Upstairs, disconnected for years, is an old Western Electric wall phone. Dark green, the kind with a bell that woke that dead. Rotary dial. Stick a finger in a number, crank it over to the metal stop, and wait for it to return before doing it again with a different hole. In the center of the dial is the number – the same number this house has had since it first received phone service lord knows when. GA8-6948 a throwback to an era when numbers had names to denote the exchange. Our was “Garden Eight”

As a kid I recall two things about the phone. First was the inviolate rule of the party line. We shared the line with three other houses and our ring was one short and two long. I was banned from ever answering until an adult confirmed the ring was ours. Of course that didn’t stop my brother and me from listening in to George and Millie or Fred and Betty or the nice old lady next door.

The number was simple. Massachusetts had a single area code — 617 — and all we needed to dial were five numbers. 8-6948. The boat yard in Osterville, Crosby’s, was 8-6958, so we got a lot of misdials looking for one of the Crosby uncles.

Five digits went away in the 70s as the switches were upgraded and the population grew. We had to dial all seven digits: 428-6948. Then the 617 area code that covered the state was overloaded and in came the hated 508 area code. And before long we were a touchtone house.

But the old phone still sits upstairs, screwed into the wall above the laundry folding table.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

9 thoughts on “GArden8-6948”

  1. “ATwater”5-6308 or just 5-6308 was my childhood number in what is now area code 904. And when my mother (b. 1917) was a child, people calling her family in Durham, NH simply asked the operator for “Durham-4.”

    What would our kids make of Lily Tomlin’s operator skits on “Laugh In”? One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy

  2. Dave,

    I grew up with a party line. With cells, skype, voip on cable available today, it’s so hard to comprehend concepts like rotary phones, party lines, and switchboard operators. Seeing this stuff seems like archeology, and somewhat surreal.

    My Grandmother worked as a switchboard operator for a while, and I loved hearing some of her stories of how things were.

    Neat post!


  3. I still remember my grandparents phone number as IN1-3548 (IN = Independence).

    My grandfather worked for Ma Bell and he was always bringing us the colorful plastic-coated wiring they used in switchboards and things, and we would make jewelry out of it. And every single one of us had a cable spool end table somewhere in our first apartment. One of my cousins still has the old time “stick” telephone (the one where you spoke into the microphone at the top of the stick, and held the earpiece up with a separate hand). We loved that phone; played with it all the time.

  4. I still have one old rotary phone up in the workshop, still working. We used to be able to dial a number (11 9 33), then hang up and it would ring the other phones in the house. It would come in handy now trying to contact the uncommunicative teen hiding upstairs, who has turned down the ringer on his cell and won’t answer a yell from downstairs. I remember with some numbers we didn’t even have to dial the 8. My Grandfather Higgins’ number was 8-6378, but we could reach him with just the last 4 digits. When my Dad was a kid that same number was Osterville 378. If asked for my number by a Cotuit resident I still give just the last 4 digits and if they know what I mean I know at least how long they’ve been around. I admit to being a 428 snob since 420 came on the scene, many years ago now.

  5. And when your phone was owned by Ma Bell who charged you for every extension. SPring5-xxxx was for Hyannis – I forget what Barnstable was. An Operator was your best bet when calling long distance – try to get one on the line now – VRU hell.

    One night in 1969 Mark Alvin and I called the Operator to ask what time it was in Alaska and she connected us with an operator in that state. We were able to ask a live person what time it was.

    And pay phones! Before cell phones there were pay phones everywhere! I used to keep a small notebook with the numbers and locations of all the pay phones because you could actually call them. You could have a friend wait at a pay phone and call them there – or have acomplete stranger answer.

  6. Those Western Electric phones look like they could be used as clubs, and probably were. Our number in Wichita, Kansas, was TE8-0555. Southwestern Bell had abbreviated Temple to TE, but after the late 1960s it was just 838.

  7. We lived down the street from you but Helen MacL made sure that there was no (buried) party line at Off Main. However, up in Wakeby Malcolm and Kay let us listen to the party line up there. Pretty cool. But even cooler was when we lived in East Orleans and you only had to dial THREE digits to reach the locals! Thanks for the memories.

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