By Neil Whaley, Guest Blogger
I collect vintage Vancouver items and I like to be able to pin down the date they were created as accurately as possible. Phone numbers on items are helpful; many telephone exchanges in Vancouver existed only for a certain number of years, so they can provide a useful date range.
I was surprised that there wasn’t a list of phone exchange dates online, so I started compiling an ad hoc list. Then I looked at antique shows for issues of the BC Tel employee publication called Telephone Talk, which had news about ‘cutovers’ as one exchange closed and a new exchange replaced it. Eventually, someone mentioned to me that UBC’s Rare Books and Special Collections division in the Irving K. Barber Library has a complete collection of Telephone Talk (1911-1961). I sat in UBC’s library for days until I had gone through every issue. Newspaper articles and BC Tel phone books helped fill in remaining gaps, and I could be satisfied that I had accurate information for all exchanges up to 1965.
Here are the dates of local telephone exchanges:
A Few Notes on Exchanges
If no telephone exchange is shown with a number, a phone number from the City of Vancouver (not the suburbs) is from before June 1911; that was the time that a second exchange was introduced in Vancouver. Before that, there was just one unnamed exchange. The Seymour equipment was in use for years before June 1911, but it didn’t get the Seymour name until there was more than one exchange.
An R-F number is the Douglas exchange in 1920. It was called R-F for a few months before being renamed Douglas.
A single letter before numbers is how Vancouver two-party and four-party shared lines were written until June 1911; after that, party lines were shown as one letter after the number.
The first two letters of an exchange represent numbers on a rotary telephone’s dial. For example, MNO is 6 and TUV is 8, so MUtual 1-6437 is 681-6437. (For a few early exchanges, letters don’t match numbers. This is the case mainly in the suburbs).
A Vancouver number as short as “Seymour 3” existed until 1939. Numbers as long as “Seymour 8585” existed as early as 1911.
Vancouver had no 7-digit numbers before 1956; the entire city was 7-digit by late 1960.
The first two letters of an exchange were often emphasized in print; for example, Bayview might be written BAyview or BA.
Beginning in the early 1960s, BC Tel gradually discontinued the practice of writing the first two numbers as letters. The 1966 phone book was the first one to use only numbers. Some businesses continued to write their phone numbers in the old-fashioned way, but it is likely that any document showing letters as part of a phone number is from before 1970.
‘Telephone Talk’ Anecdotes
A few surprising stories surfaced while I was working through Telephone Talk looking for exchange info:
- Vancouver had phones from its earliest days. When the three-month-old city suffered the Great Fire in 1886, phone lines outside the fire zone were used to make arrangements for relief.
- When U.S. President Warren Harding visited Vancouver in 1923, BC Tel pre-arranged with U.S. phone companies that Harding would be able to reach Washington, DC. BC Tel proudly reported that when a call was placed in Vancouver, it took only 20 minutes to connect to Washington.
- When transatlantic long distance service was launched in 1928 — at a time when a Coca-Cola cost a nickel — a call from Vancouver to London, England cost $57 for the first three minutes, $19 for each additional minute, and $5 if the party could not be reached.
- Newspaper photos were transmitted through phone lines (or ‘wired’) directly from Vancouver for the first time in 1939 during the Royal Visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the current Queen’s mother). Prior to that, photos were mailed to a Seattle transmitter station.