How were long-distance phone calls made to areas with 6-digit phone numbers in the 1960s?

Before I get started, this post applies to the United States.

The Buffalo area was the last major metropolitan area in the United States to have seven digit local phone numbers. Six-digit numbers endured into 1964, I believe, long after the NAP was adopted and nationwide long-distance direct dialing was implemented. My parents bought their first house in 1962, and the label on the New York bell-provided phone read:


(4567 is just an example, but you get the idea.)

Anyhow, if I was in … oh, California, and I wanted to dial this number, could I dial 716-83-4567 or another Buffalo-area six-digit telephone number directly?

Here ya’ go:

They dialed “0”, gave the operator the town and number. She then connected.

Ah, so true. When I was young, we could not afford a phone (first one I got was after getting married and was age 24. Even then it was a party line.)

Anyhow, in the 30s and 40s, if you wanted to make a long-distance call, you not only had to dial the operator and give the number you wanted, but you then hung up, waited for the connection to be made, adn then the operator called back, and lo and behold, you had a connection. Not a very good connection either, usually had to shout to each other, as I was told by friends.

I shudder to think what it must have been like to call somebody in another country. :slight_smile:


When I was a kid, we only had to dial 6 numbers to call a local number, but I’m pretty sure the numbers themselves were 8 digit numbers. It was just that the first two numbers were the same for everybody, and they were not required to be dialed.

Sort of like nowadays, where we don’t have to dial the area code in my small town. I know that’s not true nowadays of most metropolitan areas, and indeed, on my cell phone, I do have to dial the area code. Not the land line, though.

I don’t think your example is correct. The prefix was not just 2 letters, but 2 letters and a number. Also the 2 letters usually were the start of a word, so the number might be something like FRanklin 4-3987 (or FR4-3987 or 374-3987).

As others have said, for local calls you could many times just dial 4, 5 or 6 digits, depending on the size of the exchange, and usually for long distance you had to have operator assistance, until Direct DIstance Dialing was implemented in your area.

Originally prefixes were three or two numbers +1, followed by four numbers.

For example

PIlgram8-7777 (748-7777)


PILgram-7777 (745-7777)

It depended on your location and phone company and area code whether your prefixes were the first TWO or first THREE letters

When I was very young you could dial the last four digits of a number if it had the same area code and prefix.

For instance to call 312-748-7777 from 312-748-4125, you could just dial 7777

Each area and phone company had it’s own dialing rules.

As other posters have pointed out if your area was served by small phone company you might have a non-standard number that couldn’t be dialed direct.

It surprises people that not all numbers could be dialed direct. A bit odd but when I lived in suburban Chicago, I could dial 911 and international calls. I moved across the road and it was in Will County and I could not dail 911 nor international calls direct. I had to place international calls through the operator. Same phone company but at the time 1990 my area of Will County wasn’t served by those services

When I was a child and wanted my father’s store, I just turned the crank and told the operator I wanted 1-7-7. Just three numbers. I think I can remember just asking for Daddy’s store and getting him.

In about 1952 or 1953, we watched a film at school on how to use a dial phone. Now I can’t remember the last one that I saw.

In Buffalo in the late 1950s and early 1960s, complete phone numbers excluding the area code were still six digits: two letter exchange plus four numbers. Here is an example. This is a large city in the Northeast; not Turdwater, Oklahoma where I only need to dial the last four digits to call the guy in the farm down the road but my actual phone number is seven digits long. In 1962 or 1963, numbers in Buffalo were seven digits; two letter exchange, five numbers. My parents’ phone number changed from something like “TF-4567” to “TF4-4567”. (FWIW, many residents and businesses in the Buffalo area used the old two-letter exchange protocol into the 1980s.)

Let me reword the question: what would happen in 1960 if I were to attempt to direct dial a six-digit number in Buffalo – 1-716-83-4567 – from San Francisco or a place where direct-dial long distance and seven-digit local phone numbers were the norm? Would I get a recording instructing me to place the call through an operator? Would there be a note in the San Francisco phone book about what area codes could and could not be dialed directly?

When I was a kid, my town only used 4 numbers. I’m 32. It was a small town.

My town was soooo small that we had only 1 number (1 and 2), as there were only two phones.

I love this kind of awesome small-town 50s nostalgia. I’m guessing the operator knew what extension you were ringing from, knew your father (or at least his store), and simply connected you.

When I was a kid, my Grandmother’s phone number started with NE2-. The NE was for Northeast Philadelphia.

When I was a kid, local calls were all four digits. Calls outside our exchange were seven. We could only call to the exchanges bordering ours (this was in a rural area on the North Fork of eastern Long Island). For long distance, you’d dial “0” and tell the number to the operator, though you usually didn’t have to wait to be connected.

But the exchange next to us hadn’t even come that far. All calls had to go through an operator; the phones there didn’t even have dials – just a flat area where the dial should have been. They would pick up the phone and tell the operator the number. Many were three digits (e.g., “I’d like 477 please”) and there were probably some two- and even one-digit numbers (a local pharmacy was 2). Calling in from outside the exchange you’d call the operator (I don’t recall if there was a special number) and ask to be connected.

When phones were standardized, they used zeros for the missing digits (e.g., 477 became 0477). I would assume that until things were standardized on seven digits, there was no direct dialing and all calls had to go through the operator.

I was born in 1957, and learned my home phone number sometime around 1960. Even back then, we had a seven digit number, and our exchange was WA(lnut)4. I don’t remember the other four digits.

We always used an operator to call long distance, we never dialed direct until sometime in the 1970s, I believe. Long distance calls were considered to be very expensive and frivolous, for the most part. We’d call after a long trip, to let the other party know that we had arrived safely. My grandfather, who was notoriously stingy, would dial person-to-person, and ask for himself…this way, he could let the other person know that he had arrived safely without paying for the call. Person-to-person calls were only charged if the person asked for was available, and were more expensive. Number-to-number calls were less expensive, but got charged if the phone at the other end was answered, and it didn’t matter who answered it.

So this probably explains the “Hello operator, give me number 9” thing in the Miss Lucy Had a Steamboat song. I always wondered what that was about.

google a group called “telecom digest” - one of the oldest newsgroups on the net. They live for this kidn of question. I used to read it regularly way back when.

I am gonna guess that first, in 1960 you would not need to dial one, just the area code. Then, dialing the area code probably would have put the call through to the equipment in the Buffalo area, which would have handled it fine, expecting only 6 digits to follow.

IOW, I am suggesting that the call would be routed most of the way cross country in your example, before you finished dialing. And the rest of the routing would be completed before you dialed the 7th digit after the area code.

That is my guess.

When I was a kid, I was born in 1958, in a small town, you only had to dial four numbers for local calls.

The actual exchange was in a town about 30 miles away, so you had to call the operator to make “long-distance” calls, which meant out of the exchange. Also most people were on a party line, so you had to listen for the correct sequence of rings to know if it was for you or Melba down the road.

That was pretty up-town for my grandmother who lived in the sticks. She had to pick up the phone, with no dial (it was live all the time) and wait for the operator to ask who she wanted to call. That was an improvement over having to crank the phone to ring the operator. Of course, that was a huge improvement over when they had to depend on smoke signals.

I have a Blackberry now. We live in interesting times. I miss party lines.