“Number, please?” – how to make a telephone call 100 years ago

I found a 1923 Post Office directory recently while researching. It was mostly a list of numbers but it also included clear instructions on how to make a telephone call.

Black and white photo of woman holding a candlestick telephone.

You had to find the number for who you wanted to call and then you’d phone the exchange. The (female) Telephonist would say “number, please?” If the person wasn’t at home or the line was engaged, the Telephonist would offer to call you back. If you wanted to call someone in another town, you’d ask for a trunk call and tell the Telephonist the town, exchange and number required. Once you were connected, which could take some time, the Telephonist would enter the circuit after 3 minutes to ask if you wanted another 3 minutes (6 being the maximum for a continuous call). Payments for line rentals were quarterly and would vary depending on whether you were a business, a private house and how many lines or extensions you had. Tariffs for trunk calls also depended on distance and time of day, the cheapest being at night and only 10 miles away. You could also send and receive telegrams by phone, including to far-flung countries by Imperial Cable, and even send express letters by messenger dictated over the phone (the charge was 6d per 30 words).

This was an impressive system for keeping in touch with one’s acquaintances. Compared to our communications now, it seems antiquated, especially the fact that the cost of phone calls within the UK would vary by distance. Telephonist roles still exist, although they are no longer required to connect private homes and of course we still have the term ‘switchboard’ despite not having to physically connect cords and switches.

We are reminded that these were quite early days of domestic electricity, pre-National Grid, by this quote: The Postmaster-General is not responsible for any damage done by high potential currents which may be conveyed to the subscriber’s premises by means of telephone wires, although every precaution is taken by the Post Office to prevent such damage.

Telephones at this time were of the old ‘candlestick’ design, with a separate mouthpiece and receiver. However, new designs incorporating both were entering the market. This was probably the biggest change in telephone design until cordless phones were invented. I’m sure that the people of 1923 would be amazed to see the communications technology of today. I expect that in the future, communication will be via artificial telepathy, from implants, wearable devices or even genetic modification. Our brains will become the telephones.

8 thoughts on ““Number, please?” – how to make a telephone call 100 years ago”

  1. I shudder at the thought of having an implant. 😬 To be honest I kind of miss the days when everyone had a landline and you had to memorize everyone’s phone number or use a physical address book. I always forget numbers today, lol, but glad we don’t have to go through any operator telephonist these days 😁

    1. Oh yes, a lot of people don’t bother with landline numbers now but I prefer them. The operator was supposed not to listen to conversations but I would still be nervous they were listening in! I would not want an implant either, that would be an extreme development, I do think that communication will continue to be something instant and almost telepathic with the help of technology. I’m sure some would welcome this but I prefer to keep a distance!

      1. Interesting idea about operators listeing in, back during the martial law in Poland in the 80s, apparently my mum’s sister, my aunt, was once on the phone to her friend and after some time discussing some place she was going to my aunt said she heard a guy chime into the conversation and asked a question about where she was going. They were listening in to phone conversations during that time but weren’t supposed to let anyone know. That is why the idea of an operator still freaks me out ever since I heard my mum tell me that story, lol! I would definitely run a mile from anything telepathic too !

        1. That is creepy. I hope that doesn’t happen now but I guess there is no way of knowing…

  2. I sometimes think Facebook already has the means to read our minds. I’ve seen things on there and I swear I’ve only thought them, not said a word to anyone. When I was little my parents had a bakelight GPO phone with fabric chord and a button on top for a party line with the first part of our number being 3 letters. 😄

    1. I like the old style phones 🙂 but not the idea of sharing a phone line with neighbours 😀 I think you are right, technology does seem to be anticipating what we want to search for! I guess it looks at your browsing data and what you have liked on social media and makes predictions based on that.

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