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Arts & Culture, Historic & Traditional

“Off The Hook” – The Etymology of Your Phone Number

Did you know that the digits of your phone number actually have a history linking them to letters? Or, that the concept of “dialing” a phone came way later than the phone itself? Robert Mech explores all this and more in this post about phones, and he most certainly did not “phone it in.”

January 29, 2015

First, a preface:

At Board & Vellum, we strive to connect with our clients. We love them. (They do pay us.) They’re real people with real problems. As a potential client, sometimes you might not know what you’re asking for, but that’s why we’re here to help. We’re not concerned about how many famous architects we can quote, or whether or not some “design metrics” apply to our current projects, or what the “in” color is for 2015. Name-dropping high-brow one-upmanship is not our style. Instead, we want to get to the root of the problem, which means ultimately we want to understand your problem. We endeavor to reach that “ah-ha!” moment. I get it.

We also share what we learn. When one of us discovers something cool, or exciting, or mesmerizing, or just plain dorky, we tend to talk about it. (To each other, not just to ourselves.) We’re not all about architecture, obviously. We’re made up of real people, with our own passions, dreams, and hokey interests.


Before I was ten years old, someone asked me what superpower I’d like to have. “I like to find out things about stuff,” I said. (Future Me’s Note: There’s actually a word for that. It’s called “psychometry” and I have my friend Derek Reeves to thank for finding it out.)

Okay... most people would say something like “flying” or “being invisible” or any number of current Marvel character traits. But you’re talking about some kid who noticed that pennies before 1959 had a different design on the back, and that not all movies were in color. In short, you’re talking about someone who discovered that everything changes. There was a difference in time. And to get to the point of this blog post, your telephone number wasn’t always what it is, either. Every object (even an idea) has a history and is a part of something bigger. If you’re old enough (and I’m not, but I know people that are) you might remember when your telephone number had letters in it. Or words.

Crazy, you say. Unfathomable. Really? You think texting on your cell phone is the first time numbers and letters correlated with each other? Ha! You’re gonna love this.

An original telephone. No dial.
dial-less telephone

An original telephone. No dial.

Back in “the day”, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. I’ll spare you the details, but in 1877 a system was put in place to reach each other over a series of electrical lines, and it had rules. The first telephone numbers weren’t numbers at all – they were names, either your personal name or the name of your company. Obviously, that was way too confusing since many people share the same name, so in 1879 they began assigning numbers to each customer, with a four-digit code being most common. And you didn’t dial it. (The term “dial it” hadn’t even been invented yet, but that’s coming.) You picked up your receiver and, if the network was working, heard an Operator on the other end to which you’d say something like “I want to reach Board & Vellum Architects in Seattle”. “Yes ma’am, I’ll connect you right away,” the voice might have said.

What was going on was that there was an actual person sitting in a room with a bunch of plugs and holes, and they would take the plug that represented you and put it into the hole that represented Board & Vellum (assuming they were in the same city). You could then talk to whoever picked up the line on the other end (probably Jeff).

1909 telephone exchange
1909 telephone exchange

1909 Telephone Operator

The American Bell Telephone Company, named after its creator, eventually became the American Telephone & Telegraph Company in 1899. (Yes that’s right, AT&T.) Then came the “prefix”. What’s that? It’s what is now the first two digits of your seven-digit phone number today, say, “32” or something. That’s why it has a hyphen after it (-) because it’s a prefix. Basically, the old four-digit numbers were fine for rural areas with less than 9999 people or businesses, but hey buddy, cities are bigger than that and need more numbers. The prefix originally identified what part of the city you lived in, according to the local telephone exchange.

What’s a telephone exchange? It’s the room that all those paid operators sit in and connect calls all day, all night. (Maybe today’s equivalent is the “call center” in China or India. See, we outsource this stuff now. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.)


A common telephone exchange office.

There were local telephone exchanges all over the country, and they would “exchange” numbers with other operators which inevitably led to long-distance calling. Prefixes starting with 0 and 1 weren’t used because they were reserved for special actions (1 for dialing long-distance, and 0 for dialing the Operator). And those prefixes weren’t actually designated by number, they had names corresponding to the area in which they resided.

Still with me? Let’s say you are Mr. Client and you just bought your first house with a dedicated phone line installed. Your house was assigned a four-digit code (say, “1234”) to identify its owner (you) plus a prefix identifying the neighborhood you lived in. But, the original prefixes weren’t numbers, they were words. If you lived in, say, Capitol Hill, your prefix was the first two letters (CA) of “Capitol Hill”. Your phone number would be CA-1234, but you would call it “CApitol 1234” if you were at a bar and gave your number to a cute lady. That’s not a typo – when you see two letters capitalized in a telephone number, it’s because those were the two letters you dialed as your prefix. At the time, it was thought that words were easier to remember than numbers. Maybe that’s still true? Can you quote your boyfriend’s seven-digit number? Or do you just remember the last four digits? Anyway, words-plus-numbers was supposed to help you identify yourself and remember where you come from. Bizarre, but true.

Woo-hoo a whole 9 cents refund! Note the account number = telephone number.
pacific telephone bank check

Woo-hoo a whole 9 cents refund! Note the account number = telephone number.


Note the telephone exchange number on this billboard!


You should all be familiar with this (still exisitng!) sign.

By this time (say, the 1920s), your telephone had a round dial with numbers (and letters!) on it.

please wait

This was so you could easily see the relationship between words and numbers, but also so that you could connect to your destination on your own, without the Operator. But, just in case you had problems, dialing “0” was still used to reach the Operator. (Does that even still work today? Try it.) So, as our cities became larger and neighborhoods filled up with residents, telephone exchanges started assigning not just neighborhoods as a prefix but also natural landmarks (RAinier), U.S. presidents (LIncoln and GArfield), famous people that first owned the land you were on, et cetera (etc.) until they finally gave in and added another digit after the prefix, giving us our modern seven-digit phone number. Mr. Client living in Capitol Hill with a phone number of CA-1234 became CA1-1234, for instance.

Pueblo CO Polk City Directory
Pueblo CO Polk City Directory

City Directory for Pueblo, CO circa 1947. Advertisements were even printed on the side bindings.

For this era of nomenclature, watch the movie “BUtterfield 8” starring Elizabeth Taylor. Yep, you guessed it – not only does the number identify her location, but also her social status and the biases that go along with it. Great movie – I like it, anyway. Or for a more musical bent, how about the song “PEnnsylvania 6-5000” by Glenn Miller?  Now you know it’s about a phone number!

However, once the seven-digit number manifested itself, Ma Bell (the short name of the Bell monopoly of all phone networks before being dismembered in 1984) it was only a matter of time before the letters were discarded in favor of all numerical phone “numbers”.

My own telephone from about 1960.

My own telephone from about 1960. I think it's from a police station in Pennsylvania.

In Seattle, the change came in 1958. I have a phone book somewhere in storage that shows the last “telephone exchange” numbers of our beloved city in 1957. Check out this link for all of the vintage Seattle mnemonics.

The natural evolution of the phone number comes from our own English language. In the distant past, when a gentleman came “calling” at a lady’s residence (e.g. the show “Downton Abbey”), it was about personal interaction and physical presence. Hello, I am here to talk to you. “Calling” eventually became a remote designation for communication, vis-a-vis the telephone. We eventually accepted the reality that we’re all just individual numbers in the universe.


Just kidding! The exchange names went away because, with the advent of databases, it became easier for Ma Bell to keep track of things with all numbers instead of a cipher of words plus numbers. In today’s modern world, even the “area code” doesn’t mean you really are where it says you are, due to cellular phones... even I still have a cell number with a Denver area code, but its “303” meaning is now obsolete since I live 1,300 miles away.

If you’re curious as to what your phone number might have been, check this archive. It’s only comprehensive as far as the Ma Bell network reached before 1984.

We’re all a part of something greater, and all things come from something before. I like seeing the relationships, the connections… which brings me to the end of the topic, and the revelation of the phrase “off the hook”. According to the online Urban Dictionary, that phrase means “referring to something being so ‘fresh’ and ‘new’ that it’s literally right off the [clothes] rack” – literally the hangar being the hook. Secondarily it means “exceeding the minimal standard of satisfaction,” and before that, “to express such demand or activity that it is beyond normal conditions.” And you know where that symbology comes from? From a phone ringing so much that it is taken “off the hook” to shut it up. Boom.

Thank you for listening.

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