How to Make A Phone Call in the Roaring Twenties

The world’s first telephone exchange began operating in 1878 with 21 subscribers. The switchboard, claimed one early account, was constructed of “carriage bolts, handles from teapot lids and bustle wire,” and only two conversations could be handled simultaneously, with six connections necessary to make each call. Until 1913, you could only be connected with people on your same exchange. If there was a competing exchange in town operated by another company, you couldn’t call those people from your exchange. Each exchange was given a neighborhood name, like Crestwood or Hollywood. Each telephone was given two, three, or four numbers to go with the exchange name. Crestwood 43, or as time went on, Crestwood 445 or Crestwood 4457, depending on the number of subscribers in the system.

By the 1920s, an exchange could accommodate up to 100,000 numbers. In those years, making a phone call involved picking up the receiver, asking the operator to connect you to a particular number, waiting for her to plug it in, then waiting for the ring to bring someone to the other phone. The operator would hang up after she made the connection . . . or not. If you had a party line–and most did–others could listen in to an ongoing conversation if they happened to pick up. They might also break in to ask that you hurry. Like Facebook, you didn’t always know who was listening in and couldn’t be assured of privacy. There were seldom more than ten on a party line, and each household had its own distinctive ring based on long or short, like two shorts and a long. The first ring tone options!

Direct dialing was introduced in 1921 but took many years to implement. Even in the 1950s, two thirds of all phones were on a party line. With the advent of the rotary dial phone, pictured above, and direct dialing, numbers were consolidated to the first three letters of the exchange name. In larger cities, Crestwood became CRE plus the 4-digit number. In smaller towns, it might be just two letters, CR-4457.  It was a long-held belief that a 7-digit number was too difficult for most people to remember, hence the resistance to all-numerical phone numbers. But in the 1950s, 7-digit numbers were phased in everywhere without terrible hardship: CR2-4457. (Although I remember in the 1970s in at least one small Ohio town, you could dial a neighbor directly with only final the 4 numbers.)


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  1. There IS something to the theory that phone numbers with an exchange name are easier to remember. I can still remember by grandparents’ phone number in northwest Washington, DC — WO[odley]6-6818 — nearly 30 years after my grandmother’s death, about the last time I used it or had any reason to remember it, while I have trouble remembering my OWN local phone numbers (for which there I had no similar mnemonic association) from the much more recent past.

    By the way, the “Woodley” of my grandparents’ exchange probably dated from the early switchboard era you referred to, and made sense as they lived not very far from an area known as Woodley Park, near the National Zoo. They were (later) in the direct-dial 966 exchange (9-6 being the numeric equivalent of “W-O” on the rotary phone dial.)

  2. I agree–phone numbers with letters ARE easier to remember. Especially when the letters come from a word, like Woodley.

  3. I remember my 1st phone number in Hollywood Hills, CA was HE for HEmpstead 7061. Then, I think it was in 1950’s they changed it to HO 3, for HOllywood 3-7061…Then from there to all digital and eventually an area code was added. So having the name to remember does help the memory. I attest. .

    • I agree . . . I remember my first telephone number and not the rest, because the first was CRestwood 2-4457.
      About that Hollywood Hills phone number . . . do you think it would have been an accurate phone number for Hollywood (not Hills) in the 1920s? If so, I might be able to use it in my upcoming mystery (set in 1925).

      • That is so funny!! The reason I was checking out your site in the first place, is that I am helping my ex-husband by editing a mystery series that he has written. His detective’s first book is laid in 1928-29 L.A. and Hollywood area, and I do a lot of research when I edit…not just grammar, syntax and spelling. He has a tendency to throw inaccuracies out there for addresses and street car routes and phone numbers from later on. This last one was 2 letters and 5 digits. Not the 1920s. As to your question: I don’t think so, depending on where in Hollywood you intend. Our number, I am guessing, was either Franklin Ave. north or Hollywood Bl. north.
        NOrmandy was also Hollywood, toward the east end. Funny, I can’t recall any other Hollywood numbers. POplar was N. Hollywood. DUnkirk more Los Angeles…wasn’t CRestwood Beverly Hills? Or was that CRestview? I know I have a childhood phone book somewhere if I haven’t disposed of it…if I run across it, I will let you know…but it won’t be in the immediate future. Let me know if I can help with research I have already done on the area.

  4. What a lovely person you are, to help your ex-husband! (I hope you are charging a fee for this help . . . ) I happen to have a former boyfriend who is a producer in LA and I asked him to read the second in my series for accuracy (street directions, weather, trees, etc.). He was kind enough to do it and saved me from some minor mistakes. As a historian, even minor mistakes horrify me, so I was very grateful.

    • Great! We are both in community with our formers. I am also designing his covers which has opened up an unexpected and previously unknown talent. His books follow the detective from when he began as a police officer with LAPD to when he decides to leave the corruption and become a PI in 1929….so the books follow him until his death some time around 1956. I grew up in the 40’s and 50’s in Hollywood.(war baby) so, again, if there is anything you want to ask while writing, let me know. I was an only child, so many of my acquaintences were my parents friends and I am somewhat familiar with early days in Hollywood area. I am a stickler too and drive my ex nuts with things I bring up, but he seems grateful for my nit-picking, so we are in accord.
      Being an historian, you are probably on more than off with that kind of issue. If any more phone #s seep into my conscious mind, I’ll let you know.

  5. As recently as 1988, Algona, Iowa still had five-digit dialing.

    I didn’t have to dial 515-295-XXXX to reach my dentist or his kids, I could just pick up the phone and dial 5XXXX.

    • Apparently they’re still there, please don’t spam them.

      • I deleted your number, just in case!!

  6. Our family had a party line until the day I was helping a friend with algebra homework over the phone. I told my parents about rude noises from the other party and Dad said, “The kids are growing up. Time to get rid of the party line.” I don’t know how much the price difference was, but I appreciate my dad’s common-sense solution. Our number was HArrison 7-6472, so much easier to remember, even though it’s been 20 years since Mom lived there.

  7. I have one in great condition how much is it worth today

    • I have no idea, but considering how many of these were made, I suspect they are not rare.

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