“Mr. Watson, come here. I want you,” were the first words spoken into a device that has become the telephone. That was in 1876 and inventor Alexander Graham Bell gave birth to an industry and launched the communication revolution. Telephones of one description or another popped up around the world and networks were the vogue at the start of the 20th Century.
In Lititz, phone wires were strung between buildings or on farms connecting two devices. Nascent networks popped up in Ephrata, Brunnerville, Denver, Earl and eventually Lititz until the borough was served by Bell Telephone Company and the Penn State Network. Early proponents of telephony locally included Martin & Muth, coal and lumber, whose telephone number, Independent Phone No. 184, was one of the first to be published in an advertisement locally. Their advertisement in John G. Zook’s “Historical and Pictorial Lititz”, published in 1905 used the “Independent” label while others would refer to “Enterprise” numbers indicating the two competing exchanges. Some businessmen eventually went so far as to advertise phone numbers on each system. And at this time the installation of a telephone machine was front page news in the Lititz Record-Express.
Lititz Lithographing Company’s full page advertisement in the same book just stated at the very bottom, “INDEPENDENT TELEPHONE.” At that time it really wasn’t necessary to know the telephone number as a caller would lift the receiver and turn a crank that would ring a bell to get the attendant’s (about this time attendants—mostly boys—were becoming operators—mostly women) attention. He, or she would physically connect the two phones by plugging one line into the other. But you had to be on the correct network—there was no option to cross networks.
One of the first advertisements in the Lititz Record-Express to include a phone number was R. N. Wolle, dry goods, his business was known as the Bee Hive Store and he had telephone number 58 in 1907.
Over in Red Run, a hamlet in Brecknock Township, farmer William F. Brossman stood at his telephone device spinning and spinning the dial without success and with every turn his frustration grew. It was 4 o’clock in the morning and his wife Jemima was in the kitchen preparing breakfast for the Brossman brood in advance of the up-coming day of farm work. In addition to the 100 acre farm, Brossman sold fertilizer to his neighbors. The fertilizer had been delivered on one of the overnight trains of the Reading and Columbia Railroad to the Denver station and needed to be picked up by its new owners.
One morning it is reported that Mrs. Brossman said to her husband, “William Brossman, you are going to give that poor woman a heart attack! Come eat your breakfast. Land sakes, you start bothering that operator before the sun comes up!”
“Now Mima,” responded William, “if I can’t get hold of my fertilizer customers before they get busy milking the cows and working the fields, I’ll never be able to tell them that their shipments of fertilizer are down at the Denver railroad station. I have half a mind to start my own phone company!” And the rest is, as they say, history. That history is well recorded in John Ward Willson Loose’s book “The Denver and Ephrata Telephone and Telegraph Company.”
In addition to multiple telephone companies there was also no standard for telephone numbers. A review of advertisements up until 1949 produce a gross diversity of number sets. In 1910 Wilson Hacker, grocer, had the number Ind. Phone 72X. Even after 1926 when the growing Denver and Ephrata Telephone and Telegraph Company purchase both exchanges in Lititz (Penn State and Bell) the numbering system remained random. Grocer Ed Heidrick advertised his phone as 321-R-3. The 1929 purchase of the Brunnerville Rural Telephone Company was also not cause to organize the numbering.
As late as November 27, 1946 the newspaper announcement for the grand opening of Koehler’s Grocery Store at 26 S. Spruce St. advertised free delivery on orders of one dollar or more, prizes and the phone number 439-J. Christ Koehler learned quickly that he couldn’t run a grocery and respond to fire calls without the full support of a partner or cooperative spouse (he had neither—Grandma Koehler didn’t want the store and let him know) the store closed the following January. But he always told people he was in the grocery business for two years.
With the purchase of the two local exchanges by Denver & Ephrata Tel. and Tel. the company purchased property at 104 E. Main Street and installed a state-of-the-art “common battery switchboard” which they connected to the Ephrata switchboard with underground conduits. Dial service was established in Adamstown and spread throughout the D & E system starting in 1934, eliminating forever the operator connected telephone call. While operators continued in the system they were there to resolve problems, respond to emergencies and handle long distance—new technology that was just then beginning to emerge.
World War II and the death of the D & E founder William Brossman kept the enhancements from reaching Lititz until 1949 when dial service required the numbering system to be standardized. Lititz subscribers were assigned 4-digit numbers for their telephone and the exchange was assigned the prefix 6. So while the phone number was for instance 6-2249 the phone could be reached from within the Lititz exchange by dialing only the last four numbers. At the same time the Manheim exchange was assigned the 5 prefix.
Starting in 1949 you could reach Leed’s Locker Service at 6-9287 by dialing from any telephone in Lititz. You could also purchase a dedicated line freeing yourself or your company from the problems associated with a party line. It was expensive but most businesses found it worth the cost and eventually individual subscribers paid the surcharge for the privacy. With a party line each subscriber had a specific ring consisting of long and short bells. If the longest ring on your party line was four long rings you had to give the phone time to ring four times before you answered your phone even if your ring was only one long ring. Picking up the phone to dial out you first listened to make sure no one was on the line before dialing. In urgent or emergency situations you politely asked whoever was talking to please relinquish the line. Party lines in Lititz are reported to have continued to exist into the 1980s.
Calling someone on your own line required you to pick up, listen to see if the line was in use, dial a special number, hang up, let it ring and try to guess when or if the other party answered. Then, and only then, could you pick up your receiver and begin your conversation.
By 1950 Christian Eaby was running D & E and the company boasted 10,000 subscribers. Eaby had married the boss’ daughter Bertha. When he died in 1956 there were 15,000 telephones and Bertha took over the company.
That same year all of the D & E exchanges were merged into the nationwide toll dialing network. This necessitated adding two letters in front of each exchange number—Lititz became MA6- with the last four numbers identifying the specific telephone. MA was written as MAdison. Other exchange names were ULysses for Akron; HUxley for Adamstown; ANdrew for Denver; REpublic for Ephrata and MOhawk for Manheim. Lancaster was large enough for two exchanges EXpress and LOwell.
Starting in the 1940s collaboration between American Telephone and Telegraph Company and Bell Labs created the North American Numbering Plan that went into effect in 1947. It was better known as the Area Code. Most of us knew nothing about it because if we needed to call outside our area it would be handled by a human operator.
The original Area Code system gave three digit numbers to areas. If an entire state was covered by one area code the middle digit was a 0. In states with multiple area codes the middle number was 1. Since the touch tone had yet to be invented consideration was given to how far the dial had to travel in certain areas so the first and third digits were assigned based on population density. Lititz was in a state with multiple area codes and was rural in nature, thus the area was assigned 717 while Philadelphia was given 215. Connecticut was 203. New York City was 212 while its suburbs received 914.
Starting in 1963 exchange names were being dropped in favor of a 3-digit exchange number. Lititz’ MA6 became 626. You were now able to make some long-distance calls by appending the number 1 to the number you were calling all without operator assistance. Within area code 717 you called a long distance number by dialing 1 followed by the 7-digit exchange plus phone number. Outside the local area code you dialed 1 followed by the area code and the 7-digit number. And yes, you were dialing those numbers because touch tone™ was not even available until 1966 and was not available throughout the whole D & E system until 1978. With touch tone™ in 1966 came toll-free calls to Lancaster, mobile telephone services (about the size of a small suitcase) and cable television.
A good example of the telephone numbering system is my grandfather, Christ Koehler who had the same telephone his whole life but his number kept changing. In 1946 his phone number was 439-J but in 1949 it was changed to 6-2249. In 1957 it became MA6-2249 and in 1963 626-2249. About ten years later it became 717 626-2249. That’s a far cry from “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.”