A seven-digit piece of my past, salvaged from the Bell archives

black dial phone

Now that’s what I call the right phone for the Manse! Just like we had in the olden days there, when I was growing up in Queensborough. Unfortunately, my new best friend at Bell tells me that dial phones absolutely cannot be used any more. The world has gone mad, I tell you.

Today I worked up the courage to call Bell Canada and see about getting a phone line for the Manse.

Now of course you are asking yourself: why on earth did it take courage to contact Bell about a phone line? Well, I’ll tell you: what I really wanted wasn’t so much the phone line as the phone number. And not just any phone number either; I was hoping against hope that I could get the same number that the Manse had all those years ago when I was growing up there.

I’d been putting off inquiring about it for months and months because I was afraid Bell would tell me in no uncertain terms that there wasn’t a chance of that – that the number had been permanently retired or, more probably, had been put out of circulation for a while and then given to someone else. I really really really wanted our old number back, but I feared the chances were slim.

And that fear pretty much came true in my first conversation with a Bell representative. The guy (who spoke very very very loudly) didn’t seem sure of much of anything, was unable to find the old number, asked some odd questions (like: what were the phone numbers of our neighbours in Queensborough. What has that got to do with anything?), and held out little to no hope that anything could be done. Then he started going on about filling out some sort of application and the charges that this would entail, at which point I figured I’d had enough of dealing with someone who didn’t know what he was talking about and bid him sayonara.

Ah, but then my luck turned. I called again, and this time I got the wonderful Christine, someone who had obviously been with the company for a long time and knew – I mean, really knew – how things work and how to get stuff done. I explained – as I had for the first guy, who gave no evidence of actually listening to what I was saying – that I’d bought the rural Ontario house I grew up in, and was hoping against hope to get the phone number my family once had there. And you know what? Christine listened, and she cared. She too expressed skepticism that it could be done, but said she’d try. Then she put me on hold for a few minutes, apologized for the delay when she came back on the line, and announced that (through a little bit of hook and crook on  her part, I gathered) she had got me the number!

I am totally thrilled by this – and by Christine, who was awesomely helpful. The line is to be connected sometime next month. I love the closing-of-the-circle feel of this.

red dial phone

Sadly, my funky red Cold War-era rotary-dial phone is apparently no longer usable.

But speaking of circles, my only regret in the story is this: Christine tells me that there’s absolutely no way we can use a rotary-dial phone at the Manse, that the old dial technology just won’t work anymore. And this even after I told her about the cool red dial phone that I acquired several years ago at a Montreal antique shop (and keep handy for when I need to get Khrushchev on the blower). Nope, said Christine, that was the one thing she could not do for me.

Oh all right then. No rotary phones for us. No party line, either, I guess. (Hey, wait a minute: Christine didn’t even mention the possibility of a party line!) But I got what matters most: the number to reach the Sedgwicks (and the Brassards) at the Manse in Queensborough. Same as it ever was.

34 thoughts on “A seven-digit piece of my past, salvaged from the Bell archives

  1. Katherine, don’t give up yet. I have an old dial phone just like yours. If you plug it in, you cannot dial out, but it will ring ( the old satisfying brrring) and you can use it as an extension because you can still hear and speak on it if the other phone is in use. Brings back memories of our old party line shared by SEVEN families! We are in BC so it may be different here.

    • Now this is excellent information, Elinor – thank you! So if your BC experience holds true in rural Ontario, we will probably put the “real” phone downstairs (right where the downstairs dial phone used to be, of course) and my get-Khrushchev-on-the-line red phone upstairs in the study, where the “extension” used to be. What fun!

  2. 473-2110!!! It’s Daryl or Larry on the line! Is it bad form to put your number up on the world wide witchcraft?

      • We still have ours from when we moved in in 1970. I’m not sure if we “inherited” this number from Ed Alexander or not, though.

        Our party line was supposed to involve 4 households but we had to share only with McMurray’s store.

      • So I guess with the long-ago closure of McMurray’s store you’re alone on the “party line” now, right? Question: are you still paying the lower price for a party line? Actually, more pressing question: do party lines still exist? (I kind of think the phone at the Sedgwick farmhouse in Haliburton County is still on a party line, but it could again be a case of a party line with only one user.) Anyway, cool that you’ve been able to keep the same number all along!

      • Hmmm….I seem to recall that party lines were gradually eliminated by the late 1970s or early 1980s. But in our case, because my older brother spent hours on the phone with his girlfriend around 1973, the McMurrays went to a private line. So, by default, we became a party line of one, just like your Sedgwick farmhouse.

        Speaking of party lines, do you remember your ring sequence?

        We had the lower pricing for the old rotary system until the winter of 2011. My father went to a retirement home in March 2011 for 5 months so we had the number cancelled. When he returned home 5 months later, our old number was still available [Bell reserves it for 6 months, I believe]. But, alas, we were forced to “upgrade” to touch-tone service [so that Bell could upgrade the monthly fee, no doubt]. Note: As part of an ancient CRTC ruling, Bell couldn’t force touch-tone service on to existing customers. But any time there was a service interruption, the upgrade would become mandatory.

      • Oh, I feel your pain, Graham. Being charged for touch-tone service when you don’t even have or use it – well, don’t get me (or thousands of other Canadians) started. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I do have and use touch-tone services here in Montreal. But in Queensborough, probably not. Though we can all be sure Bell will charge me for those services anyway.

  3. When we moved into The Old Railway Station in Queensborough 5 years ago, there were 2 rotary phones in use in the house. And I mean IN USE. We replaced them with new phones but kept the old ones (they have been great props for several plays etc for the kids at school!)
    I just plugged both of them in to our 2 phone lines and GUESS WHAT! They both work – I can DIAL OUT as well as receive calls! As I don’t have a * on the dial I could not retrieve voice mail – so that may be why the Bell Lady was insisting that this type of phone won’t work as the new features which use the * button won’t work.
    But it worked for me to do the basics! There is still hope for your get-Khrushchev-on-the-line red phone…

    • Hey, thank you for doing that rotary-phone test, Sally – and for the good news on the positive result! So the Khrushchev phone will soon be at the Manse and ready to try out. Hey, who needs all that * stuff anyway?

  4. Rotary phones work just fine – we have some and it is indeed possible to dial out and receive calls. Ten digit dialing has rendered them a bit painful to use but apart from that they work fine.

    • Thank you for the dial-phone encouragement, Brad! You do make a good point, though, about dialling probably being a lot more tedious now that one generally has to use 10 digits. When I was a kid at the Manse one could still just dial the final number of the three-digit prefix plus the four last numbers, and that would do it. We would have thought it was kooky to have to dial the area code for a local call. Simpler days… But meanwhile, I am quite tickled to know that I probably can use my red dial phone!

      • I remember being able to call the extension phone inside the same house!

      • I think we had to simply dial a few digits and then hang up so that all of the phones would ring.

      • I remember being able to dial out on the old rotary phones by simply pressing the spring-loaded button on the handset cradle in the same sequence as the normal pulse code. Nowadays, one has to sing like a canary to dial out without using the numeric keypad.

  5. Hey, this is your best post in a while…..at the manse. (<<< see what I did there ?). That is so cool, to have your old #. I know you'll think I'm crazy, but the whole story / methodology used in the North American phone system is absolutely fascinating. Mexico was supposed to be part of that system, but opted out at some point, and the area code for Mexico City went to Toronto instead !! Also, they used the lower-numbered area codes for big cities, and high numbered coded for less populated regions, so that the largest number of people would have less dialing on the rotary phones…..that's why NYC is 212-…etc, and why a place like NS is 902…913 Kansas etc…

    • I don’t think you’re crazy at all, Mark – I love early-technology esoterica like How The Phone System Got Set Up In The First Place. And clearly you know a lot about it, so thanks for sharing! I never knew the business about the low-numbered area codes going to big cities, but it makes perfect sense. It’s so interesting to learn the stories behind the technology and infrastructure that we now just totally take for granted, acting like it was always there. But as you remind us: at one point, it was all brand new!

  6. What ever happened to the mnemonic abbreviations for phone numbers such as “KLOndike 2442” or “TREmont 3106”? [More examples at http://www.artlebedev.com/mandership/91/%5D. Since the letters associated with the numerals “4”, “7”, “3” are “GHI”, “PQRS”, and “DEF”, respectively, perhaps your short form could be “GREat 2110” or “IREne 2110”.

    PhoneSpell provides several suggestions for all 7 digits: http://phonespell.org/combo.cgi?n=4732110

      • I was researching telephone keypads at Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telephone_keypad] and noticed that the top row of a typical touch-tone phone consists of “1, 2, 3”, etc. This is the same as on my Sony Xperia.

        Yet, the order is reversed [ie, top row consists of “7, 8, 9”] on most calculators, including the calculator on my Xperia and on my Windows desktop AND on my PC keyboard.

        I wonder what effect this dichotomy in interfaces has on error rates?

      • No, no. I “remember” them from TV shows of 50s & 60s vintage.

        But with your new phone, we can restart the tradition, “IREne 2110”. Or, do you prefer GREat 2110?

        [Aside: unless I get into Chinese names, I can’t seem to make a good mnemonic for my cell number. Sigh.]

  7. Hey, how fortunate you are to get the old number back.! Our old number at home was 37Ring2 but it was unavailable. If I were you, I would have an old dial phone converted to push button and thus complete the retro look.

    • I know, Grant and Gayle! I am just so pleased about having the old number. (Though will be more pleased when the installation is all done and I’m sure that everything is a go.) And now that some commenters have told me that dial phones will work, I am all set to bring our red dial phone to the Manse, where it will look just perfect. Question: how does 37Ring2 translate into numbers that one actually dials?

  8. So Katherine I must have missed this entry because I just saw it now as I try and catch-up on posts. Just so you know, The Old Hastings Mercantile & Gallery and The Old Ormsby Schoolhouse both have old rotary dial phones that work perfectly well in every way. Calls in or out and no one ever told us they wouldn’t work. In fact Lillian and I have used 3 different rotary phones as we find older and older ones. Hopefully you’ll have the same success. One of our memorable moments was a young person asking to use the phone and of course having no idea how to start with the dial. Sort-of like our on-going education on how to use the built-in bottle opener on our 60s water-chilled Coke machine. You just can’t twist-off the lids of those little Coke bottles!

    • Good to know about the phone, Gary. Yeah, when you think of the arcane knowledge that we people of a certain age have: how to dial a phone, how to use one of those old Coke machines (aren’t they wonderful?) – and most especially, how to make change!

  9. I had a red phone exactly like the one in the photo. Then, I decided to get touch-tone and gave the phone back to Bell (fool that I am.) I’m wondering about the advice from Bell, regarding their statement that rotary dial phones cannot be used on today’s systems. I say that, because I still have a rotary dial phone. I don’t use it, as I like the convenience of auto-dial, numbers in directory, etc. Still, it does work. When we had the Ontario power blackout a few summers ago, my other phones would not work. But, the rotary one did work, and the there was enough juice in the line to make the bell ring. Mind you, you cannot use the rotary dial phone when touch-tone is needed (“press 1 for this, 2 for that”), but it still does take and make phone calls. So, I think Bell needs to brush up on their statements.

    • You’re absolutely right. The red phone works perfectly well, except when you’re confronted with a “Push 1 for…” or “Push 2 for…” situation. And even then, sometimes if you just stay on the line you get a real human. Bonus!

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