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.)