OLD NEWS: 1922 Little Rock befuddled as phone company changes everyone’s number overnight

OLD NEWS: 1922 Little Rock befuddled as phone company changes everyone’s number overnight

Big Smartphone is blowing up my email, clattering on and on about all the tiny upgrades it could make to my messaging life if only I would hurry up and replace my ancient, 3-year-old phone.

The phone biz is all about the upgrade, whether customers want one or not.

Knowing this and being Arkansans, we can imagine how Arkansas customers felt 100 years ago when Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. changed every phone number in the city of Little Rock, overnight.

overnight. Everyone’s.

Telephones were nothing new to Arkansas by then, which historian Tom Dillard has explained rather well (see arkansasonline.com/613tom). Little Rock’s first exchange had opened on Nov. 1, 1879. That was three months before Gen. Douglas MacArthur was born in the Little Rock Arsenal and only four years after Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) invented the dang things.

In 1922, Southwestern Bell served 55,843 of the 175,333 phones in the state … assuming I read a chart correctly and the chart is accurate (see Table 25 in here: arkansasonline.com/613chart). Bell was big time.

Newspaper archives suggest that in Little Rock, a city of more than 65,000 souls, 15,000 to 16,000 customers had Bell telephones. I can’t tell whether these were candlestick phones (arkansasonline.com/613phone/) or wall box phones (arkansasonline.com/613party/) or both. But generally, callers would pick up a wired, bell-shaped receiver, press it to one ear and speak into a separate mouthpiece.

Lines in a geographic area were organized into exchanges, which were groups of circuits that ended up at a big board in a central office where a switcher could connect this line to that line by flipping switches and plugging electric cords into jacks. Moving a crank or lever on one’s phone sent a signal that alerted the switchboard operator. The operator (always human and usually a woman) would ask what number the subscriber wanted to call.

See a photo of a small 1922 switchboard here: arkansasonline.com/613loc. Little Rock had large switchboards with lots of operators.

As population grew, more exchanges were added. Each exchange had a name, and that exchange name was part of the subscriber’s phone number. There was the Main exchange, for instance. To inform the Arkansas Gazette’s society editor about a grand party, a proud hostess directed the operator to ring Miss Nell Cotnam at “Main 5080.”

Friend Reader knows all this already, but Old News clings to fond hope that a free-ranging young person might stumble into this column by mistake and become entangled in our diligent descriptions. Once snared, the young may be domesticated.


Back to 1922: Bell figured out how to replace some of its horde of human operators with efficient machines. Machine-switching stations required a new type of telephone; and so every customer would need a new phone.

The equipment was expensive and took time to install, so Bell rolled out this massive upgrade in stages over years. The first changes descended on Little Rock in summer 1922.

First, workers from Western Electric Co. spent about two months building a machine-switching apparatus in the Main exchange building at Seventh and Louisiana streets (see arkansasonline.com/613ray). As the “Western Electrics” set to work in March — and got up their own baseball team for weekend games — news reports and advertisements began to warn the public about step 2, set to occur in late May/early June.

Everyone’s phone number would change. Once the new phone directory arrived, callers were to use it to look up each and every number before trying to call — even though calls still were placed by talking to a human being. Forget your memory. Your old phone number was defunct, replaced by five digits.

These new numbers did not include the familiar Main and Woodlawn exchange designations. Instead, they began with a 3 or a 4. Also, zeros were added in until each phone number had the five digits.

So, to reach Miss Cotnam, the proud hostess had to ask the operator to call “4-5080.” And those numbers had to be pronounced properly. It wasn’t “4-50-80.” Say each digit. And those zeros weren’t “zero.” Zero was pronounced “oh.”

Unfortunately, the Gazette didn’t update the society page logo with Cotnam’s number on it until June 21. And in the meantime, Bell’s ads grew more and more impatient with a public that was loathe to give up asking for the Main and Woodlawn exchanges. No, the many ads said, Main and Woodlawn did not exist. Callers must stop asking for them.

On June 14, the Arkansas Democrat carried a long interview with SA Lane, Bell’s division manager for Arkansas. He complained that the new directory had been out plenty long enough for people to adapt. The company was not censuring folks, he said, but:

“Our operators in Little Rock handle on average 275 calls during the busy hours. Our total calls per day will average 150,000. Therefore it can be readily seen that when only about half of the telephone users are calling by the new designations, a certain amount of confusion must necessarily enter into the service.”

On June 27, the non-censorious operators stopped helping the Main and Woodlawn holdouts and instead switched them to a “special” operator who told them to use the new directory.

Editorial poet CT Davis posted a cryptic complaint July 18:


Oscar is being lawed

By the telephone company,

Oscar’s phone number

Has four 3’s in it

And six operators

Have strangled to death

Trying to repeat it.

Also meanwhile, Bell was preparing step 3, which involved yet another new phone directory containing another set of numbers to take effect overnight Aug. 19.


Bell advised businesses not to print any phone numbers on their ads or letterheads until after this new book arrived.

About 3,000 subscribers received new phones. These contraptions had something called a “dial” built in. One must forget talking to human operators. One must learn to be brave and risk one’s index fingertip to rotate this dial.

The company assembled a team of 40 high school and college boys and put them through a one week phone-switching school. The young men spread out across town, knocking on doors and teaching subscribers how “to dial” a phone. At homes still using the old style phone, they left a card with written instructions.

Bell held demonstrations at civic clubs using a rather large mini model of the switching station.

And in the sports pages, syndicated jokester Bugs Baer laughed about “the great Indian lands, where the buffalo still roamed in vast telephone numbers.”


A marvelously confusing press release published by the Gazette on July 30 explained how after the conversion Aug. 19, dial-phone to dial-phone calls would be connected automatically through the agency of machines! The rest of the city was not totally mired in the past by their outmoded phones. When one of them tried to call one of the chosen 3,000, a human would intervene to switch the line, although the customer could not speak with her.

For all local calls from one older phone to another older phone, customers could speak to the operator — as long as they pronounced their digits properly.

I like imagining that, for a while in 1922, nobody knew how to call anybody anymore, but everybody knew what they wanted to call the phone company.



[Gallery not showing? Click here to see photos: arkansasonline.com/613arg]

Gallery: Wrong numbers in 1922

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