Monday, April 04, 2011

A Numbers Game




On the day that Elizabeth Taylor died, I tweeted that the actress was never more beautiful than in Butterfield 8. I stand by that statement, but I would like to add that she was also stunning in Ash Wednesday. I will never understand why that movie was so roundly panned. Here's the deal: the film is set in Cortina, Italy; Taylor drives a gorgeous Mercedes, as I recall; the producer was Dominick Dunne; and most importantly, her clothing was by Valentino. Oh, and she wears a bejeweled turban in the movie. Seriously, what more do people want? Talk about a heavy dose of glamour!

But this post isn't really about Taylor. I've just taken us down a very circuitous path to a discussion of telephone numbers, or more accurately, telephone exchanges. Butterfield 8, in case you're not aware, was the exchange that Taylor dialed to find out who her appointments were for the evening. Because as you know, Taylor played Gloria Wandrous, a call girl. A quite beautiful call girl, but a call girl nonetheless. Decades ago, telephone numbers were a little different than they are today. They were composed of seven numbers, but the first two numbers were designated by letters. So, Butterfield 8 was BU8 plus four additional numbers. You dialed the letters using the corresponding numbers on the dial. I may not be making myself clear, so you can click here to learn more about it.


So why am I writing about this? Because, don't you think that these exchanges had a lot of pizazz compared to the boring old numbers we have today? I'm sure that a lot of you remember when phone numbers were designated this way. If you watch an old movie set in London, you might hear characters referring to a phone number as WHItehall XXXX. That was a well-known exchange. If you lived in New York, your exchange might have been PLaza or GRamercy. Had I lived in my current Atlanta home back in the 1950s or 60s, my exchange might have been CHerokee.

I know this might seem like such a random post, but seriously, wouldn't you rather have calling cards printed up with KLondike, MUrray Hill, or HEmlock rather than all of the rigmarole we have to use today? I know that I would.


Parish Hadley's telephone number, as seen here in a detail of a rendering for Sister Parish's calling card, was RHinelander 45380.




One of the lady decorators, Elsie Sloan Farley set up shop on Park Avenue. Her number was PLaza 3-3516.




If you needed to reserve a room at The Carlyle back in 1936, you would have rung RHinelander 4-1600. You would still dial the same number today: 744-1600.




Syrie Maugham's London exchange was a posh sounding Mayfair. Her Chicago shop? That exchange was SUperior. That one sounds nice too.




W.E. Browne was an old decorating firm in Atlanta. This invoice, issued to my mother for the purchase of an antique cabinet, shows the firm's TRinity exchange. What's funny is that this invoice was dated 1990; I suppose they never saw any need to print new letterhead. I also admit that I like the use of "Decorators and Furnishers". It seems refreshing in a day and age where those terms are considered to be passé.


Image of Syrie Maugham stationery from Syrie Maugham by Pauline Metcalf.

41 comments:

  1. I like the idea of having a CHerokee phone number - CH1234 would have been particularly desirable. When we first arrived in Atlanta there was only one area code and it was then not necessary to dial it. Perhaps you remember that whole OTP (outside the perimeter) and ITP (inside) game of snobbery when the second area code was introduced?

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  2. Anonymous6:05 AM

    I am a big fan of Elizabeth Taylor and I think it was a great post on telephone numbers. The invoice your Mother received is also very gorgeous and there use of the old invoices is charming - very - Waste not want not. as my Mother always said. Shelley Perth Western Australia.

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  3. What a lovely and fascinating blog.

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  4. Great post, which reminds me that the exchange for the New York apartment I live in was Trafalgar (the apt has had the same number for more than 40 years). Yes! A lot more pizazz than than what is used today.

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  5. Blue- How could I forget that controversy?!

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  6. Anon and lily-g, Thank you!

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  7. Voice Talk- I think that I would want the Trafalgar exchange. I like the sound of that one.

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  8. Love everything about this post!! Firstly, putting Ash Wednesday on my Netflix queue - never seen it - sounds fabulous, despite critics. Our phone number was MEdford - I remember it well - and of course with no area code. When we moved to where we live now, my husband, who grew up here, was horrified when we weren't given the original exchange - it was too funny! And just adore all the beautiful vintage cards - especially the Parish Hadley. I spend a lot of $ on mine because I just can't bring myself to hand out something that is less - I know probably ridiculous but it's the state of affairs in my humble abode in the blogosphere.

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  9. Our first phone number was TUxedo9! The IDlewilde3. I remember living on an island in the Chesapeake where you only had to dial four numbers if you were calling on the island.

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  10. Very interesting. I always thought those numbers had something to do with the town or neighborhood name. I guess corresponding letters in the exchange makes more sense.

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  11. Elizabeth Taylor's death has unexpectedly left a little space in my soul. She was an amazing lady in all stages of her life--always and uniquely herself. Now, about exchanges: I hadn't thought about that in ages --but it was so much easier and cooler to remember telephone nos.--up until I was 9, my number was SKyline 1-1719--now telephone numbers are just boring.

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  12. What a fantastic post!! I never knew that. however at my summerhouse in Sweden which is in a village with only seven houses we have numbers like that. And the address almost the same thing, barely there...

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  13. Darn it if I wasn't born too late!

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  14. Thanks for bringing back a fun childhood memory. My old phone number was FRanklin 7-6419. : )

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  15. It is interesting that Parish-Hadley once considered relocating to the Rhinelander mansion, now housing the flagship Ralph Lauren store. The name being one of the earlier big landowners. My Greenwich Village exchange was WAverly, a local place; I liked that it had geographical significance.

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  16. Thanks for the interesting post! I had never heard of "Ash Wednesday".
    Dominick Dunne was one of my favorite authors and what needs to be said about Valentino. Hope I can get it on a cd. And you are quite right about the old telephone exchanges. So much more intriging.
    Marion

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  17. Back in the 1950s, the cabaret impresario Julius Monk
    took a tiny space in the old Plaza Hotel and called it, very simply, PLaza 9. Which was the exchange for that
    rather posh neck of the woods.
    Loved this post. I thought I was the only person on the
    planet who pined after those now extinct telephone
    exchanges.( In Noel Coward's plays they always seem to
    be ringing up SLoane 266~no doubt a reference to that
    part of London.) It's funny how a simple detail can take
    you back in time, and make you yearn for the good old
    days.

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  18. What a great post! Yes, I was at the cusp of using those wonderful name numbers. Love them and wish we could bring them back!

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  19. This is incredibly charming. When we moved back to Tulsa, my mother still referred to phone numbers this way.

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  20. I loved Ash Wednesday if only because of the glamour. Butterfield 8 was an OK movie, but the telephone exchange will live in our memories more than the acting, won't it. Ahhh, yes, gone are a lot of our elegant things from the past. Anyone who flies regularly, as I do, can clearly see the passengers mostly look like a batch at the Grayhound Bus Station. Too casual for me. xx's

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  21. My sentiments exactly. When I heard of her death, I immediately thought of Butterfield 8 and wrote about how romantic it would be to tell someone to give me a call at "Butterfield 8".

    With all of today's technology, surely someone can build an app that lets you use these old exchanges.

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  22. Anonymous1:18 PM

    I know that I'm late to the party... but when I was a child and
    we lived in North Kensington or Notting Hill, if you prefer, our number was LAD 3571 for Ladbroke Grove, obviously!

    Best

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  23. Anon- I do like LAD. Has a ring to it!

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  24. These were before my time, but I love them and for a while I adopted RIverside-7 as the prefix for my phone number, but it annoyed people so I stopped. In my heart, I still use it. :)

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  25. Townhouse- It would not have annoyed me! I probably would have copied you and started doing the same thing.

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  26. Anonymous3:32 PM

    Thank you for the post! It takes me back to another time--a much more gracious time for even little things. I couldn't help but notice the card for Mrs. Henry Parrish. This was also a time when even well known women went by their husband's name even when in a professional capacity. Heaven help anyone who would have referred to her business by one Sister Parrish.

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  27. I always thought our number was great. BRoadway 9. The family home still has it. Strangely enough, it was in Dallas.

    I saw Ash Wednesday when it came out. I loved it (for the glam) but it did really get panned, even then. Great plastic surgeon, huh?

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  28. Fabulous post! I too wish we could use those wonderful words again with phone numbers and calling cards...and I think Liz Taylor was at her most beautiful in 'A Place in the Sun' with Montgomery Clift, who was just as beautiful...:))

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  29. I have decided when I move; I am finding out what the Santa Barbara "words" were......and changing my engraved cards and business stationary (oh so old-fashioned.they really are engraved)....to that!!!
    In Pasadena; we had two phone numbers! SYCamore; and RYAn..but the same numbers!! wonder why???
    I loved Sycamore......because I love the trees!
    Too divine!

    In Santa Barbara....everyone's favorite is 969! Can't wait to find out what that was! Anyone know? I will report! I am totally doing it!

    Delightful. Let's go back to the more charming times!
    Lovely post! What a great idea! So civilized!

    I am serious......I am doing it!!!

    Penelope

    ps a few years ago; my husband and I were having dinner at Trader Vic's in Beverly Hills......(gone now, SOB!) We were on a long banquette right next to..and I mean 12 inches away from the corner where sat Rod Steiger, Elizabeth Taylor, and her little white dog. (on the same cushion as I was.) I managed to communicate to my husband (I think I wrote him a note) "I'm sorry. we won't be talking to each other. much." I'm listening and smiling and nodding as if we are. she was right next to me....and Rod S was at right angles to her......she looked at me and smiled.....and I said.;
    "what is the doggie's name?" She said, "Sugah!" in that throaty English accented voice......."I'm looking into having her cloned! I have to be so careful here.....all the waiters want to give her treats! And they aren't good for her!"

    It is a miracle that I remained conscious through the entire meal! They were talking all about how the "old Hollywood was gone" etc. etc. I was mesmerized. Charisma personified. Glamour personified.

    She had white hair.....and was still absolutely gorgeous.

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  30. oh here's blabbermouth again.

    I bet that firm in Atlant didn't change the letterhead because they were "engraved" Why not do it? It is the same phone number......just more interesting times 1,000!

    wonderful post!

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  31. Great post...don't tell anyone but I use my old phone number as a password. LAkeview 7 1143. Now I would be hard pressed to know what my actual phone number is.

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  32. This link might be of interest re: telephone exchanges:

    http://ourwebhome.com/TENP/Recommended.html

    I adore your blog!

    (and for me, Elizabeth Taylor's peak was in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" - when she & Paul Newman are on screen together, I get whiplash trying to decide which one to look at!)

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  33. Takeaway- Thank you for the link! That's fantastic! ET did look beautiful in that movie, especially in that white dress. And Paul didn't look so bad himself!

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  34. Anonymous9:59 AM

    Or why not re-introduce telephone operators? 'Give me HARpenden to-three-four-two please' is a much more civilised way of communicating in my view. In any event what is stopping us from re-introducing exchange numbers on business cards, letterheads etc? One can even invent one's own exchange name from the letters on the phone buttons, i.e. 353 becomes 'ELEphant' and so on and so forth. All it takes is a bit of initiative and imagination.

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  35. Anon- I agree with you. In fact, I've been trying to come up with my own exchange.

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  36. Anonymous4:02 PM

    One of my favorite blogs, http://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/, is also fascinated by telephone exchanges. They love finding old store signs, business cards, whatever in New York City and posting them along with information about the exchanges. It's a great site that explores interesting and unusual stories about NYC that are not well known.

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  37. Anon- That blog is amazing. Even though I don't live in NY, I'm still fascinated.

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  38. love this JB - wouldnt it just be heaven! xcolette

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  39. I grew up in Cleveland
    AT(lantic)1-0073

    My uncle, who lived next door, had an OL(ympic)exchange. His house was newer. He was on a different electrical grid as well.

    We also had a famous fence company with the jingle "GA(rfield)1-2323"
    and for all I know they may still use that jingle.

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  40. My grandmother had a CHerokee number and we called JAckson 5-8550for the time. Does that date me or what. Found a 1964 phone book when we cleaned out her house and all the numbers had exchange names.

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  41. G. Boyd- I hope you kept that phonebook! I think that where I live now, I would have had CHerokee. At least that's what I think.

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