Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–When Phone Numbers Had Letters/Words

Remember when, if someone asked you your phone number, you said something like “SW2-3456” or “SWeetbriar2-3456”? And if you were dialing, you looked for those letters or the first two letters in the name on your phone dial (that’s where “dialing” came from). SW was 79.

Those names were tied to phone exchanges and corresponded roughly to geographic areas of town. The four most popular in the immediate Youngstown area were:

  • RIverside (74): Downtown and Northside
  • SKyline (75): Boardman, Poland, Struthers area
  • STerling (78): Southside
  • SWeetbriar (79): West side, Austintown

In the 1920’s, your phone number was just four numbers, for example 2345. Eventually, as populations grew, a fifth number was added, allowing up to about 50,000 numbers. In some areas, a three letter prefix followed by four numbers was eventually added (for example COLumbus-2345). By 1950, the Bell system standardized the two letter-five number sequence across the country, creating the two letter prefixes and standardized names (ST for example could only be STate, STerling, STillwell, or STory). And like the picture above, your phone probably had a sticker in the center of the dial with the two letter prefix with the rest of the exchange name in lower case following followed by five numbers in this form x-xxxx. A name and five numbers seems easier to remember for some than seven numbers.

By the late 1950’s, the transition began to all-number calling. In Youngstown, this change occurred some time in the mid-1960’s. The January 1966 Vindicator still had alphanumeric numbers. By January 1967, ads showed all-number phone numbers. This facilitated direct dialing of long distance calls as well (remember when operators, who knew the area codes, would place these for you?). Before we had phones with built in memories, we had to write down or remember ten numbers–a more difficult challenge.

The alphanumeric system is not completely gone. Look at the keypad on your cell phone. Above each number, beginning with 2 you still have the alphabet in groups of three. The only change is that the “Z” has been moved to the 9 and “Q” has been added to 7.

Do you remember the name for your phone exchange growing up? And if you lived in other areas of the Mahoning Valley, what was the name of your exchange? Do you remember the change, and if so, how did you feel about it?

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

12 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–When Phone Numbers Had Letters/Words

  1. On level ground in a heavily populated suburb a mile or two from Lake Erie (Cuyahoga County) ours was REdwood. (I wonder whether it was something more appropriate to the area before the standardization.) By the mid-sixties when I became aware of phone numbers I remember only calling it 73. I knew that it _had_ been RE and probably heard that a few times (maybe saw it on our telephone dial), but at some point I must have read an old reference that filled in the word “Redwood”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember when our number was SW9 and then became 799. At some point there was a 792 added to the area. Not sure if it’s nationwide, but we are now required to dial all ten numbers, including area code, even for local calls.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Always love your posts. However I need to question your reference to SKline.
    I do believe Struthers and Poland were PLaza. Still remember my wife’s old landline number after 48 years,!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Bob,
    I too grew up with a SWeetbriar (79) telephone number. I remember my mom taught me a “shortcut”. You could dial a 4 instead of the 79. I am not sure if any of the other Youngstown exchanges had “shortcuts”.

    Liked by 1 person

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