TechMan was driving through Amish country a few weeks ago and took note of the farms with wash hanging on the line in the yard. It got me thinking about everyday things that have largely disappeared because of changes in technology.
Another example presented itself a few weeks later when TechMan was reading "The Best of 2600," a collection of articles that have appeared in that magazine, which is directed at the hacker community, over the past 25 years.
What caught my attention was an entry by Jeff Vorzimmer on naming telephone exchanges. We of a certain age remember when our telephone numbers started with two letters that were followed by five digits, the so-called 2L-5D system. This started in the 1930s and lasted into the 1950s and '60s. Before that, three letters and four numbers were used.
When TechMan was just a TechBoy, his home phone number began with CR(estview) 2 (272).
In the early days of the phone system you recited a phone number to the operator and having a word to signify the first two numbers made it easier to understand and harder to transpose. But as dial phones became pervasive and then as area codes allowed customer-dialed long distance, the phone company began switching to all-digit telephone numbers.
That spelled the end for named local exchanges.
But how were these exchanges named in the first place? That is unclear, but in 1955, Bell Telephone put out a list of "recommended names for dialable/quotable telephone EXchange names."
Many cities had for decades been using names not from this list, and they were not required to change the names. Names on the list were supposed to have been chosen so that pronouncing the name would easily identify the first two dialable letters of the word, and quoting the letters would not be confused with other "like-sounding" letters.
I found this list on a Web site run by Robert Crowe. If you put in the name of a town at ourwebhome.com/TENP/TENproject.html, you can find the telephone exchanges assigned there.
There were up to six acceptable exchange names for each two-digit combination that could begin a phone number. (Some combinations were not used because the numbers were kept for special uses.)
For my childhood number, acceptable exchange names, in addition to CRestview were BRidge, BRoad(way), BRown(ing) and CRestwood. For my current Mt. Lebanon 53 exchange, the Web site says the name was LEhigh, but JEfferson, KEllogg, KEystone, and LEnox also would have been acceptable.
Some exchange names worked their way into popular culture. Pennsylvania 6-5000 was a 1940 song by Glenn Miller and his band. It was the number you called to make reservations at the Cafe Rouge at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City where the band often played.
John O'Hara wrote a novel called "BUtterfield 8" that refers to the characters' telephone exchange. The movie made from the novel won an Oscar for Elizabeth Taylor.
People who listen carefully to early TV shows, hear numbers given out as KLondike 5. TV and movies still use phone numbers starting with 555 because that exchange is not used, so someone's real number could not be given out by mistake.
MUrray Hill 5-9975 was one of the Ricardos' telephone numbers on "I Love Lucy." And the Marvelettes recorded the song "BEechwood 4-5789."
So what did we lose when exchange names disappeared? Dave LeBlanc, writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail about vanished exchange names in his city, said, "These familiar little words had been around for so long, they'd become more than mere mnemonic devices; they'd become signifiers of place."
My parents had a cottage in a wooded mountain area, and the exchange was WOodland. Dialing those letters made me think with pleasure of the place I was calling. Somehow dialing 96 does not have the same effect.