Roger Angell, in this week’s New Yorker, discusses the old-time telephone exchanges, with their evocative names:

Growing up, I began to apprehend that Manhattan telephone exchanges, which were geographically assigned, were a guide map and social register to my delightful city. West Side school friends of mine could be reached at the MOnument or CAthedral or RIverside exchange. My father worked at the WHitehall exchange, down near Wall Street, and my mother at the mid-West Forties’ BRyant 9. BUtterfield 8 was just south of us on the Upper East Side, with TRafalgar, REgent, and RHinelander not far away. When my parents were divorced and my mother moved to East Eighth Street, she became a SPring 7, and neighbors and stores and movie theatres in that neighborhood had lively ALgonquin, CHelsea, and WAtkins handles. If you called up one of the Times Square movie theatres, to find the next showtime for “Cimarron” or “Rasputin and the Empress,” the exchange was probably LOngacre.

(In explanation of that last name, I should point out that Longacre Square was the original name for Times Square, before the Times moved there.) There is a site that collects such exchange names; here is their New York list [you can now (2022, apparently since 2006) search their database].


  1. Whoa. I need to go to NY. This made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

  2. Something completely different: how do you deal with hat hair?

    I would love to wear a hat every day. A few years ago my wife bought me a black suede fedora for winter, and the year after a fine panama hat.

    But the mess a hat makes of my hair! How did entire societies deal with this horror in earlier decades?!

  3. The answer to the last question is easy: they slathered it with greasy kid stuff until nothing short of a tornado would discombobulate it. Take a look at Fearless Fosdick’s shiny helmet of hair, unruffled by the hat he is doffing. That, however, is not an option that arouses any enthusiasm in me (or likely you). What I do is try to find a private moment to comb it down as soon as possible after removing the headgear, and not obsess too much about it. It’s annoying, but the feeling of suave sophistication that comes to the hat-wearing man is well worth it.

    A fine panama hat, eh? Man, that’s a gift; I hope you appreciate your wife!

  4. By the way, if you’re not familiar with the tune Fearless is quoting (“Get Wildroot Cream-Oil, Charlie!”), it wasn’t just your ordinary commercial jingle; it was wildly popular, and so it should have been, since it was written by Tadd Dameron! (Woody Herman is co-credited with the tune; I don’t know if he actually helped write it or was just taking a bandleader’s droit de gimme.) You can hear it by going here, scrolling down almost to the bottom, and clicking on the audio link. You’ll be humming it for days!

  5. I sure do appreciate my wife!

    Noooooo … I can’t say the “shiny helmet of hair” appeals to me. My dad did that when I was still a small child, but even he stopped sometime in the 70s.

    So I guess it’s going to have to be furtive grooming.

    The song: heh.

  6. SkipChurch says

    Mine was TR-3. Trafalgar.
    Thanks for the memories…I was trying to recall these, and only got five.
    You left out DIgby though. That was wall Street I think.

  7. Lars Mathiesen says

    Found this and wanted to see if the site mentioned had the list for Copenhagen. But “ourwebhome.com” looks rather delapidated, I get 503 errors — though Google still links to it when searching for “TENP TENproject” so it might work another day.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    The telephone exchange mnemonic has gone, but telephone numbers still have mnemonics: you have a choice of ABC for 1, and so on. Even today they’re used in TV and radio ads.

  9. The link to the image of Fearless Fosdick is dead.

  10. Here‘s one that works.

  11. Thanks!

  12. Though the “ourwebhome.com” site is defunct, it turns out the EXchange has moved to another web address, and I have updated the link in the post accordingly.

  13. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    And my question of three years ago is answered — their database does have entries for Copenhagen, with a nice explanation of how the system worked up until the late 60s. (Look under C for ‘Central’). There were three single-digit exchanges, Central, East and Outer East = Ægirsgade (ØBro and ÆGir), reached by dialling 1, 2, and 3 — the dial had 1-C, 2-ABD, 3-EFG, 4-HIK, 5-LMN, 6-OPR, 7-STU, 8-VYX, 9-ÆØÅ; there must have been some timeout for exchanges 2 and 3 since there were two-digit ones starting with those digits as well. Note that the letter codes for ØBro and ÆGir correspond to 92 and 93 — at a guess it would have worked to dial like that, with 9 just being a reset on the first Strowger selector. (But 0 was reserved: 000 was emergency services [now 112] and international calls used prefix 00 — 001 for the NANP, for instance. [This still works on mobile phones, at least for some operators]. Probably this used the slowest digit to avoid accidental activation).

    (The earliest home phone number I remember was 69 11 40, but that must have been a fully automatic exchange that was reached by dialling and didn’t have a name or conventional letters. It was in a newly built-up area of the city when we moved there in 1965, so probably a new prefix that was introduced after the last fully-manual exchange in Copenhagen was converted to dial phones. From outside Copenhagen, the full number would be given to the operator until she was automated away).

  14. “00” for international is used in a lot of countries, Germany among them. Several ex-Soviet republics switched to “00” in the 90s or early noughties as well.

  15. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I suspect that 00 for international was a standard, so of course the US used 11 instead. (I know that I had my hands on the relevant standard at one point, but I’m somewhat relieved to find that I don’t remember what it said exactly. I do know that in standards like X.28, there is just a digit string and a single bit to indicate whether it’s a national number or an international number that includes the country prefix — essentially what the + is used for in many current systems. But that’s just a surface form like 00 was.

    (Short shameful: In my misspent youth I once decided that it would be “easier” or at least prettier to implement a new network address family for X.28 in the BSD kernel and move the whole call establishment code down there, so you could just put a phone number in a struct in_addr and use connect(2) to talk over X.25. Alack, where are the synchronous modems of yesteryear?)

  16. Just seen on a T-shirt: “ is where the heart is”.

    Re ‘0’ prefix and then ’00’ for international: calling a local number (with no ‘0’ prefix) meant a cheap local charge rate. If you wanted to call that number from outside the local area, it need ’01’ prefix for London.

    By extension, if you wanted to call from outside UK, ‘001’ prefix.

    London now has more complex prefixes: ‘0171’ -> ‘0207’ inner, ‘0181’ -> ‘0208’ outer.

    There was a memorable series of TV adverts featuring Maureen Lipman playing an ‘outer’ upwardly-mobile housewife talking down to herself playing an ‘inner’ down-to-earth friend — who always got the last laugh.

  17. Si tu trouves sur la plage
    un très joli coquillage
    compose le numéro
    OCÉAN 0.0.

    Et l’oreille à l’appareil
    la mer te racontera
    dans sa langue des merveilles
    que papa te traduira.

  18. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    @AntC — yes, using a single 0 for long-distance and 00 for international is used in a lot of countries. The change from 0171 to 0207 happened when I was living in Reading, or just after — IIRC, the plan was to continue consolidating a number of older area codes elsewhere in the UK at the same time as 01 would be freed up, but I didn’t keep track of it after that.

    I think a lot of countries had very small numbers of subscribers with dial phones until the 60s, if any, and no long distance dialling, so they could simply implement that recommendation when they built automatic exchanges. North America did that much earlier, so the system with fixed length area codes is unique.

    (Both international and national prefixes are supposed to be exactly that, a prefix code. Since NA has +1, there is no other international prefix that starts with +1, and so on. Denmark only ever had one-digit national prefixes, 01, 02, …, but the UK and Sweden had many different lengths. I think there is free portability in Sweden now, but it used to be that you could tell where in the country a phone number was. It’s still a good bet that 08 or +46 8 is a land line in Stockholm; when I was living there, noll-otta was a slightly pejorative term for a Stockholmer).

  19. Trond Engen says

    The Norwegian system had one and two digit district codes. No district had prefix 1 (which was for emergency numbers, national service numbers and such), or 9. Oslo and environs had (0)2, the district southwest of Oslo had (0)3(X), the southern tip (0)4(X), the west coast (0)5(X), the northwest and the east north of Oslo (0)6(X), the middle belt (0)7(X), and the north (0)8(X). All regular phone numbers had seven digits including the prefix, so five or six digits for local calls.

    The first number I remember, was “Ås 542”, in the final days of the manual switchboard. It became (02) 94 05 42 when I was about 5 in the early seventies. Moving north of Oslo in 1977 we got (067) 23 420 .In Bergen in 1981 our number was (05) 11 81 65, which changed to (05) 91 71 65 after a new switchboard was installed in the neighborhood a couple of years later. Eventually it landed on 55 91 71 65, with eight digit national numbers.

    Like Lars says for Sweden, I think the land line numbers are transportable, but (a) I’ve never seen it, and (b) nobody has a landline anymore anyway*. In the eight digit system mobile numbers start with 4 or 9. Presumably the numbers from the old landline system will be made available for mobile devices at some point, but I suspect the phone number system will be obsolete before that.

    Also, four digit postal codes followed a tight geographical system, but here all digits were used. The 10-year-old me loved researching and understanding these systems, and I still despair when they are replaced by inferior patchwork amendments.

    * Except, for some reason, lawyers. When I get a call at work from a land line I know it’s about a legal case,

  20. when I was living there, noll-otta was a slightly pejorative term for a Stockholmer

    Nollåtta, actually, usually written solid. I’ve seen the occasional nollåttare as well.

  21. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    It used to be that international calls to mobile numbers could be charged at a much higher rate than land lines; for many years the Danish regulator was telling the operators that mobile numbers should be portable to land lines and vice verse, since they (the operators) could not identify any technical reasons why it shouldn’t work.

    There could not possibly have been any connection between this issue and the fact that Danish operators got to charge a lot extra for incoming international calls to mobile phones IF the originating operator could tell from the number that it was in fact a mobile. I think the surcharge thing was quashed by the EU at some point — and as by a miracle, the operators were suddenly able to implement full portability. But as Trond says, who even calls land lines any more.

    Also it seems that the EU Commission is working on a directive to make voice calls* from the subscriber’s home country to any other EU country cost the same as national calls. (It’s a little over five years ago that voice and SMS while travelling in another EU country were put on a similar system. I have a flat rate mobile subscription, and the only time I pay anything on top of the monthly is when I call my old bank in Sweden using the Danish SIM).
    * Mobile data is not included, or rather, the operator has to give you 1GB/month in all of EU for each 10 dollars you pay (pre-tax). Which is about 1/17000 of what they will charge if you go to somewhere like Mexico or Qatar. On the Danish market (which is overprovisioned until people discover how fast 5G actually is), EU roaming data has become a competitive parameter. My 43USD/mo subscription gives me unlimited data in Denmark and 40GB/mo in the EU+12 countries. (Including UK, US, ANZ, Canada).

  22. nobody has a landline anymore anyway

    We finally got rid of ours this year.

  23. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    åtta — I blame interference from otta ‘dark hours of the morning.’ TIL that the word exists as otte in Danish and stands in Ablaut to natt/nat (cf. अक्तु , Uchte). No interference from Danish, natch.

  24. We still have our landline, because it gets thrown in with the broadband connection. The only people still using it to call us are my mother, who is almost 80 and still thinks of calling mobile phones as an expensive luxury, one married couple living in the same area with whom we have been friends for 20 years, who do it out of a habit formed before flat fees, when local calls on the landline were significantly cheaper, plus telemarketers and pollsters.

  25. Norw. å stå opp i otta “rising in the wee hours”.

    Or on the overnight train between Oslo and Trondheim. Northbound and southbound train meet at Otta stasjon just before 3 AM.

    I like “nollåttare”.

  26. We still have our landline, because it gets thrown in with the broadband connection.

    We still have the landline on our bill, because for some arcane reason the bundle is cheaper that way. But we no longer have the phone.

  27. I haven’t had a landline in 15 years.

    One drawback I notice as a parent is that the kids can’t call a friend’s house to see if anyone’s home/someone wants to play. They don’t have phones yet, nor do most of their friends. And they can’t realistically call the parents’ phones, so either they walk over, or it requires involvement from me or my wife texting another parent, often setting up a time, cementing the status of the “playdate” over just playing.

    And it’s one more incentive to just sit on their screens instead of doing something with friends.

  28. I don’t have a landline at home, but I certainly still do have one in my office. The office landline is the phone number in the university directory and on my course syllabi, and I don’t give out my cell number to most of my students. When I’m at work and making work-related calls, I normally use the landline. Only if I don’t get an answer and the call is urgent, will I switch to calling the recipient’s cell. What do professionals in large organizations in, say, Norway do in corresponding situations? Do people have work-issued phones, or does everyone use the personal phone for work, or what?

  29. Trond Engen says

    Brett: Do people have work-issued phones, or does everyone use the personal phone for work, or what?

    I can’t speak for all, but when my employer decided to close the landlines, everybody already had mobile numbers for job use. We could decide if we wanted to have the private number incorporated into the company system or have two different numbers and phones. I (and pretty much everyone) chose the first option. I have now a company subscription and a subsidized phone (bought through the company, with some company software), but I own the number and take it with me if I leave. The policy in my wife’s much smaller employer is similar.

  30. * Except, for some reason, lawyers. When I get a call at work from a land line I know it’s about a legal case,

    because their switchboard system is linked to their billing system: you’re getting charged for a lawyer’s _time_, not merely their phone disbursements.

    What do professionals in large organizations in, say, Norway do in corresponding situations? Do people have work-issued phones, or does everyone use the personal phone for work, or what?

    (Don’t know if NZ is comparable to Norway. We do have a lot of working away from the office/at clients’/at home during COVID/at another colleague’s desk.) Yes I have a work-issued mobile (they pay for) and a personal mobile (I pay for). I don’t have a landline at home. I do at the office/I seldom use it, because it’s no cheaper, and because on a call I need to move around the office to ask questions of others.

    Also if you change job, the work phone goes back to the company, it’s a pain getting the new number out to all your personal contacts.

  31. Trond Engen says

    Differences between countries are probably due to different tax rules for private use of company phones (or vice versa).

  32. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    AFAICT, the only reason for a Danish company to have “land lines” — actually IP telephony boxes — is so they can have switchboard functionality for old school (“room full of reps”) customer service. For purposes like call groups for on-call IT staff, it’s now implemented over the Internet and works fine with mobiles. And for conference phones because a smartphone is lousy at letting more than two people speak — though that is old tech now: new offices will have video meeting setups that can join a Teams meeting directly, and those can probably be plugged into somebody’s mobile call if you only want voice.

  33. I have a work mobile phone and a private one, because I like to keep my private contacts and calls separate. I also have a corporate landline number with extension that shows up in my e-mail signature, but nowadays all calls to that go through Teams and I can take them on my computer or on my work cell, depending on what I prefer. Until a year ago or so, we also still had phones on our desks, but as we stopped having fixed assigned desks over a decade ago, you needed to input your number each time you started occupying your desk so that the system knew where to route calls to you to. Therefore, only people who use the same desk regularly did that, and now since COVID almost everyone works from home anyway, so they finally scrapped the desk phones.

  34. I have a landline (or in fact IP) phone at home and a cell phone that belongs to me, for which I use different carriers. It’s been a long time since I had a work line of any kind. In general I prefer people to call the landline phone.

  35. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    So I actually saw an old pulse-dial landline phone yesterday, and I have to correct myself — OBviously 9 was only for ÆØ, Å was not a thing before 1948, long after the layout was laid out.

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