switching to all number calling which didn’t rely on old telephone exchanges.

Though my IVanhoe 3  exchange was eventually changed to boring 483, the phone number would forever be IV3 to me.

Phone exchanges are long gone but they remain a connection to my past that is not lost.

 

Copyright (©) 20017 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

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7 comments

  1. Laura C.

    I find historical day-to-day information fascinating! I am not old enough to recall the alphanumeric exchange for my parents’ telephone number (although I do remember being able to dial my friends’ numbers without using an area code), but like you, my parents have had the same number for many years. Because of your post, I was able to figure out that their number has been in that area since 1951, and the original prefix was TAylor 3.

    I wonder how many families have had that number before them- and I wonder who will inherit your parents’ number? Perhaps it will be a landline again, or maybe a family cellphone. Maybe another generation of children will become attached to it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Whether there was an exchange attached to the number or not, one’s childhood phone number is indelibly imprinted in most peoples memory. I love that you did research and found your parents original exchange. Where was that located?

    Like

    • Laura C.

      I found a telephone exchange history for the city of Toronto, and an expanded one to include the greater Toronto area, which includes my parents’ number. As a matter of fact, the old switch facility is located a block over from their house, so it was easy to narrow down where their number came from. This made for some interesting reading!

      Here is the one for Toronto: http://ourwebhome.com/TENP/TENproject.html
      And here is the one for the GTA: http://jbb.poslfit.com/Pages/416.html

      Somebody clever has probably done one of these for your area, I bet! The internet has its drawbacks, but one of the best things about it is that people with an interest in this kind of history can get together and share knowledge.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Laura C.

        I just realized that my first link, which I identified as for Toronto, is actually for all of Canada and the US! Wow!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I love that you drilled down deeper and did this research. A gal after my own heart. Its amazing what is available on the internet if you dig deeply. Thanks for sharing

        Like

      • Laura C.

        Thank you, yourself 🙂 It is a privilege to have your memories and knowledge shared with us (I am sure I speak for all your fans).

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It is indeed my pleasure!

    Like

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