Back in the Day: Feeling nostalgic over diminishing home phones

This article originally appeared in the July 18, 2018 issue of the Winnetka Current as Back in the Day: Feeling nostalgic over diminishing home phones

By Peter Butler

Do you know anyone under the age of 40 who has a landline phone?

In just a few years, cellphones followed by email, Facebook, texting, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facetime have replaced the home phone which dominated personal communications for the entire 20th century.

Winnetka’s first phone exchange started exactly in 1900 with 68 phones. This first switchboard was located on the southeast corner of Elm and Lincoln. Some of the 68 first phone lines included prominent Winnetkans, such as Greeley, deWindt and Hoyt.

Unlike social media today, the growth in phones was locally driven, one community at a time.

Before direct dialing became available, the Winnetka operators connected the parties by name. The first phone number, Winnetka 1 was given to Vollman Meat Market, which became 446-0001, a number held by descendants of the Vollman family until it was transferred to the Winnetka Historical Society in 2001.

The phone exchange and operators prospered from 1932-1948 at the southwest corner of Linden and Oak. During that time, the number of lines grew from 5,000 to 7,500.

In 1947, the area code numbering system was established which led to the ability for direct long distance dialing. The Chicago area got one of the first, 312. As the number of phones grew, additional area codes were needed. In 1996, 847 was reserved for the northern suburbs. The mandatory 11 digit dialing for all local calls happened in 2002.

And how about phone books? Some would say they were the most valuable book in the house. They not only had phone numbers, but current addresses, useful yellow pages (“let your fingers do the walking”), detailed street maps for the local communities and sometimes special pages for common numbers and emergencies.

And who remembers being able to dial “0” and get help finding a number or address for someone you couldn’t find in the directory — for free?

Phone books also were important as a way to keep accurate records on who and how many lived in their communities, as well as the businesses that populated the town. The Winnetka Historical Society has many of the directories produced since 1900, some of which are on our website.

So it is impossible to overestimate what home phones meant to a local community. It really was the only way to communicate in a timely fashion. Phone numbers were important. Even today, do you still remember any of your friend’s numbers?

Of course, now it is difficult to get someone to answer a phone call, even (especially) when they know who is calling. Remember before Caller ID and voicemail, when you wouldn’t think of not answering a phone call for fear of missing an important call?

Maybe I am nostalgic, but I sometimes miss the magic of a long awaited call on a home phone. And that phone book … which in many ways was the social network of its day.

The Winnetka Historical Society promotes awareness of Winnetka’s heritage through artifact preservation, public access to their museum and Schmidt-Burnham Log House, and enlightening programs, exhibits and publications.

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