11 October 2010

Alphanumeric telephone numbers

A hat tip to "Amy" for reminding me about the "exchange names" for the old-fashioned alphanumeric phone numbers.  At the link is a list of all the official names.
It comes from AT&T/Bell's publication "Notes on Nationwide Dialing, 1955". Many cities with EXchange names had for decades been using names which are not from this list, and they were not necessarily required to change the names. These names were supposed to have been chosen such that pronouncing the name should easily identify the first two significant dialable letters of the word, as well as quoting the two letters themselves wasn't supposed to be confused with other 'like-sounding' letters which were associated with different numbers on the dial. Since this list was Ma Bell's official recommendation, it covered the entire Bell system. If you do not have a historically accurate exchange name to use for your current telephone number, you should choose one from this list.
When I was a kid, our home phone was GReenwood 4-xxxx.   Everyone in the U.S. in the 1950s whose phone number started with 47x-xxxx would have used one of these names:


There is a good discussion of these old phone numbers at Not Yet Published:
The amount of letters at the start of the exchange-name which stood for the exchange’s ID-number, varied from country to country, and even from city to city within a country! The number of letters was usually the first two or first three in any given exchange-name. In the United Kingdom, three letters followed by four numbers (3L-4N) was the rule. So Whitehall 1212 would be WHItehall 1212, or 944-1212.

In the United States, by comparison, phone-numbers followed the 2L-5N (two letters, five numbers) rule. This meant that the first two letters of the exchange-name stood for numbers. Notable exceptions to this rule were cities of New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago, which followed the British example of 3L-4N. This brought up exchange-names like ‘PENnsylvania’, ‘TREmont’ and ‘ELDorado’. Since the rest of the country did 2L-5N, this could create some understandable confusion to people who weren’t from the US. East Coast. Eventually, these cities conformed with the rest of the nation...
Glenn Miller fans will appreciate this tidbit:
PENnsylvania-5000, it was changed to PEnnsylvania-65000 when New York switched to the 2L-5N format. This number remains the oldest, continuously-used phone-number in New York City. Issued in 1919, it has belonged to the Hotel Pennsylvania in central Manhattan for the past 90 years! Dialling that number today (736-5000) still gets you the Hotel Pennsylvania, just as it did 60-odd years ago when Glenn Miller wrote his song! It’s usually spoken or written as ‘Pennsylvania six, five thousand’, because ‘Pennsylvania sixty-five thousand’ sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it?


  1. When I was a youth our phone number consisted of four digits. Eventually they added NOrmandy-8 to the same four digits to "modernize" the system. At the same time, my grandmother's phone number was 352W, which we had to recite to Central, who would then plug us in to grandmas house.

  2. Looking at the list I guess it's appropriate that my cell phone's first two numbers doesn't have an "alpha" part as it was reserved for radio phones.

  3. I've changed my answering machine to reflect my 'true' phone number: FLanders 5-xxxx.

    I love saying it. :)

  4. ahh, grade school. walking back to school after lunch at home with the channel 6 news jingle running through my head: call for action! greenwood 75312


    ps.. absolutely love the blog!

  5. Gee, I haven't thought of my childhood phone number in years. I saw this post and suddenly I said to myself: "HUnter 49305!"

    I have not lived at that phone number in 44 years. In the mid 1970s I was a directory assistance operator. Back then, we had to look up the numbers in huge phone books. At least once a day, I would get a call from some elderly person asking for a number, and would say: "could give me the exchange?"

    Some of us had an old mimeographed page with all the former exchanges listed. It made it easier for the older folks to understand the phone numbers we were giving them.

  6. It's very interesting how these alphanumeric numbers stick in one's memory.

    Mine was GReenwood 4-6513. That number hasn't been relevant for 40 years, but I still remember it, and probably will 20 years from now.

    Conversely, I can't remember any 7-digit number I've had since then.

  7. I was born in the '70s and I have no idea what this post is talking about!

  8. Somewhere along the line I've also heard PE6-5000 referred to as Pennsylvania 6 5 oh-oh-oh. Maybe that was part of the song. Can't recall.


  9. My number in my youth was DUnlap 8-xxxx.
    That exchange isn't on the list, and you can look it up and discover where I grew up. I've read that it was unique.

  10. When I was a kid, we picked up the receiver and waited for the operator to say, "Number, please." We would answer with the name of the town, Riverside, and a four digit number. When dial phones came in, our exchange was HObart-1 just like the chart shows. Perhaps even more interesting was the fact that when touch-tone came, the phone company charged extra for it although it saved them money in time on line.

  11. Breen, I wasn't able to find it with a Google search.

  12. We lived out in the country in Wisconsin for about a year and a half. Our phone ring was two shorts. My best friend was two longs and a short. You had to crank the phone accordingly. We were all on the same circuit, and one lady liked to listen in. She had a loudly ticking clock right by the phone, so you always knew when Margaret was listening. To call outside the circuit, you cranked one long for the operator (Central). I'm so glad I got to experience that!

    We moved from there to Los Angeles, and I went from 8 grades in one room to a junior high school with 3,500 students.

  13. Our prefixes were TUrner (San Bernardino) and TUxedo (Colton). When I moved my parents from SoCal to Missouri the ATT tech was stunned at my request to discontinue service. Why? Their phone number had been in service longer than he had been alive (over 60 years).

    1. Colton's prefix was actually TAlbot. Fontans's was VAlley and Riverside's was OVerland.

    2. The north end of Colton was served by GTE. Those phones had the TU-8 prefix. The prefix was TUxedo in Colton and TUrner in San Bernardino as indicated by Bobby Jean.

  14. Ours was EA5-9970 (East) and MA2-7544 (Main) in Tucson, 50s-60s

  15. Interesting to see how so many people remember their early phone numbers using this system .
    Can anyone explain a related topic for me . I am in Ireland and have always wondered why in hollywood films and a lot of American tv programmes , when someone asks the operator to put through a call the number usually starts with 555 ?

  16. Pauline, I found the answer to your question at Wikipedia:

    The use of numbers starting in 555- (KLondike-5) to represent fictional numbers in U.S. movies, television, and literature originated in this period. The "555" prefix was reserved for telephone company use and was only consistently used for Directory Assistance (Information), being "555-1212" for the local area. An attempt to dial a 555 number from a movie in the real world will always result in an error message when dialed from a phone in the United States. This reduces the likelihood of nuisance calls. Also, QUincy(5-5555) was used, because there was no Q available.

  17. Thank you Minnesotastan !
    Avoiding nuisance calls is an excellent reason for using this system for fictional phone numbers .
    It was very good of you to research it for me. I will show off my newfound knowledge the next time we are watching Columbo - or Quincy !

  18. When I was very young, my town was so small that everyone had the same exchange. Not just the town, either, since once you got out of the one exchange, calls were long distance. So we only had to dial 4 numbers to make a local call.

    I guess that means there were fewer than 10,000 phones in the local calling area. I'm sure there were MUCH fewer!

  19. I love the idea of these old number listings. I grew up in Kansas City and they still run a cute and nostalgic commercial from the 60s for Standard Improvement Company after the little jingle, they say "call WEstport" 1-7100. It seems like such a logical way to better remember numbers. If you remember the neighborhood or town where you are calling, you really only had to remember 5 numbers. I guess our phone number saturation couldn't work with this system anymore. Anyone know where you can find a list of Chicago exchange names?

  20. One of my favorite hangouts back home, they named themselves for the alphanumeric system. http://westseattleblog.com/west-5-lounge-and-restaurant/ (even their Skype link uses WE5). Where I live now, the people who've been here the longest have 3 digit landline numbers. Since we're new, we have 6. The area codes are 5 digits. Our cellphone numbers are 13 digits; I haven't even tried to memorize them.


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