How would you dial long distance in the late 1930s? Ah, trick question. You wouldn’t. You’d have to call the operator and tell her (her because telephone operators were almost always young women then) that you’d like to place a long distance person-to-person* call. Then you’d give her the location and person’s name (and the number if you had it). Your local operator would probably transfer you to another operator in the receiver’s town or general location to complete the call. That operator would dial the receiver directly, wait for them to answer, and then come back on the line to tell you to proceed. If you were calling from a pay phone (like my character) the operator would then tell you to deposit a certain amount of money (in coins) for a certain number of minutes. You’d be warned when time was almost up to deposit extra money. You could, if you were slick, trick the pay phone into releasing the money you’d just put in and keep using the same coins over and over. Long distance telephone calls were extremely expensive at that time, however, and most people opted to send a telegram instead. (I’ll write about that in another post.)
Here’s a 1930s pay phone in action:
And here’s an AT&T Operator training film from 1938 if you have a spare 20 minutes or so.
You could direct dial local calls in the late 1930s. Telephone numbers were only 4 numbers long with a lettered prefix exchange name attached. (Area codes did not exist – or rather, they did, but only operators used them.) For example, Charlie’s office phone number in The Darkness Knows is HAR-7998. (HAR for Harrison corresponding to 427 on the telephone dial). Here’s a list of Chicago area prefixes if you’re curious. Some of these are specific to Chicago locations and some were used as generic prefixes all over the country.
Private home phone lines were very expensive in the 1930s, and so most people opted for party lines. That was when several houses close to each other would share the same phone line and the expense. Usually each house had their own distinct ring to let them know an incoming call was for them. The problem with this, of course, is there was usually that one neighbor that loved to gab and always hogged the line. On the flip side, that meant a lot of opportunities for eavesdropping on your neighbors since all you had to do was pick up the phone to hear their conversation… if that’s your sort of thing.
*Person-to-person didn’t mean direct phone line to direct phone line. It meant the call wasn’t completed until the actual person being called answered the phone. So if you called Mr. Smith at Smith’s Furniture the call wasn’t complete when the receptionist answered – only when Mr. Smith himself came to the phone.