I love it when the old-time New York City Magic rears its beautiful noggin to remind us all just how elegant and grand the ancient city was when stewed in its own antiquity.
Part of that temporal, New York City, Golden Age, nostalgia that still lives today can be found right in the palms of our hands and in the tips of our fingers! The old alphanumeric telephone exchanges for certain 212 area code numbers still live, and still exist in everyday service, even if we no longer consciously need to use them to make a phone call.
The most famous iteration of the alphanumeric NYC calling can be found in the title of John O’Hara’s fine book, BUtterfield 8 — that also became a famous Elizabeth Taylor movie.
Another example of the old telephone exchanges found in our colloquial mindset is the Glenn Miller classic, Pennsylvania 6-5000:
“Pennsylvania 6-5000” is the phone number of the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City. Before area codes, the first 2 numbers were called the “Exchange Code,” and were represented by a word whose first 2 letters were used as the numbers. Thus, “Pennsylvania” represented the PE exchange code, which translates to the number 73 (P=7, E=3). The number today, complete with area code, is (212) 736-5000.
I happened upon these keen NYC exchange codes when my new actor friend Alex contacted me last week to comment on my 212 Area Code article. Alex was having some Caller ID issues with a new 212 area code phone number he is using with Google Voice.
His new number used to belong to a construction company on the Upper West Side, and when he calls certain numbers, the old construction company name comes up on the caller ID.
Alex went on to tell me his phone number is ancient — from the 1920’s — and on the exclusive SCHuyler exchange! When I asked him how he knew that, he directed me to a great database of information on New York City Alphanumeric telephone exchanges.
Alex told me my 8888 number was on the YUkon exchange and I later discovered my 3700 number was on the FAculty exchange. Both 8888 and 3700 are phone numbers from the 1950’s NYC.
I love now being able to give people my phone number as “FAculty 1-3700” or “YUkon 2-8888.” Only the old-time New Yorkers would have any idea how to call me — and I don’t think that’s a bad thing! Ha!
It’s pretty amazing to sit and think back through time and how your phone number today once belonged to someone else long ago in New York City. You wonder how often that phone number was dialed and who answered. I think a telephone number ancestry is almost as interesting — and probably more anamorphically telling — than the human footprints many choose to track back through time.
A couple of my other 212 area code phone numbers do not appear in the early alphanumeric exchange database, and I understand those prefixes are too new to have a real history — so the antiquity begins with me and, perhaps, in 70 years someone else will look back and wonder on those numbers and find this footprint: “I remember you!”
Oh, I love this, David!
I was just reminiscing with a friend about our own exchanges here in the Western Washington 206 (now also 360) area code where I grew up.
Our exchange was ESsex (37), which was either ESsex 7 or ESsex 3. My aunt to the south had a TRiangle (87) exchange, and some of my school friends were in the MYrtle (69) exchange. How fun that you would feature yours in a post!
We also reminisced about calling the “time” lady, where the mesmerizing voice would say, “At the tone, the time Daylight will be… 8 (pause) 57 (pause) p.m. DING!” I would call just to hear the time change at the top of the hour. Of course, that was also when we had the wall-mounted dial phone with the 8 foot cord. In green, my mother’s favorite color.
I am sure I am not alone when I note that whenever I see an old-fashioned, rotary-dial telephone, I can immediately ‘hear’ the sound of the dial. You could tell the numbers that someone was dialing by how long or short the sound was as the dial returned to its original position.
Oh, the good old days, eh? Thanks for the nostalgia!
Love the exchange information for where you live! So fun! It was amazing how, in NYC, you knew precisely where a person lived just by the name of their exchange. Then it changed to knowing where someone lived in a more generic sense by area code — now it’s all a big mishmash — because now we can take our phone numbers with us wherever we go…
Growing up in Nebraska, we had a single area code for the entire state. 402. You only needed to dial 7 numbers to call anyone in the whole place. It was pretty neat.
Moving out East, I confess to an initial culture shock — and 10 digit dialing! I was thrown for quite a while having to dial all those extra numbers just to make a phone call.
When we first moved to New Jersey, we were given a 551 area code instead of the traditional 201. When we’d give our number out to people, they’d want to know why we had 551 and not 201 — they didn’t want to be charged for a long distance call because back then you paid for every call you made. Nobody ever really believed us that 551 was a 201 overlay — even to this day, over 12 years later — we still get asked! SMILE!
Yes, we used to call time and temperature a lot, too. Those were definitely the right days. I loved rotary dialing. It had a purpose and a sound and a feel. Then we punched buttons and heard tones. Now we just click on a link in our web browser, and hear nothing, to make a call.
I grew up with the Ericofon:
It was always hard to dial and awkward to hold while making a call.
I have seen those, but never in real life. They always seemed to be, as you confirmed, awkward. But, hey, cool looking and futuristic!
It was a long time until my parents got a touch-tone phone; it was mostly because my parents’ arthritic fingers had trouble with the dial. It was different and totally unsatisfying to just push buttons. I agree that rotary dialing ‘had a purpose and a sound and a feel.’ And when you hung it up, the handset was heavy on the ‘hook’ (I suppose there’s a name for it, but I don’t know it).
Once I was old enough to use the phone, I had a rehearsed spiel for answering it – I had to identify myself, and I was never, ever to disclose where my parents were or were not. I could only say they were unavailable at the moment and ask if I could take a message.
I remember also that my parents gave me a 10-minute call limit (some of my friends had no limit at all, and had their own extensions!), and calling boys was absolutely verboten.
Loved your story. How fun to reminisce! You made my day!
Yes, those phones were futuristic! Friends would come over and have no idea how to make a call. It also had an odd, shrill, electronic “trilling” for a ring that scared people. There was an internal light in the middle of the handle that flickered inside the plastic with each ring, so that make it easy to find the phone in low light.
There was research done on regular telephones phones that people liked a heavier receiver. Since bakelite was fading and lightweight plastic was in — the phone companies would actually place lead bars in the receiver, so when we handled the phone, we felt quality in the “heft” of it. Ha! Even our memories were planned business illusions!
We were also of a time when you could not purchase a phone and plug it into the wall. The phone company owned your phone and decided what style you’d have — you rented the phone from them. Later on, you could pick your own style, but you couldn’t touch the writing or even install your own extra phone jack without paying the Telco to do it.
I, too, had a rehearsed phone spiel, “Boles residence. David speaking. How may I help you?” Oh, the pain of typing that horrible, horrible phrase after all these years… brings back such punishing and controlling memories! Who started this conversation, anyway? SMILE!
That phone script was so brittle. So proper. So… unsafe, actually… because the caller knew your name but we didn’t know their name. There was no such thing as Caller ID yet. Yes, we were always taught, as you so well recant, that we were never to be home alone and mom was always there but, “unable to come to the phone right now.”
I tried to spend as little time on the phone as possible because all calls were monitored. We had an upstairs line and a downstairs line and zero privacy. Having my own phone line would have been a real delight!