25 responses to ““WHItehall-1212, please!” – Understanding Alphanumeric Phone-Numbers

  1. Jack Knorst

    October 13, 2010 at 3:02 PM

    I grew up in Chicago and circa 1950 our phone number was
    NEwcastle 1 -2xxx. Note that is in the 2L5N format which contradicts the article. Before that, according to my sister, we had a party-line and the number was just the 2xxx portion.

    • scheong

      October 13, 2010 at 6:47 PM

      I did try to figure out which was the more common format (2L5N or 3L4N), but no research that I carried out showed me which of the two was more popular, or for which parts of the world.

  2. richmond

    October 19, 2010 at 5:19 AM

    when younger had ZENith 5456 was the local forest fire service number and there were other ZENith “party” lines around and this was 1990! in country canada

  3. Bill

    October 19, 2010 at 1:13 PM

    How about a list of the words used for the pre-fix…were they the same for all the US, or did they differ in each city/region?

    • JAck

      October 19, 2010 at 1:14 PM

      Good quesiton…

  4. Jack Knorst

    October 19, 2010 at 1:36 PM

    I also remember that in Chicago (and I presume other cities) we would call a number for the time of day. I saw some graffiti in a phone booth (remember those) that was “For A Good Time Call CA8-8000”

  5. Michael aka Ursusblue

    October 19, 2010 at 2:47 PM

    I’d have to confirm the 2L5N format for Chicago, my dad’s phone number as he grew up on the south side was Hilltop 5-XXXX or 445-XXXX, my grandfather still maintains this number.

    • scheong

      October 19, 2010 at 7:37 PM

      Wow! This has created some lively discussion. I tried my best to figure out the…intricacies behind and between 2L5N, 3L4N, but no research that I’ve done has told me which was used where or when. I always thought that 3L4N was more common, though.

  6. bookmole

    October 19, 2010 at 9:48 PM

    I find it hard to remember Scotland Yard’s number – I was raised using alphanumerics and Whitehall 1212 is still what I think when I want their number. Somethings just stick to the brain like glue!

  7. Ben

    October 19, 2010 at 11:08 PM

    Through the 90s, the Plaza Hotel in New York City used PL9-3000 as their phone number in ads and on stationery and the like. They were very proud that their hotel’s name was used as the exchange, even when no one know what the hell it was.

  8. mjg

    October 19, 2010 at 11:30 PM

    Great article! My grandparents had the same phone number for what seems like forever. It now belongs to my parents. Mother remembers when it was just five digits, 85XXX. I suspect that it was probably TRiangle 8-5XXX (or some such other ’87’ letter combo) at some time as it is 878-5XXX, but I have not been able to find out. Perhaps there were areas where the words were not used and just switched wholesale to all seven digits? (Suburban Dayton, Ohio)

  9. Vinnie

    October 20, 2010 at 3:08 AM

    The one thing about alphanumeric numbers that always puzzled me was the one used for the title of the book and film BUtterfield 8 — it was only 3 digits long. I thought alphanumeric numbers were introduced once phone numbers became 7 digits long — so wouldn’t dialing “BUtterfield 8” just end up being an incomplete call?

    • scheong

      October 20, 2010 at 9:12 AM

      Hi. “BUtterfield 8” would have been the exchange name. Much like “PEnsylvannia 6” (5,000).

  10. Bicycle Bill

    October 20, 2010 at 3:22 AM

    Nowadays we see letters again being used in telephone numbers, but more as a memory aid (more correctly, a mnemonic) to keep the number in mind.
    For example, a casino near me has the toll-free number 1-888-523-9582. Kinda tough to remember that way, but if you knew it instead as 1-888-LADY LUCK and dialed that, you would still end up talking to someone at the switchboard of the Lady Luck casino.
    Other instances are when numbers are selected based on the last four digits spelling out something related to the business or individual — LEAK (5325) or PIPE (7473) for a plumber, BIKE (2453) or PEDL (7335) for a bicycle shop, or WINE (9463) for a bar or liquor store.

  11. Gary

    October 20, 2010 at 5:53 AM

    I once heard it said that “if telephone usage continues to grow at this rate, every woman in the US will be needed as an Operator.” This has, in fact, become true. We now use “Direct Distance Dialing” and everyone (man and woman) is the “Operator” for phone calls. The “all number” system needed to be put in place because it would be hard to train everyone to know the prefix letters.

  12. Katie F

    October 20, 2010 at 8:03 PM

    I was born in the 90s, so I’m obviously too young to have used numbers like these (although I do distinctly remember when they started requiring you to add the area code to the number you wanted to dial). However, I watched a ton of I Love Lucy when I was growing up and I remember when Ricky or someone else would pick up the phone and say “Hello operator, can you give me Circle 73748” or whatever the number was. I had a vague idea of what it meant, but this article really cleared some things up from my childhood!

  13. Keith E

    July 1, 2011 at 7:54 AM

    Chicago switched from 3L4N to 2L5N numbers in early 1948. In most cases, the third letter became the first digit. If your number had been DEArborn 1234 in 1947, it became DEarborn 2-1234 in 1948. It became 332-1234 when all remaining 2L5N numbers still listed in the Chicago phone book were changed to all numbers sometime around 1974.

  14. Linda Wilkinson

    June 16, 2012 at 5:34 AM

    When I started my career with Bell Canada, as an Operator in Ontario, in 1973 we were not using the alpha numeric system. However it was quite common to encounter Michigan numbers still asked for that way. That switchboard picture brought back memories as Bell Ontario did not replace them with computers til 1980, and still retained the cord board for mobile and marine calls as late as 1986.

  15. Janice Scully-Kovach

    January 11, 2013 at 10:59 AM

    I understand how all this worked I had a friend ask me if there is anyway of finding the old 2 letter prefix for Jefferson township NJ ? Let me know at

    • scheong

      January 11, 2013 at 12:00 PM

      Hi Janice,

      Your best bet is to try and track down old phone-directories. That should give you the information that you need.

    • Wilkinson Linda

      January 12, 2013 at 2:50 AM

      You may be able to find old directories on microfiche at your local or state/provincial capital library. They are considered historic documents. You might also want to try a reverse look-up directory. They were published privately back in the 70’s.

  16. collecter of junk

    October 14, 2013 at 1:04 PM

    I am trying to find out when they used only two numbers for phone numbers. I have a item at home in my collection and the phone number on it is 50. Anyone know what time frame that could be from, and how do you look up who the number belonged to.

    • scheong

      October 14, 2013 at 1:20 PM

      It’s either really early, or it was part of a private switchboard, would be my guess.

    • Jim Hall

      October 6, 2014 at 3:26 AM

      I grew up in the 50’s in a small town in Georgia. Our telephone number was 19. The operator would answer when the handpiece was removed from the hook. She (always a she) would say either, “operator” or “number please”. She would have pronounce our telephone number “one niyun.”

  17. essexandrew

    September 4, 2015 at 9:46 PM

    I came to this article via an internet search about alphanumeric numbers for Telephone Exchanges in London, England.

    I was born in 1948 and so became very familiar with the ‘old’ style.

    I needed to contact the Public Transport organisation for the Greater London Area, now called “Transport for London” but previously just “LondonTransport”

    Back in those days LT as it was also known ran the buses (mostly red – but also Green with either the “Greenline” name for longer journeys or “London Country” for shorter routes on the outskirts of Greater London. LT also ran what we called “The Underground” or “the Tube” (Subway) railway despite long sections actually being on the surface!

    Anyway they had a central enquiry telephone number – ending in 1234 – but I could not remember the Alpha Prefix – though I correctly presumed it is STILL (in number form) in use today – AND it is in use & is – 222.

    Now it is expressed as 222 1234 (with an extra prefix still – which has changed every decade or so and is – in case you need it – TODAY 0343-222-1234 (I have not kept up with the changes & cannot explain the relevance of 0343)

    However I puzzled over the 222 – part – it actually stands for ABBey – the physical location of the headquarters where a friend once worked – was in offices close to the St James Park Underground Station, which is in WESTMINSTER and so near WESTMINSTER +ABBEY+ – that place where we have been crowning kings & queens since Christmas day 1066!

    Are you still with me?

    Being a bit of an obsessive – I read your article – and differ with one part – as far as London is concerned – which I hope I have demonstrated – in my long winded explanation – in London, the numbers for Exchange names were turned into an alpha numeric code rather than the Exchange number being given an alphabetical code.

    So the Telephone Exchange of my childhood home was LARskwood – was thus named for a small wooded area between what were then the neighbouring towns of – Walthamstow and Chingford – which by the time I left in 1970 was announced (as per the layout of the telephone dial) 520 xxxx.

    I guess it was different in some parts of the USA, with numbers turned into an alpha code prefix!


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