Sweet Old School Fence Signs

IMG_1576, originally uploaded by Prince of Petworth.

I wonder why back in the day they used letters for the first two numbers? Was it just easier that way when you’d say, “operator, ring me JO 3-1000”? Anyone know the reason?

I thought it was interesting that after noticing this one a couple hours later I found another from a different company.


9 Comment

  • the first two letters would be related to a word, like maybe “joseph 3-1000” in your first example.

  • from Wikipedia:
    “Phone numbers were usually not strictly numeric until the mid-1960s. From the 1920s until then, most urban areas had “exchanges” of two letters, followed by numbers. In the UK, however, exchanges in the major cities with Director installations were represented by three letters followed by four numbers; the letters usually represented the name of the exchange area (e.g. MAYfair, WATerloo), or something memorable about the locality (e.g. POPesgrove — an area where Alexander Pope once lived). This was considered easier to remember, although in London in the later part of this period it required the memorization of 7 characters (roughly the same number of characters as is usual for local calling in 2008). A word would represent the first two digits to be dialed, for example “TWinbrook” for “89” ; “BYwater” for “29”.”

  • I love the old-timey exchange names (my father can only remember his sister’s phone number of 50 years by saying “HEmlock 4 ….” That would be 434-…. My mother’s number as a kid was LIncoln, and my father’s was WArfield.
    I was an adult before I realized that the old Elizabeth Taylor movie, “Butterfield 8,” referenced her phone number.

  • those are some durable signs

  • I have been doing research on my house and have been in the old business directories and telephone books and have run across a lot of these and have found them fun. ATlantic, DEcatur, NAtional, MEtropolitan, Franklin, Georgia, Potomac, District, Emerson, Shepherd, Sterling, etc. (at various times – some were discontinued consolidated)

    I ran across this great WaPo article from November of 1933 about how they chose these. The chose names of “National or local significance.” Former presidents (Adams, Lincoln, CLeveland), Columbia and Potomac for obvious local reasons. They didn’t want to choose words that sounded like other words when spoken over the phone (the example they gave was Lee which sounded like three) while others were thrown out because they conflicted with other offices. They even did research at the Library of Congress to compile the original list of 200.

  • Great, now that old song Beachwood 45789 … is stuck in my head

  • It was also good for advertising at the time. Cabs were painted with their cab company name and their telephone number that started with SEnate, POtomac, or LIncoln.

    Along with rotary dial telephones, their use sort faded after the 1970’s as phone numbers became no longer exclusively landline based and some cell phones like BlackBerrys don’t have the letters on the number keys.

    You can still see their use in front of longtime Washington establisments still in business like Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown, Debonair Cleaners on Connecticut Avenue (ADams 4-1000) and Dravillas Real Estate on Columbia Road (ADams4-4674).

    Also at the front desk of some of Washington’s old “Best Addresses” coopertative apartment buildings like The Kennedy-Warren, The Ontario, 2101 Connecticut, The Wyoming, 1661 Crescent Place, The Mendota.

  • Dang, someone mentioned Butterfield 8 before me.

  • And of course PEnnsylvania 6-5000, still in use (as 212-736-5000) for the Hotel Pennsylvania in NYC.

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