How To Make A Phone Call In The 1910s

Let’s say you’re a society matron, and you’re going to throw a darling little party and invite all your darling friends, most of whom you don’t actually like. Of course, you’ll have to invite the dreadful Cousin Nigel. Everyone must toady-up to that vile snob for fear of being cut from high society. So when  Nigel is found dead on the study carpet, stabbed in his black heart by a letter opener, you and your guests are shocked, but not particularly sad.

However, now you must call the police so the famous intrepid inspector will show up! Then, you and your guests can spend a delightful evening uncovering everyone’s dirty secrets and motives for killing Nigel.


How do you actually ring the police?

How do you use that thingie on the side table by the vase?

Office Practice by Mary Florence Cahill and Agnes Clementine Ruggeri is here to save your murder party.

Calling Central.

You are a telephone subscriber with an office at 26 East 18th Street, and your telephone number is Stuyvesant 4238. William Rankin is a telephone subscriber with an office at 32 East 20th Street, and his telephone number is Stuyvesant 2397. “Stuyvesant” is the official name given to the telephone exchange or central office that takes care of subscribers located in the 18th Street district, and “4238 ” and ” 2397″ are the numbers assigned to you and William Rankin when you became subscribers.

Look at the picture [below.] Notice the myriads of white spots that dot the board before which she sits. They are tiny white signal lights, and one of them represents you when you take the telephone receiver from its hook.

You want to telephone Mr. Rankin, and you begin by lifting your telephone receiver from its hook. This causes your tiny white light (which is Stuyvesant 4238) to flash before Central. At the same instant another and larger light appears directly under it, glowing in a way to attract her attention. Almost immediately you hear her say, ” Number, please?”

Be ready with your number, and give it in the following order:

  • Name of central office wanted
  • Each figure of the telephone number
  • The party line letter, if there is one

Numbers which are even hundreds or even thousands should be given as such, instead of each figure being given separately. For example:

  • State 8245 “State, eight two (pause) four five.”
  • Main 125-J “Main, one two five, Party J”
  • Broad 4800 “Broad, four eight hundred”
  • Worth 5000 “Worth, five thousand”

The number wanted is “Stuyvesant 2397.” Say “Stuyvesant 2 3 (pause) 9 7.” Pausing slightly between the hundreds and the tens will enable the operator to understand the number easily and to locate it on the switchboard quickly. Central will always repeat the number given and will repeat it as it should be given. This acts as a check upon you and upon her.

She will then connect you with Mr. Rankin’s office. The ringing of his telephone bell will notify him that he is wanted at the telephone, and the flashing of another light before Central will tell her when he has lifted his receiver from the hook.

While talking to Mr. Rankin something happens and he fails to continue his conversation with you. In telephone language, this is known as being “cut off.” Place your finger on your receiver hook, press it slowly up and down a few times. One of the lights before Central will flash and die out alternately. It is her signal that you want to communicate with her. In an instant you will hear her say, “Central.” Tell her what has happened and the matter will be remedied.

Why is it necessary to press the hook gently? Because it is this even pressing up and down that causes the light to continue to flash and die out. When you lose your temper and wrathfully jerk the hook up and down, no light appears before Central; and, as she is not permitted to listen to conversations, she has no means of knowing that she is wanted.

When you and Mr. Rankin finish your conversation, you both hang up your receivers. Two lights flash before Central to indicate that the call has been completed. She then disconnects.

Calling Information.

When your telephone directory does not give the number or the information wanted, say to Central, “Information, please?”

“Information” is one of a special group of operators employed in all large central offices to supply information wanted by subscribers. Before her are sets of reference books. Make it a rule never to ask for information that you can obtain for yourself. To do so is a mark of inefficiency. If it is a telephone number, be very sure it is not in the telephone directory. If it is information of another nature, be equally sure that the answer may not also be found there.

Central’s business is to connect you with people whose telephone numbers you give to her. A glance at the picture of the central telephone operator will show you that she has near her no directories and is not in position to give you numbers that you cannot or will not find for yourself. Is is the duty of Information to perform such service.

If, for example, you believe that John Smith has a telephone, one of the following situations may exist:

  • He may be such a very recent subscriber that his name does not appear in the current issue of the directory. Information will give you the number that has been assigned to him.
  • He may have discontinued his telephone. Information will let you know.
  • He may be an unlisted subscriber. In this case, neither Central nor Information is permitted to furnish the number, as subscribers of this type have private wires and they cannot be reached on the telephone unless the person calling knows the number wanted.

When Information gives you the number you want, it is for you to repeat the number to Central, who will follow Information. Sometimes Information may do this for you.

Calling Long Distance (or Toll Operator).

When a subscriber wants to telephone to some one located in a distant city or state, he requests Central to give him “Long Distance,” the operator who attends to calls of this type.

In making Long Distance calls, a very important point to remember is to give the Long Distance operator the name of the person in the firm to whom you wish to speak. If you want to talk to Mr. Jones of the National Trust Company of Philadelphia, and he is not in when the call arrives, you will not be charged for it. If you ask Long Distance to give you the number of the National Trust Company and, after you have obtained it, then ask for Mr. Jones, the charge will be made whether Mr. Jones responds or not. These calls are referred to, technically, as Two-number Toll Calls and Particular-person Toll Calls.

The Two-number Toll Call is your National Trust Company call. Here you asked for a number located outside the local service area and at a point to which there is a two-number toll rate. Charge is made if connection is completed with the number called, the time for which the charge is made beginning when the number called first answers. More rapid service can be given, and in general a lower rate is charged on two-number toll calls than on particular-person toll calls.

The Particular-person Toll Call is your Mr. Jones call. Here you asked by name for a person reached through a telephone which is located outside the local service area and at a point to which there is a particular-person toll rate. Charge is made if connection is completed with the particular-person called (or with the number called, if the calling subscriber has indicated that he is willing to talk with anyone at the called station), the time for which the charge is made beginning when conversation with the particular person (or the number called, if it is a call for anyone) first starts.

To make a Particular-person Toll Call, or to secure information concerning the rates on such calls, tell the operator who first answers your call the name of the city, town, or-locality in which the person with whom you wish to talk is located. The operator will connect you with a Long Distance or Toll Operator, who will identify herself by answering “Long Distance” or “Toll Operator.” When the Long Distance or Toll Operator answers, give her the following details :

  • The telephone number from which the call is made and your name, if you desire to give it
  • The name of the city or town and state in which the person desired is located.
  • The number of the telephone desired, if known
  • The firm name or the name and initials of the person under whose name the telephone is listed and the street address, if the telephone number is not known
  • The name of the person with whom you wish to speak
  • The name of the alternate person, if you are willing to talk with any one else in case the person desired cannot be reached

Listen for the operator to repeat the details of your call, remain at the telephone until she indicates that you may hang up the receiver, and wait patiently until called to the telephone. Bear in mind that to establish a connection between New York and Chicago, for example, usually takes several minutes. The subscriber who literally pesters Central on an average of every minute or two simply displays his ignorance of the procedure necessary. When the connection is made, Central will ring you up.

Long Distance calls represent a fair amount of money expended, and a few things must be definitely borne in mind. Know just what you want to say and waste very little time saying it. This does not mean that you must become telegraphic in your language. Long Distance is becoming very popular with many firms, and is a tremendous time and money saver. The following extract from Collier’s Weekly is interesting:

A trip from Chicago to New York and return, allowing for one day’s average expenses in the city, would cost a business man about $90 at a conservative estimate, and would require at least two days’ time.

That expense alone would cover the cost of eighteen long distance telephone conversations, at $5 for three minutes, or for a total of about an hour’s conversation, at $1.50 per minute. In addition to this, the man would have had his two days’ time, and his plans would be spared the delay and interruption. The proportion is even greater for lesser distances and smaller telephone rates.

The following examples will give some idea of the rates charged for this grade of service:

And finally, when you want to telephone to any place out of town, inspect your directories and see whether the call is Long Distance or merely Suburban. Central will attend to suburban calls.

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