More on the Garfield telephone exchange, with thanks to frequent Alameda History blog visitor John Hamnett for inspiration…

We remember the time—which seems not so long ago—when our phone numbers began with two letters (and a word associated with those two letters), and then a number.

We grew up in the Alpine exchange and our number was AL1-2820, which eventually became 251-2820 (get it?…A=2, L=5). When asked for our number, we really did use to say “Alpine 1 2-8-2-0.”

Here in Alameda and in other nearby neighborhoods in Northeast Portland, our phone numbers used to begin with GA. And that’s not by accident. It’s because our neighborhood was served by the GArfield Exchange. If we had grown up here, we would have given out our number as Garfield 2-8-2-0.

A “numbercard” from an old Western Electric style phone bearing the GArfield exchange name and number

Check out this clipping from The Oregonian on September 1, 1955 which charts the evolution of a local business’s phone number. Keep in mind that behind these changes were corresponding changes in technology at places like the Garfield Exchange Office.

The spoken word “Garfield” would have been ubiquitous in our old Alameda homes in years past. And anyone passing by the building at 24th and Stanton would have thought about it as “our” exchange. The Garfield Exchange.

If you look closely as you travel the city, you might find evidence of these old telephone exchanges, and the days in which we referred to our numbers with a word. Alpine. Garfield. Check out this blog entry from a fellow local historian in New York who has made a practice of collecting these references. Pretty neat. Let us know if you find similar references here in Portland.

And if you are captivated by the idea of exchange names, you must check out this website, which has an incredible collection of information about early telephone exchanges (you can even search your old exchange name). We appreciate the reason given for why remembering these things is important: “Exchange names helped foster a sense of place…

In the midst of the communication technology that has come to define our busy lives—mobile everything and 24/7 communication—we thought a little historical context might be of interest. During a recent session with The Oregonian microfilm, we came across this little nugget from January 11, 1911.

1911-Telephone-Service,-11-

From The Oregonian, January 11, 1911.

Just wanted to make sure you caught that: the Home Telephone & Telegraph Company, working at a very busy pace, installed 2,460 phones in calendar year 1910, bringing the total number of working phones in Portland to 12,254. Just for interest sake, Portland’s total population in 1911 was 212,290. Between 1910-1911, more than 13,000 building permits were issued in Portland, a record that made the City Building Department (formerly located in City Hall) a very busy place. Construction in Portland, and in our brand new neighborhoods here in the Northeast quarter of the city, was taking place at a pace which we can hardly imagine today.

In our 1912 bungalow, the first phone was hidden away in a box tucked into the wainscot in the breakfast nook. A later version had its very own table mounted to the wall in the hallway outside the master bedroom. Not sure when the “twisted pair” arrived here, but our hunch–based on what was a growing trend both in homebuilding and telephone business–is that we were wired from the beginning. What’s the history of the phone in your house?

At a time when we take wi-max, wi-fi, cell phones and the internet for granted, the notion of 12,254 working phones in Portland makes us want to slow down a bit, and wonder if people were actually better connected then.

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