KANSAS COLLECTION BOOKS
"Wonderful Old Lawrence" by Elfriede Fischer Rowe





Telephone Numbers


     TELEPHONE NUMBERS seem to be getting longer and longer. Years ago, you didn't have a telephone number. When you wanted to talk to a subscriber, you told the operator you wanted to talk to Mr. So and So. She had the list of subscribers printed on a cardboard tacked on the wall near the switchboard. She would refer to that and call your party. And we didn't call her, "Operator". We called her, "Central". Reference was made to ring "Central Office" to place calls, so that probably was the origin of "Central".

     Lawrence had its first phone in 1877. A member of the Ridenour-Baker wholesale grocery company brought back from the east, two telephones of the type invented the year before by Alexander Graham Bell. These phones were connected to a private telegraph line that ran between the wholesale house and a small packing house belonging to the company. Then on January 8, 1878, "the instruments were connected to a line between Chester's Drug Store and Professor Snow's laboratory" at the University of Kansas where they were used for demonstrations. E. P. Chester's drug store was located at 711 Massachusetts Street.

     In 1881, the Merchants Telephone and Telegraph Company was established in an upstairs room at 733 Massachusetts Street and the Central Office was open from 6:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. "Conversation can be carried on at any time between those hours." There were 28 subscribers.

     The earliest published telephone directory we can find was dated September 1, 1885. However, there apparently was one published before that date. The 1885 issue was 8x5 inches and hardly one-half an inch thick. It was published by the Missouri & Kansas Telephone Company in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Lawrence directory was inserted in about the middle of the book, along with Leavenworth, Atchison, and other towns. On the inside cover of the September 1, 1885 issue was printed the following: "Missouri & Kansas Telephone Co. General Telephone directory -- Kansas City and Connected Lines. Destroy all Previous Issues. Call Number instead of name." Advertisements were printed on the narrow borders of each page. They were all of Kansas City firms with the exception of Wilder Brothers Shirt Factory. It was on a separate page on the left side of the first page of the Lawrence subscribers.

     There was no classified section. The first classified directory for Lawrence was printed in 1922 and the pages were pink.

     In the 1885 directory, instructions were given to subscribers: "To call -- give the crank one quick turn" and "When finished, party who called for connection, hang up and give crank one quick turn, as a signal to Central Office to disconnect wires."


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     The phones at that time were wall phones with backs. There was a black crank on the right hand side of the wooden box that held the wires. You turned the crank, with receiver on hook, to signal for the operator. Further instructions were to "Talk close to the Transmitter and in your natural voice" -- "Ring off when through" -- "Give the operator the figures of the number you call for separately, as one-four-one-six instead of fourteen hundred and sixteen."

     On a country line, (Tonganoxie was in the early directories), you didn't have to go through a central office, if the party you were calling was on your particular party line. Neighbors were all on the same party line.

     You could ring your number direct. You would ring, with the receiver down, so many times, like one long ring and then a short one, or perhaps one long and two short -- whatever number and type of rings the party had assigned to him. You could hear the rings whenever a call was made, but you did not answer unless it was your particular ring. If you lifted the receiver, you could hear all of the conversations going on. Sometimes so many of the receivers would be off the hook with listeners, it would be difficult for the original two parties to hear each other. This was particularly true if it were known someone was ill, or about to have a baby.

     Following the wooden wall phones, came the heavy desk upright, black only, kind. Then the cradle type, but also black only and the receivers were very heavy to hold.

     Very few homes had phones at first. In fact, in 1898 when F. C. Penfield, uncle of Dr. H. Penfield Jones, was manager of the Lawrence phone company, the directory had this entry: "A house telephone enables you to make engagements or put them off; to order groceries, call the doctor, turn in a fire alarm or call the police; gives you a chance to let your wife know what time you will be home to dinner. All for Ten Cents a day."

     When phone numbers were put into use, they started with the digit one. As more businesses installed phones, they wanted to keep their same number for the directory. However, if a residence subscriber or business moved to another location, they didn't get to keep their old number. Some of the numbers in the 1890's that were kept for years, were: "1-Kasold's West End Grocers, (Goble's now, 547 Indiana), 48-Lawrence Journal Company; 3-Pendleton, W. H. Grocer, 86 Massachusetts; 2-State University School-Adam, S. of limits; 19-Selig, A. L. Ins. agt. -- Cor. Henry and Mass.; 70- Lawrence National Bank, Corner Winthrop; 30-Merchants National Bank-Merchants Bank Bldg.; 161-3- Mitchell, A. C. Residence-82l Miss. (3 designated 3 rings-party line); 170-Reedy Bros. cider and vinegar-East Warren; 93-Barteldes, F. & Co., wholesale seeds -- 102 Mass.; 178 -- Jaedicke, F. W. Hard-


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ware Store, 724 Mass.; 236 -- Smithmeyer, F. H. 801 Indiana; 203 -- Ober Clothing, 821 Mass."

     In 1918, party lines were designated by a color, black, blue, red, and white; i.e. 2180-blue. Then colors were dropped and letters were used: 1215-red changed to 1215-J. Also in 1918, "2700-Kans. Univ. Private branch exchange" was listed in the directory. Now K.U. is listed as UN 4-2700. For 50 years the University had the number 2700.

     By 1905, Lawrence had two telephone companies. The Missouri and Kansas Tel. Company had moved into their new brick building at 734 Vermont Street. A new independent company owned by the Kansas City Long Distance Tel. Co., was in a new 2-story building across the street. While the two companies were in operation, many business houses had to have both systems. You could only call those subscribers on each system. At home, if you wanted to call someone on the other system, you had to go over to a neighbor who was on that other system, and use his phone to call. Both companies seemed to prosper, but World War I forced the two systems to merge. In 1917, the Missouri and Kansas Tel. company took over the Kansas City Long Distance Tel. Co. Nine years later, Southwestern Bell absorbed the Missouri and Kansas Tel. Company.

     Long distance calling was not used extensively at first. To begin with, you had to go to the Central Office to place your call and then stand up to talk. Western Union telegrams were used by business and for personal use. Direct telephone lines for out of town talking, were not in existence. Phone calls had to be relayed from station to station across the country. Sometimes if there was a heavy storm at some distant point, the connections would be so poor the calls were either re-routed or the operators would take the message and relay it along the lines.

     With the advent of World War II, the urgency of getting things going in a hurry, brought long distance telephone service to the front. Like many other things, priority on phone calls came into being. Sunflower Ordnance Works had priority No. 2. The Manhattan Project (H Bomb), had No. 1. This meant that all long distance calls coming into or going out of Sunflower were put through before any personal or business calls could be completed. Conference hookups came into use. Recording of conversations between army and civilians over these hookups were made. Sometimes these mechanics failed. Secretaries would be called in to take down as much as possible by shorthand in case of mechanical failures.

     Before the advent of the dial system in Lawrence in 1955, the telephone operator was an unsung heroine. She was the source of all information. She would give you the time of day, or the temperature. If you heard the fire bell ringing or the Wild Cat whistle at the water works, you would pick up the receiver and


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ask the operator where the fire was, or why was the whistle blowing. If you tried to get a friend on the phone and the operator reported the line was busy, you asked her to call you back when they had finished.

     One prominent lawyer's wife had the habit of talking at great length with her friends. One day the attorney had to go out of town right away and tried to get hold of his spouse to tell her. The line was busy, and kept on being busy. Finally, in exasperation, he told the operator to cut in on the conversation and tell his wife to hang up, he wanted to talk to her. She did, and he did.

     Today, about the only contact you have with a warm, friendly operator, is when you place a person to person call with her. Perhaps the time may come when that last contact will also be mechanized. We hope not.


Printed in Lawrence Journal-World, Jan. 31, 1969



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