The olden days of telephone service

telephone operators in Owen Sound, 1937

This photo shows telephone operators in Owen Sound, Ont., in 1937; apparently their switchboard was one that many small local Ontario phone companies (which existed before Bell took over everything, and perhaps included the company in Tweed, Ont.) used to use for connections to more distant points. (Photo from

Thanks so much to all of you who have commented on last night’s post about my retrieval of the old Manse telephone number from my childhood! You’ve provided very helpful and encouraging news about dial phones (to wit: that, contrary to what Bell says, they can still be used, which means my vintage red dial model will soon be headed Manse-ward) and lots of intriguing information about, and links to, the early days of telephone use. As I said in reply to a couple of those comments, it is amazing to me how now we don’t even think twice about the phone technology we use every day, forgetting what a wonder it was back when it was new.

Evan Morton, curator of the Tweed and Area Heritage Centre

Evan Morton, the genius behind the Tweed and Area Heritage Centre. The centre is a jewel, and Evan’s history-themed columns in the Tweed News are wonderful.

Anyway, before we leave the telephone theme, I thought I’d share some good tidbits on the subject that have appeared in the Tweed News recently, and that I held onto for just such an occasion as this. They come primarily from Evan Morton’s wonderful Heritage Herald column in the News; Evan is the curator of the Tweed and Area Heritage Centre, and does an outstanding job of collecting and reporting the history of the Tweed area (which includes Queensborough, where the Manse is). Some of the information also comes from the weekly “The Tweed News – Days Gone By” feature, which looks at the stories that were in the headlines 50 and 25 years ago from the week of publication. (I have a sneaking suspicion that Evan has a lot to do with that column too.)

Okay, so from two recent “The Tweed News – Days Gone By” columns, here are two of the latest developments on the telephone-technology front as of 1963 – 50 years ago:

April 17, 1963: When you use your dial telephone for the first time after this Sunday, it is important to emphasize that you must dial the 478 code before the individual number. [Note from Katherine: 478 was (and is) the code for Tweed; in Queensborough we had (and still have) the Madoc prefix, 473.] In some centres, when making local calls, only the last digit of the code was necessary for dialing, but with the newer system, such as we have here, this cannot be done.” Which was really too bad, because dialing just five digits was a lot faster than dialing seven; dialing was time-consuming! Interesting that Tweed had that switchover to seven-digit dialing as early as 1963; at the Manse we continued to be able to dial 3-xxxx for local numbers for some years after my family moved there in July of 1964. (And when I was a cub reporter working at the Port Hope Evening Guide and Cobourg Daily Star in the early 1980s, you could still dial 885- Port Hope numbers by just starting with the 5, and 372- Cobourg numbers starting with just the 2. That didn’t last long, though.)

June 26, 1963: Free calling service between Tweed-Madoc: The long distance charges on telephone calls between Tweed and Madoc will be removed on July 7. Inauguration of this new free-calling service, which follows months of planning, is aimed at making the two communities’ telephone service faster, more useful and more economical, according to Milton Sweeney, Bell Telephone manager for the region. The total number of telephones in Tweed’s local calling area will be raised to more than 2,620. There are some 1,430 telephones in Tweed and 1,190 in Madoc. Basically, the new plan will enable telephone users in Tweed to enjoy the convenience and economy of being able to dial directly to Madoc telephones as freely as they wish. Madoc telephone users will have the same convenient service with Tweed.” Imagine! Free calls between Madoc and Tweed! This seems seriously odd today, given that Madoc and Tweed are about 10 miles apart; why would there ever have been a charge for calling between one town and the other? Then again, as the phone companies make more and more noise about wanting to charge for local calls, one realizes that – well, what goes around comes around. But at least those early-1960s callers got all that “useful and economical” Tweed-Madoc phone service!

Finally, in Evan’s Heritage Herald column of this past June 26, he talked about the days when people had to go to a place of business (in the early days of Tweed phone service, P.K. Newton’s Drug Store) in order to make a phone call. “Telephone service,” Evan writes, “matched the store hours, closing at 7 p.m. weekdays, and at 9 p.m. Saturdays. An urgent call on a Sunday required the telephone line in the Newton home… There was one long-distance line, to Napanee, where calls would be switched to distant points of the Bell network. Weather conditions dictated the success or failure of long distance calls: ideal weather permitted clear reception to Toronto or Montreal; bad weather created such static interference on the line that calls were restricted to Belleville.”

Really, it’s only 50 years ago but it sounds like 150. Though there’s this: internet/cellphone service in the Madoc-Tweed area continues to be dicey (don’t ask me how I know) and sometimes dependent on the weather, just like those long-distance calls of long ago. Et alors: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

2 thoughts on “The olden days of telephone service

  1. Interestingly enough, calls to/from Marmora were long-distance for the longest time. Apparently, the Marmora telephone exchange was one of the last private exchanges in Ontario. I “think” it became a local call from Madoc-Tweed-Belleville dialing zone in the 1980s.

    In another interesting though not quite related tidbit, TELEGRAPH service is ending in India:

    Does anyone still remember their Morse code?

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