Thursday, April 14, 2011

Number please?

I can still recite my childhood phone numbers (we had a main line and a "children's line:): 484-3929 and 484-5051. 484 was the main prefix in my suburb of Shoreview, Minnesota, and neighboring Roseville was 483. Of course, there was only one area code for anyone within hours and hours of us...612.

Of course we all knew how to dial a phone. Ours were red plastic, leased from Northwestern Bell, the only phone company we ever heard of. Touch-tone came later, and my parents were too cheap to get it until I was out of COLLEGE because the phone company (again, only one) charged extra. Once. my parents bought one of those novelty candlestick phones, like someone might use in an old movie, and I thought it was cool for all of two days until I tried to do my homework with a friend on the phone. Impossible to write, hold the one part to your ear, and the one part to your mouth without dropping something.

You got the operator by dialing 0, and could also call for the time and temperature, which for some reason fascinated us and we did it ALL THE TIME. My cousins and I played prank calls on people out of the phone book, because we were idiots. There was no 911 one-size-fits-all emergency number, though the operator would apparently patch you through to the cops or a hospital. I thought a phone number ending in 1234 was the coolest number you could have and used to call it sometimes and quick hang up (it was a real estate office). And no one could trace our bad phone behavior because Caller ID and star 69 and all the others weren't in use.

Everyone you knew was in the phone book. We'd heard of unlisted numbers but they were only for the famous. It was super cool when your last name ended up being one of the "guide words" at the top of a phone book page. Every business you wanted was in the yellow pages and we actually used them, didn't just sigh heavily when they arrived and make a mental note that we were going to sign up for that "do NOT deliver these to me" list.

If people weren't home, it rang and rang. No answering machine or voice mail -- if you were out at the time, you got home later and had no idea if they'd bothered to call. If the line was busy, you got a busy signal, no call waiting noise. We called what would become "cell phones" "car phones," because they were huge beasts only seen on TV shows or in movies where people like presidents and spies would have them.

Pay phones cost a dime, and they were everywhere, complete with their own phone books on chained leashes in their little rooms covered with graffiti. 867-5309! (OK, so that was bathroom graffiti, not pay phone wall graffiti.)

Once, over a period of time when I was breaking up with my high school boyfriend, his mom made a rule that we could only talk at either 9 or 9:30 and only for a half-hour. And sometimes he wouldn't call at 9, and I'd tell myself he would call at 9:30, and the closer 9:30 came the shakier I got, because sometimes he wouldn't call then either. I didn't know this Dorothy Parker story, but I lived it.

What telephone memories do you have? Can you still recite your first-ever phone number? Is the call coming from inside the house?


Mrs Pinchloaf said...

My parents still have my first-ever number! They've had the same phone number for...almost 40 years? They don't live in my first home anymore, but we moved when I was 9 and they kept the same number since the new house was only about a mile away.

I remember when call-waiting became big and the high school drama that went along with that. Friends saying "it's for my mom" when they were actually ditching you to talk to a different friend.

Alice said...

In my tiny town, everyone had a number starting with 524, but we only had to dial the 4.

I have a whole address book with numbers written as 4-5259 or 4-7201. It was a big deal when we had to start dialling the 52. And now you need to dial the area code as well.
A lot of change in 20 years.

Richard said...

I didn't realize until recently that my eight year old daughter did not know what a phone book was. We were staying at a hotel, and there was a phone book in the drawer of the nightstand. My daughter could not grasp why anyone would need such a thing.

briank said...

I grew up in Maine, but, like Alice, I grew up only having to dial five numbers because every phone number in town was 78X-XXXX. There were no new exchanges until I was in high school. My father was similarly too cheap to pay the extra couple of bucks for touch-tone and my parents had a rotary dial phone until the mid-1990s, when the phone company finally forced everybody to go to touch-tone.

There was also a vogue for calling Time & Temp when I was a kid, too. Funny how things like that will travel.

Laura said...

In State College, PA, students at Penn State have numbers that start with 867. People used to call 867-5309 and ask for Jenny. I heard that one year a girl named Jenny had that number.

Things change quickly. My grandmother had a party line. Even when I was a little kid.

Zelda said...

When I was a kid our number was still VI(Victor)9-6901. We used the operator to make a long distance call to my grandparents who were TA(taylor)7-4761. Everyone in the state had one of 3 area codes, 313, 517, 616. Everyone we called lived in 517. We moved when I was in high school and almost 40 years later my folks have the same number. As a kid we only had to dial the 9-6901. After we moved, we only had to dial the last 4 digits of the new number. Now you have to dial all 10 digits. My grandparents lived on a lake and were on a party line. There were party lines in some areas of the CO mountains until the late 1990s.

Funnygirl2004 said...

OMG - I totally remember my phone number from growing up and it was the BOMB when the kids line was sequential to my parents. My parents were XXX- XX41 and the kids were XXX-XX42. If the first line was busy, it rang over to the second line.

And the phone book - love getting the new one to look at business ads of my friends parents, and also to look up my friends.

Yes, I am a geek and proud of it.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the forgotten pleasure of prank calling with impunity!

Down here in the bible belt, we also had a number you could dial and listen to a whole catalog of bible verses. my grandmother had a brochure listing them sitting permanently by her phone.

Dimestore Lipstick said...

In the little Iowa town where I grew up, there were many party lines clear up to the eighties, especially popular with the older farmers like my grandparents (their particular ring was one long, two short). There was only one exchange for the whole town, so we only dialed four digits. Home was 8276, Dad's work was 6191, the grandparents were 5424, etc. And up till fairly recently, all of Iowa was the same area code.

Brian said...

Growing up, we had *A* phone, and when you wanted to use it, you had to wait your turn. The phone was a battleship grey basic desk model... and I was so jealous of my friend who had a slimline phone and (gasp!) an extension! When the phone rang, everyone jumped -- with no Caller ID, who know who could be calling? Long-distance calls were a big deal; we called my grandmother in Maine on Mother's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas... and that was it, unless there was a death in the family. And with the advent of Caller ID went the fine art of the prank call.

Our exchange in Delaware was 656, but I can remember when they were still using letters and it was OLympia-6. We had a party line, too, until one day during a snowstorm someone on the line left the phone off the hook, and no one could make a call.

Call phones, the internet, cordless phones, multiple extensions and Caller ID have transformed telephoning culture. has an interesting related article about the joys and miseries of old-school phones and TVs at

Brian said...

Just watched the "Century 21 Calling" video, which looks like it was produced for the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle. It's one of those typically earnest early '60s films that's hilarious to modern viewers (the enthusiastic young couple are a hoot), but the technology it shows off must have been mind-blowing to the audience, if not a bit science-fictiony (note how they call computers "electronic brains"). Even though most of it is pretty old hat in 2010 (and nary a mention of cell phones), a lot of it wasn't implemented until the '80s: pagers, call waiting, speed dialing, conference calling and call forwarding (does anyone do that anymore?). And some of the remote controlling functions are still in the realm of emerging technology. Overall, definitely worth a look.