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Young Salt: 1943

Young Salt: 1943

January 1943. "New York. Sixteen-year-old boy who is in the naval reserve on Mulberry Street." Along with a trove of telephone graffiti that looks as old as he is. Photo by Marjory Collins for the Office of War Information. View full size.


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I don't know how old this list is, but this number was still a payphone at some point, probably at the Post Office at 8th Avenue and 31st Street in New York - right across the street from (then and now) Penn Station and (now) Madison Square Garden. See . Looking at a higher-level page at Payphone Project, the upper reaches of 962, from about line 8000 on up, were populated with a plurality of pay phones.

Per the BLS inflation calculator, that nickel from 1943 would be worth about 67 cents in 2013, or about 13.4 cents a minute. That's pretty high for a modern postpaid (contract) cell phone, but not that far off from what some prepaid cell phones cost. But you would have to supply your own wall to write on.

Fifty Shades of Gray

The pay phone is actually manufactured by the the Gray Telephone Pay Station Company although they were sold through Western Electric as well as other distributors.

Limits of memory

I've read that the reason for those alphanumeric codes, such as WOrth 2-9970, is that Bell System engineers did not believe people could easily memorize a seven-digit number. Their research indicated that five digits was the limit, so they created mnemonics such as this to fill in the rest and allow the required quantity of exchange subscribers, while enabling memorization of a few numbers.

It's well-known that Bell employed the most brilliant engineers, and in hindsight, the irony is that they were both wrong and right. Most people nowadays can't memorize a seven-digit phone number, because we don't need to. The computers in our pockets, which we refer to somewhat quaintly as phones, do it for us. But those of us who grew up before cell phones learned to do it, from necessity.

In 1989-1990, I worked for a rental car company, moving surplus cars to locations where they were needed. At the destination, I had to write the car's seven-digit inventory number on a ticket. It would be most efficient to write it while walking to the office, instead of while standing over the windshield, but I found I couldn't memorize the number in its given nn-nnn-nn format. But if I mentally converted it to nnn-nnnn (just like a phone number) I had no problem memorizing seven digits for a minute or two.

Get Your Own!

You too can own an old style Western Electric pay phone like our young sailor friend is using (sans dust and spider webs). Current bidding on Ebay stands at $1,136.

Stock exchange

Perhaps this is just an unusually old payphone, but it's interesting that in 1943 there are still instructions on how to dial the central office/exchange name (here, WOrth) directly instead of relaying that information orally to an operator.

WOrth 2-8354

This telephone number on the sailor's pay telephone is an example of when exchange names were in their heyday in New York City. I always enjoy Shorpy photos when the 'phone numbers include a combination of letters and numbers. As I grew up our numbers included WHitehall, AMherst and CAstle. I still use CAstle to this day. Some U.S. cities, notably Seattle and Philadelphia, continued the use of office names well into the 1970s. You could always tell a person's neighbourhood by the exchange name. Here is a full list of New York City exchange names. Note also the cost is five minutes for a nickel.

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