New York City telephone exchanges, November 1920 to May 1930

Until the May 1920 directory, all New York City telephone directories were based on non-dial calling. The instructions on "How to use the telephone" at the beginning of the book referred to how you were supposed to give numbers to an operator, since that was the only way to make a call. The format of listings in this time was in three columns: the name of the person or company, the exchange name, and the number within the exchange. There was no particular reason to write numbers with a specific number of digits: it was just as easy to tell the operator "Harlem 22" as "Harlem 1234," so the numbers did not need preceding zeros to make them four digits. However, the tables were put in columnar form, with all the exchange names lined up and all the numbers lined up. I have only prepared a partial listing of the names of the exchanges from the start of named exchange service to May 1920, but will eventually put a more complete one on this site.

Although originally most of the exchanges were still manual in 1920, with customers giving the number that they wished to call to an operator, beginning with the November 1920 directory, all listings (except in Staten Island, which will be discussed later) were listed in a new format, and the instructions for dialing them were put in the early pages of the directory. New York City was one of four cities that were large enough to use three digits for a prefix, and the convention was that the three digits were considered as letters, and you learned those letters as the beginning of a word; these words were normally the same words that had been the names of the exchanges in manual days. Since “A,” “B,” and “C” were placed on the dial over the number “2” (see the home page for the list), and “T,” “U”, and “V” over the “8,” if the exchange were named “Butterfield” you dialed “288,” but you never thought of the digits that way: you were dialing “BUT.” To make it clear that these were what you dialed, the exchange would be shown as “BUTterfield,” with the first three letters capitalized. In the November 1920 directory it was explained that all listings would be given in a new format: three letters in bold capital letters, and a space separating the three letters from the rest of the exchange name. The explanation only appeared in that one directory, and was dropped in later ones; apparently once it was originally explained once to people whose only familiarity with directories had been with the older format, it was unnecessary to do so. (Over time, the space between the first three letters and the rest of the name was dropped; in some places in the directory, in fact, like the listings of fire and police emergency numbers, a hyphen was found instead, and in display ads, they tended to be run together without any separation, as RIVerside. More and more, this became the standard format, with capitalization (and in most listings boldface type) marking the three digits you typed. And it seemed that with this change of format, the telephone company felt it was unnecessary to line up exchange names and numbers in columns, so this was discontinued.

Although (as stated above) most of the exchanges were still manual, one could dial into a manual exchange from a dial exchange, and the operator got an indication on her switchboard of what number you were calling so she could complete the connection. However, operators were more used to hearing numbers than reading them, so the telephone company came up with a way of sounding out the digits so the operator could hear them. (See this article taken from Time magazine.)

At the beginning of this period, service in New York city was divided into two areas: the New York Telephone Company served Manhattan and the Bronx (as well as suburban areas to the north), while the New York and New Jersey Telephone Company served the remaining boroughs, as well as the rest of Long Island and many communities in New Jersey. The directories in those days included all of New York City in one book, although by this time the name of the NY&NJTCo had vanished from the book and the only company name on the cover page was that of the New York Telephone Company. However, the arrangement of the directory reflected this division by a division into three lists: one covered Manhattan and The Bronx, one covered Brooklyn and Queens, and the last covered the Borough of Richmond (Staten Island). The separation of Staten Island into a separate listing was undoubtedly due to the fact that, in those days, nobody could dial Staten Island, but despite this the columnar format used in pre-dial days was discontinued even in the Staten Island listings, although (since you were not to dial the first three letters) the exchanges were not given with the first three letters in bold capital letters, and the whole exchange name was written in one bold type.

In October, 1924, there began a division into two separate volumes, still following the territorial division between Manhattan and the Bronx in one book and the remaining three boroughs in the other, without any actual mention of NY&NJTCo. The cover pages of the October 1924 and May 1925 directories gave the titles "New York City Telephone Directory: Manhattan and The Bronx Section" and "New York City Telephone Directory: Brooklyn-Queens and Staten Island Sections" as if they were still parts of one book. By October 1925, "Section" was replaced by "Volume," and the next issues showed new independent title pages. (In 1927, NY&NJTCo was broken up; the New York State operations were merged into NYTelCo, while the New Jersey operations were merged with another company, which had served Southern New Jersey, to form New Jersey Bell Telephone Co.)

In May, 1929, NYTelCo went to a new arrangement, with five different books, one for each borough.

Even though there was a division into three groups as just mentioned, and Staten Island numbers were non-dialable, there was an alphabetical list of all exchange names in directories of this period, which combined all five boroughs into one listing. This will be the source of exchange names from the 1920-1930 era on this site.

There were lots of combinations that could not easily be worked into words; by 1930 the telephone company decided to make only the first two digits into letters, and keep the third as a digit. (The other three cities with three-letter prefixes kept them until the 1940s, and such foreign cities as London and Paris never changed to two letters and a digit.) On December 12, 1930, new directories became effective, with two letters and a digit given for each exchange name. And once again, as had been the case in November 1920, a one-time explanation was given at the beginning of the book of the new format of listings. (Actually, a preliminary announcement was made in the last prior directories, dated Summer 1930, to prepare subscribers for the change.)

The tables that this page leads to give the exchanges in use in New York City for the period between the start of dial-oriented listings in November 1920 and the change in December 1930 from three-letter to two-letter-one-digit exchanges. For the exchanges after December 1930, please see the section of this website devoted to post-1930 New York City exchanges.

Much of the information in these tables comes from three sources: The comprehensive telephone exchange database maintained by Robert Crowe, and a table prepared by Hugh Hamilton (available on The Telephone Exchange group on Yahoo!) of the exchanges at the time of the 1930 change, and microfilms of the directories at the Library of Congress.

Note that throughout these pages, reference is made to three-letter, four-digit telephone numbers in New York City prior to December 1930. In fact, as was mentioned above, some exchanges were so large that some telephone numbers had five digits after the three letters, with a 1 as the first. Even in those exchanges, four-digit numbers outnumbered five, so for simplicity, this detail will be ignored. Hugh Hamilton's table mentioned above, however, provides this information. After December 1930, those three-letter-five-digit numbers became two-letter-six-digit numbers, still considered a two-letter-one-digit exchange and five digits for the remainder of the number. These numbers were eventually phased out, however, and new exchanges created.

Alphabetic table of exchange names
Numeric table of exchange names
Chronological table of changes in exchange names

New York City:
Main New York City page
Chronological periods of the New York City data:
Pre-dial period Early dial period Late dial period
Other areas:
The New York greater metropolitan area
The Northern 914 Area Southern Westchester County Western Long Island Eastern Long Island

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Last modified January 15, 2011.

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