Friday, August 10, 2007

Phone Tags

[posted by Callimachus]

Those of you born after say 1970 probably will want to skip on to the next piece.

Do you remember the telephone numbers of your childhood? Probably, because in those days that was one of the bits of information branded into your brain by parents in case you got lost. The stamp of it is probably still on your gray matter, like the date on a worn silver quarter.

Most of mine began with two letters. Out in Chester County when I was little, sometimes we said "696-" but most people knew it was really "OW6-" and that stood for "Owen 6." When we moved to the Main Line, everyone used them: Ours began "MI9-" for "MIdway 9." My girlfriend's was "MOhawk 7."

They're gone now, and a lot of the old America of the mid-20th century is gone with them. Like pumping your own gas and three-network television and savings accounts. Already they were archaic when I learned them; the automatic dialing system was operating everywhere I lived. Today, kids probably think the phone buttons have letters on them just so advertisers can work the company name into the phone number. But the original notion was to use words that could be easily and distinctly pronounced to an operator.

One of my favorite uses of Internet technology is to build shrines to earlier technologies, and sure enough the exchange names have a memorial page.

Telephone numbers used to begin with two letters, which were an abbreviation for a word. For example, there was a Glenn Miller song called PEnnsylvania 6-5000, and Liz Taylor made a movie called BUtterfield-8. I'm just barely old enough to remember that my phone number at home when I was 5 or so started with SYcamore 4, or SY4. These were telephone exchanges, and had exchange names -- PEnnsylvania, SYcamore, KLondike, etc.

But the surprising thing is, there doesn't seem to be a surviving master list of them. Undaunted, the Web site and its fans set out to compile their own, based on partial lists from the 1950s and recollections of older readers.

Check the database and see if yours are on it.

Not content with merely memorializing the custom, however, they are encouraging a revival. "If someone asks for your phone number ... tell them 'MUrray 5-3247' " You can incorporate it into your phone message: "You've reached KLondike 5-3247 ..." or put it on your "business cards, advertisements, invitations, web pages" for that perfect retro look.