Research Tip: Recalling the Names of Long-Ago Telephone Exchanges, While Using Old Phone Books

You’ve probably heard that Verizon is talking about doing away with the phone book as we know it.  The delivery of these works virtually marked the arrival of fall, as the latest annual directory arrived at mailboxes throughout Cecil County.  Those directors, averaging more than 300 pages of names, information, and advertising for people and businesses in Cecil County in recent years were once frequently referred to in area homes while being used to obtain phone numbers, check the spelling of names, locate addresses, or find business services.

While these directories have experienced declining routine use, these annually published works have noteworthy potential as a source for historical and genealogical research.  The books have been published for over 100 years in the mid-Atlantic, says Stephanie Hobbs the spokesperson for the Verizon Superpages, and “from the very beginning someone always wanted to advertise in them.”  Granted the early ones were thin affairs, but they spoke volumes about what was happening in Cecil County the year they were published.

Early in 1900, as the Diamond State Phone Company was busy installing instruments for J. Harvey Grove, Thomas Freeman, Ed Taylor, G. W. Biles, and A. G. Brown, it published a directory in the Cecil Whig.  This, the first local listing of subscribers that we have located, was a simple register of individuals who had the latest instrument of communications and their phone numbers.  Most were clustered in Elkton (70) and North East (12), but there were “talking machines” in, Childs, Bay View, Providence, Singerly, and Chesapeake City.  There were even “public pay phones” in some of these places.

With each passing year the content in the publication grew.  By 1908, as the Peninsula was becoming a “network of wires” and the instrument was coming more and more into general use, the Cecil Farmers’ Telephone Company in Rising Sun issued an eight page publication.  Its exchanges, Port Deposit and Rising Sun, had 182 subscribers.   By 1945, the Chesapeake and Potomac publication contained 48 pages and included yellow pages with headings that are recognizable today.

In addition to phone company publications, there are city directories.  Companies such as R. L. Polk and Con Survey published these works here, and they contain more information.  A listing in one of these valuable volumes lists the adult family members living in the house, it provides the exact street address, and it contains occupational information.  These special publications contain what is called a “reverse” street directory, which lists streets alphabetically with the names of people residing at each address.         

To help researchers, the Historical Society of Cecil County, some years ago, started acquiring directories, and today we have a collection.  Take, for example, the one for 1942.  It had 60 pages and lists numbers for places such as the Jail (Elkton-64), the Rising Sun Hotel (Rising Sun-132), and the Water Witch Fire Company (Port Deposit – 2871).  Oh, by-the-way, a toll call from Port Deposit to Perryville was five cents that year.  Or consult the 1945 book for a list of theatres:  the New Theatre in Elkton; North East Theatre; Riverside in Port Deposit; Rio in Chesapeake City; and Sun in Rising Sun. 

Some months ago, someone wanted help identifying the precise years the duBose Funeral Home was located on North Street in Elkton.  Well, the phone books were the way to answer that question for as we let our fingers do the walking through the yellow pages and were able to quickly determine the years the listing started and stopped.

Here is a tip for developing dating clues from this source.  Into the 1950s, telephone numbers were listed by naming the exchange and three or four digits for each connection.  The Cecil Theatre was thus listed as Cecilton – 3551.  However, starting in the mid-1950s, the exchanges switched to various names, which involved dialing two letters and five numbers so, for example, Keetley Motor was DRake 5-5481 in 1956.  Port Deposit was the first exchange to switch to this modern dialing convention, but others shortly followed.  Elkton’s exchange was know as EXport 8.  By 1964, the Bell Network eliminated exchange names since it was a source of dialing errors so by 1965, the number for Union Hospital was 398-4000 (not EXport 8 – 4000).  You may consult the directories for specific years to see when the various exchanges changed dialing conventions.

Such ordinary, everyday things as phone books, when they are published annually for over 100 years here, can be a particularly valuable tool to unearth genealogical and historical data.

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3 responses to “Research Tip: Recalling the Names of Long-Ago Telephone Exchanges, While Using Old Phone Books

  1. hey mike, cecilton/earleville was CRestwood 5 (275) and i think warwick was SKyline 5 (755). when you told someone your phone number you would say, “CR5-3268”. sounds funny now.

  2. Thanks for sharing that Elaine. I was trying to find those echange names and the telephone book I was using didn’t have the. I knew you’d remember those numbers.

  3. I am looking for a barber in Port Deposit in 1942 – last name Gillespie., possible first name of Ernest, Homer, or Elde.
    My father trained at Bainbridge and saw his uncle along the street outside a barber shop. There were many barbers in this family from Minnesota to WV. Can you help?

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