Old Timey Telephone Numbers

There was a parade today, and one of the entrants was a very old tow truck. I don’t know much about cars, but I’m thinking 1920-1930.

On the door of the cab was painted advertisement for the (now defunct) company.

“Hillsdale Tow Company

PH. 837”

Were telephone numbers really only 3 digits at one time?


It would seem so. From wikipedia:

Slightly later, I can still remember as a kid hearing on TV: dial Murray Hill 8-4521 (the numbers are made up). That’s a NYC number and the first two numbers of the phone number were MH = 64

The first phone I remember was mounted on the walll, with a crank, a receiver to listen on and a fixed “cup” to talk into. You summoned the operator by cranking a few times. When she answered you told her the number you wanted. Usually we were calling my aunt and uncle whose number was 603.

Once I was in school, if I got home and no one was around, I could crank the phone and when the operator answered I could ask her where my mom was, and she would tell me which neighbor she was visiting.

Why yes, I am old. Thanks for the memories, I guess.

As long as we’re talking old-timey numbers, there was a time when the first two “numbers” of a seven-digit phone number were actually the first two letters of a word, e.g., CApital 3-9471, PErshing 2-4816, DIamond 22-414. It was handy, because the word (what was that word called–anyone know?) told you what part of town the number was in. CApital was downtown, PErshing was in my neighborhood, TAylor was the high-rent part of town, OXford was west part of town, etc.

I also remember having a three number system when we lived in Juneau. Pick up the phone and an actual person said “Operator”. Then you either gave her the local number or you asked for the long-distance operator. For the latter, you told her where you were calling and the number, then hung up and waited for her to call you back. I think we had five numbers in Anchorage (1959 or so), which then morphed to a letter/number system as mentioned above. We had BRoadway and FAirfax and a few others. Party lines were the norm, which meant that people listened in on others’ conversations.

Emphasis added. You mean those operators back then could access the GPS on people’s cell phones? :smiley:

Those words were called “exchanges.” When I was growing up, our exchange was ATlantic; there was also ATwater in the same city, which was confusing.

I am barely old enough to remember party lines, and that we had one. We had to listen for our ring pattern, but there was only us and one other house on the line. I think we got our own line in the mid to late 50s. I don’t think I ever experienced a crank phone, or asking the operator to connect to a number, except seeing them in the movies. My grandparents lived in a small town but they had regular dial phone just like we did.

The operators were a lot more accurate than GPS.

When I was a kid our number was “766R,” and a live operator was there and you told her what number you wanted to call. It was a party line, although you didn’t hear anybody else’s number ring.

A couple of lives ago I had an aunt and uncle who were dairy farmers and lived way out where everybody was a farmer. They had a party line and everybody had a different ring (two short rings, one short+one long, etc.) and everybody on the line heard everybody else’s ring. If you heard yours, then you picked it up.

A woman named “Julia” lived in the next farm up the hill, and I can recall one time that her number rang maybe around 9 PM (bedtime for farmers) and my aunt wondering: “Now who would be calling Julia at this time of night?” I’m guessing this was about 60 years ago.

Haha, how times change.

We lived in a little town in Northern California in the early 60s where we only had to dial four digits because everybody in town was on the same exchange.

I remember dad telling me his first phone number was two longs and a short.

That was two long rings than one short ring. No numbers.

Back in my hometown, one of the local service stations handed out ashtrays with their name and phone number one it. A classmate had a really old one that he showed me a while back. I got a chuckle seeing that the phone number on the ashtray was 420.

But when he answered the phone did he say “Ahoy, hoy”?

Ours was three short rings, three long rings, and then three short rings. Why the police and fire department kept showing up at our house whenever we got a phone call, I’ll never know!

That is pretty cool. I’m 55 (+ 11 months), so the earliest phones I remember were the big, clunky rotary phones.

But, as to the subject of how technology has changed exponentially (Moore’s Law), I have a funny story of how the times they are a’changing…(my apologies to the OP for the off-topic…)

When my now-24 year old son was a senior in HS and going to his prom, his date and her mom took him shopping to make sure he accessorized correctly with her…the one thing they couldn’t find was a matching handkerchief for his tie and cummerbund…they are pretty standard items, but it was up to him to find it…I was working in the garden on a Sunday, I told him I’d drive him but he needed to call around and find a place that had them.

He came out to the garden and said, “One place I called is not open or something, because when I called, I got this strange sound.”

me: “What’d it sound like?”
Son: “Wheeeereeewhee…” (Pitch going up and down)
me: “Oh, that’s a fax machine”
Son: “What’s a ‘fax machine’?”
me: “That’s how we used to send information over a telephone line back in the day.”
Son: “Why didn’t you just send an e-mail?”
me: (blank stare)

I had all of that growing up in small town Minnesota, and not that long ago (although I am getting old).

We had a live operator until about 1973 (my dad’s original law office was actually the next door over from the operator). My dad’s office number was 224 and the home phone was a party line with that at 224c2. I remember visiting relatives in Seattle and dad needing to call home to deal with a client on something. He had to be explain to the operator that he needed to be connected to the Redwood County Telephone Co. operator, who could then complete the call. And, no, he couldn’t direct dial.

When they upgraded the town (buried phone lines, even), everyone was 4-digit dialing with the local switch (the police/city hall # was 3456 (I guess 911 hadn’t rolled out to the sticks yet). They did upgrade again sometime in the last 40 years, and now every has to dial 7-digits. This caused some consternation, apparently.

The ten digit layout as (3 digit area code) + (3 digit toll central office code) + (4 digit number) came as part of the “North American Numbering Plan”, first conceived of in the late 1940s. One of the things which adherence to the plan facilitated was rollout of DDD (direct distance dialing). Yes, people bitched mightily about needing 7 numbers to dial somebody in the next block, even though they may now have been able to dial Aunt Mary in Chicago without placing the call through the long distance operator.

The 5 digit phone number I had growing up is so indelibly etched into my brain as “My Phone number” that I still often instinctively say it when I am asked even today. I get a confused, “uhh can you start over, I didn’t get all of them I don’t think” several times a year.

It is, of course, also part of the sequences I use for a password when I need to make one that I know I can’t ever afford to forget ;).

Somewhere around here, I have an invoice from Tiedtke’s (Toledo store, now defunct), dated 1920-something, which has two phone numbers: Bell phone and Home phone. They were competing systems, if you had a Bell phone you couldn’t call anybody with a Home phone, and vice versa. They were both three digit numbers.