Our Numbered Days: The Evolution of the Area Code

Long-distance digits long ago shed their monetary worth, but they gained something else in its place: cultural value.
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Women at work at the telephone switchboard, 1914 (Library of Congress)

In the mid-20th century, in response to the United States’ rapidly expanding telephone network, executives at the Bell System introduced a new way of dialing the phone. Until then, for the most part, it was human operators—mostly women—who had directed calls to their destinations.

Dialing systems had reflected this reliance on the vocal cord. Phone numbers weren’t numbers; they were alphanumeric addresses, named after phone exchanges that encompassed particular geographic areas. The Elizabeth Taylor movie Butterfield 8 gets its name from that system: The Butterfield exchange served the tony establishments of Manhattan's Upper East Side. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, should you have attempted to call their apartment, were apparently reachable with a request for "Murray Hill 5-9975." 

That system evolved, slowly. In 1955, AT&T—after it researched ways to minimize misunderstandings when it came to spoken phone directions—distributed a list of recommended exchange names featuring standardized abbreviations. (Butterfield 8 would become, under that system, BU-8; Murray Hill 5-9975 would have been shortened to MU 5-9975.) But engineers at Bell had been conducting their own research into the scalability of the name-and-number system. They had ambitions to expand the national phone network; their own research had concluded, among other things, that the country could not supply enough working women to meet its growing demand for human operators.

Automation, Bell concluded, would be the future of telephony. And "All-Number Calling"—no names, anymore, just digits—would be the way to get there.

***

I want to tell you about the controversy the Bell System's embrace of numeracy provoked—how resentful some people became when their familiar method of making phone calls was taken from them. I want to tell you about why the change was necessary, and how it still informs our conception of phone calls and text messages. I want to tell you about the future of the phone number.

But first I want to tell you about the Central Coast of California.

You used to be able to access this sparkling little section of the country, over the phone, by dialing the 408 area code; in 1998, the area stretching south of San Jose, and on down the coast to King City, was split off. It all became, suddenly, 831.

California's current code scheme (NANPA)

I grew up in Carmel, smack in the middle of the new code region; my first cell phone number—the only cell phone number I have ever had—bears that 831 preface. I have held on to those three digits through happily-multiple changes of location (New Jersey, New York, Boston, Washington) and through unhappily-multiple losses of handset. The powers that be—hardware salespeople, cell service representatives—have, at one time or another, tried to force me into a 609 and a 917 and a 617; each time, I have resisted. Because I am not, fundamentally, a 609 or a 917 or a 617. I am not even, my current residence notwithstanding, a 202. I am an 831, wherever I may be in body, and will remain an 831 until they pry those three otherwise totally meaningless digits out of my cold, dead iPhone.

I am not alone in this. As MIT Technology Review’s Brian Bergstein told me:

Of course we didn’t know it at the time, but now it seems that the atomization of area codes was a prelude to the microtargeting that fuels political campaigns and advertising: it refined our perceptions of who people are. When I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, it and all the rest of L.A. was 213. You had to travel a long way to get out of 213, which might have subtly enforced the fallacy that L.A. was actually a coherent city rather than a mere patchwork. Sure, there were always ZIP codes to differentiate fancy neighborhoods from nondescript ones, but a phone number was and is part of an introduction—it’s a calling card in itself, not merely numbers on your actual calling card. You give people your phone number if you like them, not your ZIP code.

So when the Valley became 818 when I was a kid, suddenly the Valley’s separateness became more tangible to me. We weren’t all in it together any more. If you gave someone your phone number you instantly revealed yourself as an other to someone from 213, which covered the side of the city that was cooler than the Valley and its cheesy suburban sprawl. My grandparents lived in 213 and consequently they suddenly seemed more urban to me. Even that image is outdated, though, now that L.A. has even more area codes. My grandparents’ old place has shifted from 213 to 310. The associated vibe is more specific: it’s “West side” rather than “more urban, more interesting half of town.”

Area codes, of course, weren't always simply symbolic. When a "long-distance" call had a monetary value assigned to it, moving meant changing your phone number, almost by default: You couldn’t very well ask your new friends and acquaintances to pay long-distance fees each time they gave you a call. The rise of monthly cell service, with its flattening of the national phone grid, transformed the area code from an economic signal into a purely cultural one—and one that has the ever-more-rare virtue of connecting its owner to a physical place. You could liken an area code, now, to a sports team affiliation. Or to an alma mater. Or to an insistence that soda is properly known as "pop."

“It feels to me a little bit like a screen name,” says Philip Lapsley, the author of Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell. Long ago divested of its original role, the three-digit code now functions as a kind of shared social media handle, a collective identity. It’s no longer something to be remembered—we have our phones for that—but is instead something to be talked about. I meet someone at a party. We exchange numbers. “Oh, 510!” I might say. “I was in Oakland a few weeks ago!”

“And 831!” the new acquaintance might reply. “I love the Aquarium!”

***

We'd owe that conversation, in some part, to the Bell System. And to the 10-digit coding system the telecom giant introduced to, and on behalf of, the American public half a century ago. Which brings us back to 1962.

Bell had begun rolling out its numeric system, the North American Numbering Plan, a decade earlier. Recognizing that users of the phone system (as users of any technology are wont to do when transition comes along) would likely resist the change, the group did so slowly, and strategically. It built in long grace periods for people to accommodate themselves to the new numbers. It produced pamphlets methodically explaining the new system.

Still, people protested. In San Francisco, a group sprang up to battle Bell and its numbering scheme. The Anti-Digit Dialing League—consisting of thousands of members at its height, including the semanticist S.I. Hayakawa—decried Bell's version of digital transition. The all-digit dialing system was evidence of "the cult of technology,” the League argued, not to mention that cult’s "creeping numeralism." To make its point, the group published its own pamphlet—one that was aptly, if vaguely, titled Phones Are for People. "So far," it noted, "17 million of the nation's 77-million phones have lost their letters in favor of numbers. The time to reverse the trend is NOW."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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