New York City telephone exchanges prior to November 1920

The pre-dial period in New York City covered directories dated prior to November 17, 1920 (the last being dated May 1920). This refers to the era when all telephone calls were completed by manual action by operators, so there were no constraints on exchange names other than that there was no likelihood of confusion when a customer gave the name to the operator.

I have had the good fortune to be able to examine a lot of microfilms of old directories, spaced closely enough in time to be able to follow the start and end dates of many exchanges in New York City.

The very first telephone directory in New York City, issued in 1878, listed fewer than 200 subscribers and fit on a single page. All the subscribers were in a single exchange, so no exchange name was necessary. In fact, with so few names, operators could remember where on a switchboard each subscriber's line was, so nobody even needed telephone numbers: you could just ask to be connected to a specific subscriber by name, and it could be done easily enough.

Obviously, that situation could not last. Competing telephone companies started, and each became large enough to require numbers to distinguish subscribers. In New York City, there were originally three telephone companies. One, the Law Telegraph Company (taking that name because they developed from a company that specialized in printing documents for lawyers) actually preceded the Bell Company in New York City. Also, though it was the smallest of the three companies, The Law Company was the first to use numbers. It assigned a three- digit number to each subscriber. The Law Company's directory listed all subscribers in both alphabetical and numerical order.

The two other companies in New York City were the Gold and Stock Telephone Company and the Bell Telephone Company of New York. The first of these was a subsidiary of the Western Union and relied on patents owned by Elisha Gray and Thomas Edison; the second, as the name suggests, was the company that had the rights to Alexander Graham Bell's patents. As a result of a court decision the previous year, these two companies merged in 1880 to form the Metropolitan Telephone and Telegraph Company. This company did not use fixed three- digit numbers, but assigned numbers starting from 1 on up; but a switchboard with more than about 10,000 numbers would become hard to navigate, so separate switchboards would be set up with capacity to handle about that many subscribers, and each was called a "central" office and assigned a name. (Actually, originally only about 1000 numbers were provided for in a central office and none of the earlier numbers had more than three digits; four-digit numbers eventually became common, and even a few five- digit numbers were found in the 1910s.) A listing of the first exchange names used, taken from the December 15, 1880 directory, is provided.

Ultimately the Metropolitan bought the Law Company's assets, and became a monopoly in New York City as it was at the time (which at that time did not include more than Manhattan Island plus a small portion of what is today The Bronx). The June 24, 1885 directory looked much like earlier Law Company directories, but was issued in the name of the "Law Telephone System of the Metropolitan Telephone and Telegraph Company," and its information on calling Metropolitan subscribers now referred to "Metropolitan subscribers not on the Law System." A few more directories were issued in that style, but by March 1, 1886, a new directory was listed in which "Law" was simply one exchange among the several inherited from the Metropolitan's earlier operation. Metropolitan was now a monopoly. However, its operations did not extend beyond the city as it then was constituted. Two other companies served areas that are today parts of New York City. The city of Brooklyn (today's borough of the same name) and a vast number of towns in today's boroughs of Queens and Staten Island were served (along with the rest of Long Island and a big portion of New Jersey) by a company called the New York and New Jersey Telephone Company, founded in 1883. And most of today's borough of The Bronx was in Westchester County at the time. (All of The Bronx had originally been in Westchester County, but as stated earlier, New York City had annexed a small part of it.) This was the area of service of the Westchester Telephone Company. Though these were three separate companies, they apparently had a good enough relationship (the other two companies may have been controlled by the Metropolitan; or possibly all three were subsidiaries of American Bell Telephone) that a single book was issued containing the directories of all three companies. (At first, it was not really a consolidated directory, however; each company's directory was separately paginated and had its own typography and company-specific information, and it simply was a case of binding three directories in one cover.) This book covered a much bigger area than today's New York City; in particular, it included the entire service area of NY&NJTC, well into New Jersey, as well as all of Long Island (and all of Westchester County, which was served by WTC).

Each of the three companies had its own policies, of course, and some differed. For example, MT&TC, in 1894, was using different exchanges (with letter designations from H to W) for pay telephones than served ordinary subscribers' phones (see Note 14 on the alphabetic list of exchange names); NY&NJTC served pay telephones from the same exchanges that served subscribers' phones. (This particular MT&TC idiosyncrasy ended in 1895, though.)

In 1896 the Metropolitan Telephone and Telegraph Company and the Westchester Telephone Company were merged, forming the New York Telephone Company (the name that survived until the 1984 breakup of the Bell System). (See above. It might be noticed that the corporate officers of NYTC were identical to those of the earlier MT&T.) And a consolidated directory was issued listing places in both NYTC and NY&NJTC's territories, though in the name of both. But NY&NJTC continued well into the 20th Century, even though after 1898 Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island were parts of New York City. (And a 1904 directory still referred to the "City of Brooklyn"!)

The first directory that did not show both names was dated October 14, 1909; the corporate existence of NY&NJTC actually continued rather longer. Vestiges of the separate existence of the two companies even continued after the disappearance of the name of the NY&NJTC from the directory, as there were separate listings for Manhattan and The Bronx, for Brooklyn and Queens, and for Staten Island in the early dial period. (Staten Island was separated from Brooklyn and Queens, because in the early dial period it was not dialable from the rest of New York City.)

During this period, the Telephone Companies experimented with a number of different directory formats. In some years (such as in the vicinity of 1910), a single consolidated directory covered New York City but extended for a large distance from the city, including numbers in parts of New Jersey and New York State far beyond the areas that eventually became the metropolitan dialing area of New York City. Since all numbers, local or not, had to be completed by an operator, so the calling procedure was really the same for local and distant numbers, this may have made some sense. And the directory was still considered to be a joint issue of the New York Telephone Company and the New York and New Jersey Telephone Company.

The listings at that time were still divided into sections, alphabetically by geographic area (I use the term "geographic area" for several quite different-sized units, for want of a better name: Brooklyn was one, "New York," referring to Manhattan and the Bronx only, was another, each of various neighborhoods in Queens was another, and little villages in New Jersey were others.) For more detail, see the page on "Turn-of-the-century directory formats." From May 1905 to February 1912, too, the format of the telephone numbers themselves was reversed from what later became common; the exchange name appeared after the line number (though in the same book, some advertisements had the exchange first, so it is clear that the Telephone Company accepted numbers in both formats. And in other documents, not issued by the Telephone Company, I have seen both formats for numbers.) Beginning May 1, 1908, a separate directory was issued for New York City, but with the listings divided into three parts: one for Manhattan and The Bronx, one for Brooklyn and Queens, and one for Staten Island. The change back from exchange after number to exchange before number in the directory listings occurred in the directory dated Feb. 1, 1912; however, earlier directories already had Telephone Company office numbers listed in the front matter in exchange-first format; advertisements in both pre-Feb. 1, 1912 and post-Feb. 1, 1912 directories could be found with numbers in both formats.

During the pre-dial period, there was no reason to standardize the number of digits in a line number; it was easier to tell an operator "Harlem 77" than "Harlem 0077." But about 1907, some 9000 series numbers were changed to 12000 series numbers, so some numbers were (as stated above) five digits and an exchange. Even through the early dial period and into the late dial period, these anomalous numbers remained, requiring eight dial pulls instead of seven. The shorter numbers, however, were built up to four digits, so a number like "Harlem 77" became "HARlem 0077." (But some party lines had extra letters after the four digits, necessitating eight dial pulls as well.)

Shortly before the institution of dial service, the New York Telephone Company apparently began to plan for dial service, and renamed several exchanges that would cause conflicts. For example, there could not be both "GREeley" and "GREenpoint", because both would dial identically. Less obviously, there could not be both "EASt New York" and "FAR Rockaway." So in each case, one of the exchanges of such a pair was renamed.

For an alphabetical listing of the exchanges in this period (still very incomplete!) click here.

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 February 19, 2015.

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