Q: In a 1929 issue of St. Henry Seminary’s student newspaper, the school’s phone number was given as 2991. The same four-digit number was given on stationery used in 1947. At some point in the 1950s, I believe, an ADams exchange was added: ADams 3-2991. Sometime in the 1960s, the exchange was replaced by an all-digit prefix: 233-2991. This same phone number is currently used by the St. Henry’s Oblate residence on the old seminary grounds. When was the ADams exchange assigned? When did phone numbers in Belleville go all-digital?
Dan Franklin, St. Henry Class of ’66
A: Call me old-fashioned, but I for one miss those old telephone exchange names.
Maybe I’m trying to relive those kinder, gentler “Father Knows Best” days of my youth, but I think names like Adams, Evergreen and Grover added a kind of warmth to the technology compared to the 1984ish all-digital numbers we’ve had to use the past 50-plus years. I’d argue they also made numbers easier to remember with a word and only five numerals as opposed to seven.
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Perhaps that’s what AT&T’s W.G. Blauvelt had in mind in 1917 when he developed the system. At that time the country’s most populous cities (New York, Phillie, Chicago, etc.) already were implementing a service that required three letters and four numbers. In other major cities, it was two letters and four numbers. And, as you have noted, the nation’s small towns and burgs did fine with just four or five numbers, no letters needed.
But in the late 1940s, there was change in the air. In preparation for its Direct Distance Dialing system, AT&T began converting all major systems to two letters and five numbers. And, as a mnemonic device, it became common that the two letters became the first two letters of what became a common agreed-upon word. Already in 1940, for example, Glenn Miller had turned PEnnsylvania 6-5000 into a top-5 swing song. (The Hotel Pennsylvania says it’s the old continuing telephone number in the Big Apple, but its claim is apparently unverified.)
By 1955, the letter-number arrangement had become so popular that AT&T issued suggested names for each of the 60 potential prefixes (some starting combinations like 21 or 97 weren’t used for technical reasons). A 36x-exchange, it said, should be Emerson, Empire, Endicott, Forest or Foxtrot while 69x had its choice of Myrtle, Owen, Oxbow or Oxford.
In 1953, Belleville finally joined the modern world when ADams 3-xxxx replaced the four-digit system. Two years later when residents were able to start dialing long-distance numbers, an ADams-4 exchange was added so that people on party lines could have their own number. (Yes, kids, there was a time when my family could not make a call because one of our neighbors who shared the same line was talking on his or her phone. In fact, we sometimes were able to lift the receiver very skillfully and listen in to each other’s conversations.)
In the 1960s, exchange names began to fade into history. Perhaps surprisingly, this happened first with little protest in smaller towns, where you might think they’d want to hold on to tradition. In the Belleville city directories, you can see the change start in 1962, when the pages of telephone numbers in numerical sequence started to be headed by “Adams-3 or 233.” In 1967, only seven-digit numbers were listed, so the exchanges here probably disappeared in 1966. I remember it was about this time that my family’s exchange was switched from ADams 4 to 277.
In larger cities, however, the exchange names did not go gently into that good night. In San Francisco, for example, noted professor-writer-politician S.I. Hayakawa was a prominent member of a group called the Anti Digit Dialing League. Such efforts greatly slowed AT&T’s conversion. New York first surrendered to all-number calling in 1978 while Philadelphia reportedly was still printing exchange names in phone books as late as 1983. And, if you’re interested, AT&T began adding area codes when it implemented its North American Numbering Plan in October 1947, which divided North America at that time into 86 “numbering plan area.” Now there are hundreds.
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Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Eileen Evelyn Greer Garson initially had her heart set on being a teacher, earning degrees at both King’s College in London and the University of Grenoble in France. But after winning rave reviews for several local theater performances, she soon came to the attention of Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a movie contract with MGM in 1937. It proved a most excellent choice. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her very first role in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” She then won a golden statuette for herself for playing the title character in 1942’s “Mrs. Miniver,” beating out Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, among others. She still shares a record for most consecutive nominations (1941-1945) with Bette Davis (1938-1942). After her long career, she decided to continue her legacy by donating money for theater centers at Southern Methodist University and Santa Fe University of Art and Design. But her donations came with three strings attached: The theaters had to have circular stages (like the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis), the first production had to be “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — and they had to have large ladies rooms. The London native died of heart failure in 1996 at age 91.