Oh, look, junior’s using the phone. How precious is that? Wait – is he talking to the chief of police?

Today, every family album has an adorable picture of a toddler sitting at a computer, and a century ago, it was too-cute when the little ones spoke on the telephone. It was even newsworthy; in 1908, both Santa Rosa papers had stories about kids using phones. Before Christmas that year, several children asked the operator to connect them with Santa Claus. After a bit of head-scratching at the telephone office, it was decided that their calls were to be transferred to the Chief Operator, who ho-ho-ho’d and took down their present requests. And then there was the five-year-old who called the police chief to report his missing tricycle; unable to understand what the child was saying, an officer rushed to the house to find out exactly why the boy had summoned help.

Telephones were still regarded as cutting-edge technology, and some adults remained uncomfortable or uncertain about how to operate the things; one of the Santa Rosa newspapers had printed articles on telephone use and etiquette the year before (“the undignified ‘Hello’ seems to have come to stay”). The UI was also in flux; although you still initiated a call by speaking to an operator, the procedure of indicating who you wanted to contact was becoming complex and confusing.

Until 1905, it was possible for someone in Santa Rosa to ask for a connection by name: “Get me John Smith.” The proliferation of home and business telephones now required numbers be assigned to each line, which meant that telephone books also had to be printed and distributed. Exchanges were also added at the same time: In Santa Rosa there primarily was “Red,” Black” and “Main,” so someone trying to reach John Smith would be required to provide an exchange and number, such as “Red 333.”

I also found four digit numbers sometimes mentioned in the newspapers around that time; if that many numbers were available there really was no need for an exchange system at all, as Santa Rosa’s population would not surpass 10,000 for a couple of decades. And stranger still, I sometimes saw letters included after the numbers, such as “333Y.” Huh? It was an odd little history puzzle and I probably never would have figured it out, had I not stumbled across the article below.

The core of problem was that there were still many party lines in use, and the operator had to know how many “rings” to send to alert a particular customer. Thus if John Smith expected two rings, his number might be “Red 3332” – the last of the four digits indicated the number of rings needed (it might be better understood as “Red 333-2,” for ex).

Even with the “ring” suffix, it was the direct ancestor of the seven-digit system we use today. Similarly, Oakland and San Francisco were at the time using an exchange+4, such as “Kearny 4444.” As the city grew, this provided the flexibility to create another exchange and be good for another 9,999 connections. But in 1908, some genius at the telephone company imposed a telephone ID system in Santa Rosa that made no sense whatsoever.

Gone were the exchanges; now you gave the operator a three-digit number, followed by the letter R, Y, J, or L. The first two letters corresponded with the old Red exchange, the latter two with the old Black exchange. The particular letter indicated one or two rings. So John Smith – originally “Red 333,” then “Red 3332,” was now “333Y.” The reasoning behind the new system was not explained, although the choice of these particular four letters could have had sadistic racist inspiration; the Asian community might have had trouble expressing Americanized R and L hard consonants through the lo-fi transmitter, as Hispanics might have struggled with Y and J.

Judging by ads in the newspapers, this third mod to the telephone system in as many years was not widely accepted. Some advertisers used the suffix, others held on to the old Red and Black exchanges. Many downtown businesses continued to ignore all of it, providing only their old two or three digit number. Rather than making it easier for the operators, it suggests the customer attitude hardened: t’Hell with it all, I’ll just let the “Hello Girl” figure it out for me.

After November 7 There Will Be No More “Red,” “Black” or “Main,” But it Will Be Easier For Patrons

On November 7, at midnight, the Telephone company will change over to its new system and move into its handsome new quarters on Third street. As a result, a number of innovations will be put into effect. As far as the general public is concerned, however, these changes will apply principally to the numbering of the phones.

The old prefixes of “Red,” “Black” and “Main” will be done away with, and everything except suburb and rural lines will be known as “Santa Rosa.” In the new directory this prefix will precede every number. Local subscribers calling main line subscribers will not find it necessary to use the prefix, but may secure the number wanted by simply asking for “268,” or whatever the number may be. Out of town subscribers will merely have to ask for “Santa Rosa 268.”

Another change that will apply to all two-party lines is that the letters “R” and “Y” will hereafter be used to designate the number of bells in the red, and “J” and “L” in the black, instead of the suffixes 1 and 2 as at present.

Everybody may not know that the last figure in the numbers now in vogue simply indicate the number of bells which should be rung, but such is the case. Take the number “Red 2861,” for instance. The “1” means that in calling a subscriber the operator is to ring one bell. If the last figure were 2, the operator would ring two bells.

Under the new arrangement, as stated, these latter figures will be discarded on all two-party lines, and the letter “R” will stand for 1 bell in the red, while “Y” will mean two bells red. “J” will represent 1 in the black, and “L” will stand for 2 bells in the black. “Red 2742” will thus become “Santa Rosa 274Y,” and “Black 2741” will become “274J” to local subscribers, and “Santa Rosa 247J” to subscribers calling up from other towns. By remembering this subscribers getting hold of an old directory will be able to secure the number desired by merely substituting the proper letter for the missing suffix, although the new directory will be out and distributed several days before the changed conditions go into effect. This directory will be effective on and after November 7, at midnight.

– Press Democrat, October 31, 1908

Youthful Citizen Invokes the Help of the Officers

Alex Trachman, the five-year-old son of Dr. and Mrs. H. J. Trachman, sustained a very material loss on Tuesday, when some miscreant stole his tricycle. For several hours during the morning the little chap endeavored to have his father call up the chief of police and report the loss, but to no avail, and so finally taking the matter in his own hands, he climbed on a chair and reaching the telephone, got the ear of “central” and told her that he wanted the chief of police. The connection was made with the office of Chief Rushmore, and Master Alex told his tale of woe in the ear of a sympathizing chief. The boy does not talk very distinctly as yet, and hearing the youthful voice over the phone the chief surmised that something must be wrong at the home, and after learning from the child that he lived on Humboldt street, Police Officer Nick Yeager was detailed to hurry over there and ascertain what the trouble was.

In the meantime Alex hung up the receiver and went into his father’s office and told him he had reported to the chief the loss of his “wheel.” In a few minutes the door bell rang and Mr. Yeager inquired what the trouble was and why he had been called. Mr. Yeager was panting and all out of breath when he reached the door, having made a “hurry-up” trip around the block, fearing that something was wrong at the home, and that the child had been used to summon help.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 11, 1908
Much Diversion Caused at “Central” by Numerous Messages to the Time Honored Gift Bestower

“Number, please.”

“I want Santy Claus.”


“Santy Claus.”

“All right, just a minute.”

This what has been going on over the telephone line at “Central” during the past few days. The first message came over the wire from a child who could barely lisp her desire.

At first the “Hello girl” at the receiving end was puzzled. Manager Morrill was called into conference and Santa Claus began coming in, and Manager Morrill is one of the most kind-hearted of men. And, like the rest of us, he was a child once himself. He is not very old now, either.

Other messages of inquiry for Santa Claus began coming in, and Manager Morrill not wishing to cause the little ones sending their messages disappointment, suggested that for a few days when such reports came for Santa Claus the Chief Operator might impersonate the gift bestower the children all look for on Christmas morn. Consequently the Chief Operator has been taking down names and list of presents desired by the children.

“Just as well to let the children have a good time anyway. Expectancy is half the fun, too,” said Manager Morrill yesterday after he had taken a call for old Santy himself.

The children phoned for every kind of gift calculated to delight the child heart. In some instances parents took this opportunity of ascertaining what the youngsters wanted most for Christmas. In other instances, doubtless, hearts were heavy while the childish prattle went over the wire to the imaginary Santa Claus at the other end, for perchance the wherewithal to procure the presents was not available.

– Press Democrat, December 24, 1908

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