July 15th, 2024

Old telephone numbers tell a story

By Dave Sulz on February 3, 2021.

Geoff Capp has found that, when it comes to history, the numbers tell a story. Specifically, the numbers Capp studies are telephone numbers, and he has been using them to track the evolution of the telephone numbering system in places he has lived, including Lethbridge. His Lethbridge research recently received a boost with his discovery of a link to historical Alberta telephone directories on the Medicine Hat and District Genealogical Society website (http://mhdgs.ca) under the Searches menu item (Alberta Telephone Books). The directories go “right back to the early days when Bell Canada served Alberta,” says Capp.
Capp spent 25 years working for a telephone company, but his interest in telephone numbers dates back to his teenage years, though he’s not sure what prompted it. Suffice to say that, after devoting time to the hobby “off and on over the years,” he has become quite knowledgeable on the subject.
The site featuring the Alberta phone books, including directories dating back to 1904 for Lethbridge, has provided great assistance in his study of the numbering system in the Lethbridge area.
“These books helped me piece together the evolution of telephone numbers in the city over the years, from four-digit or shorter through the 2-5 age and into ‘all number calling.’ Something that astonished me was that the directory was printed twice annually, even right through the Second World War when one would think rationing would dictate fewer issues.”
Capp originally hails from London, Ont., and also lived in Whitehorse, Yukon, before moving to Lethbridge. His phone number research so far includes these three centres, along with Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and he has found that each city has followed its own plan in developing its numbering system. Even in Lethbridge, he has found variations within the numbering system at certain times.
For example, from 1953 to 1956, there were three different formats: four-digit numbers that started with 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6; five-digit numbers that started with 71, 77 or 78, and six-digit numbers of the format 91nn-nn.
“I don’t know enough about the exchanges – probably a step-by-step unit – to know if it could have handled four- and five-digit numbers at the same time,” Capp notes. “The 91nn-nn numbers were a rural exchange.”
A screenshot of the 1925 Lethbridge directory shows four-digit numbers, including the Lethbridge Herald’s main business office number – 3201 – when The Herald was located on 6 Street South.
A common style up to the 1950s, when telephone companies believed people could more easily remember numbers if part of it was represented as a name, was to represent the leading digits as a name.
Consequently, in July 1956, The Herald’s number changed from 5781 to FAirfax 7-5781 as the city was standardized from a mix of four- and five-digit numbers. (Larger cities had multiple names.) In 1960, The Herald’s main number changed to FAirfax 8-4411, which it remains to this day, in all-numeric form.
The names were phased out during the 1960s and depicted as the numbers where those letters were found on the dial, F becoming 3 and A becoming 2. In mechanical terms, in 1956, the Lethbridge exchange was adapted to seven-digit numbers beginning with 327 and 329, but in the style of the time, 32 was represented to customers as FA.
Other exchanges in the Lethbridge area included DIckens 5 in Coaldale, which translates to 345, and REgent 2 in Picture Butte, which translates to 732. These were abolished in 1963 along with FAirfax. The main reason for going to “all number calling” was the shrinking number of available prefixes and the eventual advent of direct international dialing from Europe and the Far East.
Capp notes that when phone companies began converting existing names to numbers, starting with smaller cities, there was no public backlash. “But when they started in the major cities, resistance arose and people protested the abandonment of names, in some cases, with organized resistance,” he says. “This slowed, but did not stop, the inevitable.”
According to Capp’s research, it appears that Lethbridge switched to seven-digit numbers a year before Calgary and three years before Edmonton.
Before the development of direct dialling, telephone operators had to physically connect callers with their destinations. Capp points out it was a funeral director in Kansas City, Almon Strowger, who invented the automated telephone dialling system, after discovering that the local operator was married to the new undertaker in town and was steering callers in his direction. Believe it not, Strowger’s patent for the invention came way back in 1891.
While Capp isn’t certain when direct dialling came to Lethbridge, “the 1918 directory hints that at least some exchanges in the Lethbridge district had dial service while others did not.”

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