Telephone Exchange Names

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to navigation Jump to search
A rotary telephone dial ca. 1940 with its original number card.

A throwback to another era, telephone exchange names were commonly used in the largest cities from the Roaring Twenties until the Sixties. As an example, 736-5000 would have been written PEnnsylvania 6-5000 or PE6-5000.

Before the length of local numbers was standardised across the North American Numbering Plan, a call to a small village typically involved asking the operator for the name of the village, followed by the three or four digit local number – and the smallest places invariably had the live operators at the manual switchboards asking "Number, please?" in their stereotypical, scripted way. "Thank you."

Conversely, in a large, dense Atlanta or Toronto-sized city, one telephone central office was rarely able to cover more than a few local neighbourhoods. The copper to run wires from each subscriber's premises to the telco was expensive to deploy, so distances were kept to a minimum; there were also practical limitations on how many numbers would fit on a single switchboard. City-wide metropolitan coverage would therefore require many individual local offices in the largest communities, which would typically be named after streets or neighbourhoods in some locally-distinctive manner. A Montréal number might (before the late 1950s) have looked something like "ATwater 1234" where Atwater Avenue is a major street in that city. When the dial telephone became commonplace, this was dialed as the first two (or in some places, the first three) letters of the exchange name, followed by the digits. "ATwater 1234" would therefore be dialed as AT-1234, a six-digit call.

The longest local numbers of this era were seven dial pulls, in a handful of large communities like London or NYC. For example, Gamages store in Holborn, London UK was assigned "HOLborn 8484" (which, were it still extant, would be +44 20 7-HOL-8484) and the Hotel Pennsylvania near NYC's Penn Station was (and still is) PEN-5000 or "PEnnsylvania 6-5000" (+1-212-PE6-5000). The names were often distinctive and tied to local geography, so Chicago numbers prefixed with "WRIgley" were likely in a neighbourhood near Wrigley Field... as a general, ball park estimate. They were a local phenomenon, they were an exclusively big-city phenomenon but a few were iconic in their respective communities.

Direct-dial distance calling became commonplace in the late 1950s; all of the existing North American-style numbers were lengthened to a three-digit area code and a seven-digit local number, usually written as two letters and five numbers (2L+5N). AT&T used a stock list of neutral but largely meaningless words as exchange names for small communities, so a number like 54x-xxxx would be written as LIx-xxxx with LI claimed to stand for "LIncoln" or "LIberty". These assignments were short-lived (typically 1958-1966 as their heyday) as eventually telcos just started printing the entire number as digits. KLamath 5-5555 therefore became KL5-5555 and ultimately 555-5555 (although assignments of 55X, 57X, 95X, 97X numbers were rare or non-existent as there weren't many names which could be spelled with those leading digits; 555 in particular contains almost nothing other than the 555-1212 directory information and a few fictional numbers).

There was some ambiguity as the letters O, Q and Z either had no consistent dial placement ("O" was on the zero in France, while "MNO" is on the 6 in North America) or were simply not used. Any attempt to use the original pattern ("ring me on LIberty 5-6789") would likely only cause confusion today, as the letters on the telephone dials have been largely repurposed for other applications - such as vanity number "phonewords" where the caller dials the entire thing instead of just the first two letters (so L-I-B-E-R-T-Y as 542-3789, not 54x-xxxx). Second-generation mobile "flip phones" or "feature phones" occasionally used the letters on the dialpad for SMS texting (so 6-MNO, 7-PQRS, 9-WXYZ, requiring the user keep pressing 7777 until the "S" appears, then wait a second, then compose the next character...); that became obsolete with smart phones and touch screens. The original scheme is merely a long-forgotten historical footnote.

The old format does very much live on, however, in fiction. Often, a piece will attempt to invoke the 1950s or 1960s for nostalgia purposes, and suddenly they're calling on "KLamath 5-5555" as if it were a real telephone number – just to mimic the format which was Truth in Television in the monochrome Fifties era. These become a trope when modern works invoking the format to appear to be set in the 1950s start to become more numerous than the surviving examples from that actual era. And of course, they remain, accidental fossils, in Unintentional Period Pieces that never anticipated they'd ever disappear.

Exchange names lent themselves well to Phone Number Jingles.

Examples of Telephone Exchange Names include:

Advertising

A vintage 1950 Chicago Tribune local ad
  • As the referenced era predates the first InWATS +1-800 numbers (1966-67), this numbering pattern appears only in local ads which relied on local numbers. Old newspapers (as local media) are filled with examples, but national campaigns often displayed no telephone number in this era.
  • This TV commercial for Boushelle Upholstery Cleaning in Chicago ran in 1978, but still uses their old exchange name as part of a Phone Number Jingle: "HUdson 3-2700!"

Film

Live-Action TV

  • "MUrray Hill 5-9975" appears as the Ricardos' number on I Love Lucy. The Murray Hill exchange name refers to a specific neighbourhood in Manhattan NYC.
  • One of Hee Haw‍'‍s long-running sketches featured Junior Samples selling used clunkers at "Samples Motors", which you could always reach at the phone number "BR-549".
  • Murdoch Mysteries, set in late nineteenth-century Toronto, pre-dates the rotary dial era. It mentions a few manual exchanges, named mostly for local neighbourhoods like Temperance Street or the Toronto Junction. An exchange name (such as "Temperance") was followed by a four-digit local number (one of the numbers was 1098). The manual operator could overhear all calls, a plot point as any eavesdropping would be controversial but might aid the investigations.

Magazines

  • Mad magazine was created in (and largely set in) New York City. As NYC numbers had always been seven digits (written as either 3L+4N or 2L+5N, depending on the era) a few businesses kept the old number format in their advertising and signage well into the 1970s, long after the pattern was displaced by all-numbers in most other communities. Many old parodies from back issues (or MAD books which were based on those back issues) will have 1960s content with the old-style telephone numbers... usually played straight, without changing the exchange names to "RUbbish" or similarly-unflattering words.

Music

  • "Pennsylvania 6-5000" (Glenn Miller Orchestra) is named for the telephone number of New York's Pennsylvania Hotel (+1-212-PE6-5000). Likely the Trope Codifier, or at least the most famous example, even though the official title does not capitalize the E.
    • 2600 has claimed this is the oldest telephone number still in use.
  • At least three other songs that hit the charts used this device for their naming:
    • "BEechwood 4-5789" by The Marvelettes (1962)
    • "LOnesome 7-7203 by Hawkshaw Hawkins (1963)
    • "ECho Valley 2-6809" by The Partridge Family. Given that this song was released in the early 1970s, its use of a telephone exchange name was clearly an intentional invocation for nostalgic purposes.
  • Jazz/swing musician and author Artie Shaw named his band "Artie Shaw and His Gramercy 5" for his home telephone exchange in New York City's Greenwich Village.
  • Allan Sherman's "The Let's All Call Up AT&T And Protest To The President March" (from 1963's My Son, The Celebrity) lamented the demise of the named exchanges: (It's "The Let's All Call Up AT&T And Protest To The President March" / Can you see him smirking and smiling? / 'Cause he's got us all digit dialing...) with "Where are the days of Auld Lang Syne? / Butterfield 8! Madison 9! / Let's keep those beautiful names alive / Crestview 6, Gramercy 5."
  • "Weird Al" Yankovic's "The Plumbing Song" (from his 1999 album Off The Deep End) has a brief shout-out to "PEnnsylvania 6-5000" when at one point the background singers rattle off "RotoRooter 6-5000" as the number for the song's titular plumber.
  • In his 1964 song "Promised Land", Chuck Berry (calling home after a long journey to what, after an area code split, would now be +1-757-TI4-1009) sings the line:
Cquote1.svg

Los Angeles, give me Norfolk Virginia,
Tidewater four ten oh nine

Cquote2.svg

Radio

  • Dragnet, a 1949 Police Procedural series based on old Los Angeles PD homicide investigation files, is almost Older Than Television and the radio series will contain (quite correctly) the various quirky telephone number formats of that era. On some of the old episodes, it's possible to hear a trunk call being manually handed off between multiple long distance operators only to connect a couple minutes later in some tiny hamlet where the manual exchange has three-digit local numbers. Los Angeles, as a fairly large city, would have had multiple named exchanges for various districts or neighbourhoods.
  • Whitehall 1212 (a US radio show from 1951-52) was named for the once-famous telephone number of Scotland Yard (introduced in 1934 and used until the 1960s). WHI-1212 (944-1212) has since been replaced by New Scotland Yard on +44 20 7230-1212 (which is not the same number) or (locally within London) the Metropolitan Police 101 non-emergency or 999 distress numbers.

Recorded and Stand Up Comedy

  • On his 1966 album, Freberg Underground, Stan Freberg objected to all-digit dialing in song, including the lyric:
Cquote1.svg

They took away our Murray Hills,
They took away our Sycamores,
They took away Tuxedo and State,
They took away our Plaza, our Yukon, our Michigan,
And left us with 47329768...

Cquote2.svg

Western Animation

  • Transylvania 6-5000 (1963) is a Merrie Melodies animated short starring Bugs Bunny. Like many other examples on this page, it was named for the Glenn Miller tune Pennsylvania 6-5000.
  • In the episode "Mr. Plow" of The Simpsons, Homer becomes a snow-plow operator; the TV commercial he runs recites the Simpsons' phone number ("KLondike 5-3226") as part of a Phone Number Jingle.

Real Life

  • A Toronto restaurant was named the Grover Exchange (or, later, the "Grover Pub and Grub") as its building originally housed telephone central offices for six-digit numbers with the "GRover" prefix (and a few others, generically renamed as "OXford" and one extra digit when Toronto's numbers were lengthened from six to seven).