In the early days of the telephone age few people had service, so telephone numbers were short. As the use of this marvelous invention increased, especially in large cities, longer and longer telephone numbers were required – up to seven digits finally. Of course a long string of numbers is harder to remember than a short one so the folks at Bell Telephone came up with the bright idea of telephone exchanges in which the first two digits would be the first two letters of words. For instance here in Baton Rouge we had three telephone exchanges: ELgin, DIckens, and WAlnut. So instead of having to remember seven digits, we only had to remember the name of one of the three exchanges and the remaining five digits. Thus 351-2345 became ELgin 1-2345. Much easier to remember, right?
Of course the use of telephone numbers that included the names of exchanges seeped into popular culture. For instance, a well-known 1935 novel by John O’Hara about a promiscuous woman named Gloria Wandrous was titled BUtterfieeld 8 after part of Gloria’s home phone number on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Notice that both the B and U in BUtterfield are capitalized in the title of the book.
The novel, by the way, contained lost of sex, drugs, and violence for its time. When my Reading the Classics Book Club read and discussed it a few years ago, many of us were surprised that the book was even published back then. The novel was made into a movie in 1960 starring Elizabeth Taylor and she won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Gloria Wandrous.
A few songs have also had telephone exchanges in their titles. The most famous was undoubtedly Glenn Miller’s 1940 hit “Pennsylvania 6-5000” (“PENNSYLVANIA SIX-FIVE THOUSAND” on the Bluebird record label). The telephone number was – and still is – that of the Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan.
Another song with a telephone exchange title is country music singer Hawkshaw Hawkins’ 1963 hit “Lonesome 7-7203.” Hawkins, Cowboy Copas, and Patsy Cline were killed when the Piper Comanche they were flying in crashed on March 5, 1963. “Lonesome 7-7203” was released three days before Hawkins’ death, and his wife, country music singer Jean Shepard, gave birth to their third child, a son, a month after Hawkins’ death.
Artie Shaw didn’t record a song with a telephone exchange in its title, but he recorded records for a short time with what was called Artie Shaw and His Gramercy 5. GRamercy was the exchange where Shaw’s home was located in Greenwich Village. Their biggest hit was probably “Summit Ridge Drive.”
The history of telephone exchanges in the United States and in other countries is quite interesting, and I highly recommend the Wikipedia article about them to you. The article also includes numerous references to telephone exchanges in pop culture including a Bugs Bunny cartoon entitled Transylvania 6-5000. You might also enjoy a Smithsonian article about the first telephone directory and some other information about the early days of the telephone era.
Remind me to tell you about telephone “party lines” sometime. Hint: being on a party line was anything but a party.