The telephone number transformation

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to what sticks in our minds from childhood. As I look back, I can’t figure out why the announcement of telephone number changes in the early ’60s stays with me.

Anyone who’s watched a 1950s or early 1960s movie knows telephone numbers then wasn’t just a series of digits. Instead, they were something like KLondike 5-1234 or MUrray 5-9974. This was what was called the exchange name system, where a word represented the first two letters of a 7 digit telephone number. Thus, KLondike meant the first two numbers of the telephone numbers was 55 while they were 68 for MUrray. “KLondike 5” was what you heard most in movies as it was a fictitious exchange the phone companies reserved for Hollywood, radio and television. Full words were used as a memory tool for customers and because they were easier for switchboard operators to understand.

The number of telephones in households exploded in post-World War II America so the Bell System (good old monopolist “Ma Bell”) wanted to make sure nothing would stem the growth. As a result, it began switching to an all-number system which, with area codes, would allow for prodigious expansion. That’s where my memory comes in.

Evidently, Ma Bell thought a good way to get the message about the change out was with kids. The Catholic grade school I attended had a mass convocation where telephone company reps made a presentation. I can’t remember the year but can still see myself sitting in the gym and being told our local prefix would no longer be “TUrner 6” but 886. At the time, you could call someone else in town by dialing just the last four or five numbers (again, memory fails), After the forthcoming change was explained to us, we were told to go home and tell our parents about it and give them some material the phone company handed out.

Not everybody viewed this as change for the better. In 1962, the Anti-Digit Dialing League was formed in San Francisco to oppose “creeping numeralism.” In a pamphlet it distributed, the ADDL said the all number system “places an added burden upon people by requiring them to fulfill the needs dictated by accounting machines and computers.” Yet even though the ADDL was gone by 1964, names continued to be used in cities such as New York, where it was 1978 before the city was entirely all number calling, and Philadelphia, which had named exchanges in the telephone book as late as 1983.

The fact I remember the grade school convocation suggests this was a big deal for me too. I speculate that I thought having to dial 886 for every local call was evidence of how metropolitan my town (population less than 15,000) was. But given that I don’t recall any other grade school convocation, it seems odd that this stands out.

I don’t answer the phone. I get the feeling whenever I do that there will be someone on the other end.

Fred Couples

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