Phone Exchanges: Tools for Local Historians

CVA 1184-2842 - [B.C. Telephone operator] 1940-48 Jack Lindsay.

CVA 1184-2842 – Vancouver switchboard operators for BC Tel, ca 1940-48, Jack Lindsay photo. The transition to “automatic” dialing in different areas of Vancouver led to the end and start of numerous exchanges from 1939 to the mid-1950s. The project was barely complete when everything changed again with the switch to 7-digit numbers. To accommodate continent-wide direct dialing of long distance numbers, every number in the city was changed to 7 digits between 1956 and 1960 (and into the ’60s for some surrounding communities). The 604 area code was introduced in 1957 and direct dialing began in select BC cities in 1961.

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:

T1

T2

T3

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.
CVA 180-1219 - B.C. Telephone exhibit on dial telephones 1941 PNE.

CVA 180-1219 – BC Tel exhibit on how the dial telephone functions, 1941. PNE photo. The Marine telephone exchange was the first exchange (1939) to enable Vancouverites to dial local calls themselves instead of using an operator. BC Tel explained the new system at the 1941 PNE. “Automatic” dialling had been in place in Chilliwack, Aldergrove and Victoria since 1929-30 but the Great Depression delayed its introduction in the City of Vancouver.

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8 Responses to Phone Exchanges: Tools for Local Historians

  1. lhhouben says:

    Fascinating! My parents had Hemlock for their number. They lived in Vancouver just over the Boundary border.

  2. Tim Woodland says:

    Thanks for doing this Neil! I have long been fascinated with this subject and you have really added to the knowledge base.

  3. jmv says:

    A most useful resource! Thanks Neil & M! And ps: footnote to me for being the one who said UBC had the complete run of ‘Telephone Talk’! 😉

  4. Angus McIntyre says:

    Thanks for the complete list of exchange names, Neil. Office prefixes told us who lived where: WAlnut in West Vancouver was more prestigious than ALpine in East Hastings. I applied for my first telephone service (REgent) from B.C. Tel in 1967, when I moved into the Fairmont Apartments. No private lines were available, so I had a party line for ten years. The parties were always in the building, and I always knew who I was linked to. The cost in 1967 was $5.15 per month, about $40.00 today using the inflation calculator. 85% of B.C. Tel’s phones were party lines then, much higher than other Canadian cities. Doctors generally had private lines, but my 1958 phone book shows Gordon Shrum, later chairman of B.C. Hydro, on a party line at AL ma-0609-L. Another oddity was the B.C. Direct Distance Dialling code until 1985 was 112 and the area code, whereas everywhere else it was just 1. If you call my number today, the greeting starts out as: “You have reached CAstle 4-” as a nod to those bygone days of exchange names. Trivia: When you are out and about in the City of Vancouver , and you see a B.C. Tel manhole cover, many of them have the access code in raised letters and numbers. These are tied to the exchange building, and use the first two letters of the old exchange names. For example, in Kitsilano, you will see “Re18” for a manhole connected to the REgent exchange. In Kerrisdale: Am33 for AMherst.

  5. Jan West says:

    I grew up in Point Grey. My number was ALma 3658M. Friend Linda was ALma 2492M. Lorraine’s was ALma 0208M. Now, please tell me what I had for breakfast….!!!

  6. aecollector says:

    Great job Neil! Ironically I have been working on a similar project of bc telephone history for several years now and one of my sources of information is the bc telephone talks employee magazines. I have about 80% of 400 plus that were published. Did you happen to make a list of each issue published? There are some issues missing in my set that quite likely were never published for one reason or another. Terry

  7. ModernPhonePhreak says:

    I was looking at an archived version of the Vancouver Sun for Sunday March 2, 1959 and found a BC Telephone Company advertisement on page 24 that might be useful. A link to the advertisement can be found at: https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=OIllAAAAIBAJ&sjid=_4kNAAAAIBAJ&pg=2862%2C116509

    The above link gives information as to the former and new exchanges and how the telephone numbers are converted.

    Another article of interest on page 7 of the same edition is also of interest. It includes a picture of a BC Tel switchman cutting over the Glenburn exchange in Burnaby.

    https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=OIllAAAAIBAJ&sjid=_4kNAAAAIBAJ&pg=2541%2C34304

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