The ghost sign on 79th Street in South Shore advertises the services of “Carl J. Adams, Undertaker.” That occupation, which is now known by the less morbid term “funeral director,” is not the only detail that makes the sign look archaic. Mr. Adams’s telephone numbers are listed as STEWART 0076-7 and SO. CHI. 3101-2. 

Long before the cell phone era, in which every phone call requires dialing 10 numbers, Bell Telephone customers had only five numbers, preceded by two letters. The letters represented exchanges, where operators plugged jacks into switchboards to connect callers. They were prefixes of longer words, which not only made numbers easier to remember, but indicated where in the city a customer lived and did business.

In the early part of the 20th Century, Carl J. Adams prepared the dead for burial in a funeral parlor on the 9100 block of South Houston Avenue, in the South Chicago neighborhood. Hence, his SOuth Chicago exchange.

The day after I spotted that ghost sign, I wandered into an antique store on Belmont Avenue, which had a fishbowl full of vintage matchbooks. Most of the books’ telephone numbers had lettered exchanges. The Embers on Walton was at WHitehall 4-1105. The Cypress, near 31st and Ogden, was FAculty 3-2727. The Bismarck Hotel was CEntral 6-0123. (The exchange era coincided with the era when people smoked like fiends — in restaurants, in bowling alleys, in taverns, on airplanes.) 

A ghost sign on 79th Street in South Shore, with the telephone numbers listed as STEWART 0076-7 and SO. CHI. 3101-2. Photo by Edward McClelland

The Bismarck (now the Allegro Royal Sonesta Hotel Chicago Loop), was at 171 E. Randolph St., hence the “CEntral” exchange. Back in that day, many local exchanges corresponded with the names of the neighborhoods they served: ALbany, AUstin, CAlumet, ENglewood, GRaceland, HUmboldt, KEdzie, LAkeview, NOrmal, PUllman, ROgers Park, SOuth Shore, UPtown. (Here’s a complete list of Chicago exchanges, courtesy of Living History of Illinois.)

From 1921 to 1948, callers used the first three letters of an exchange, followed by four numbers. The two-letter, five-digit era began in 1948, when the phone company added an extra digit to exchanges to meet the postwar demand for telephones. (The title of Call Northside 777, which starred James Stewart as a Chicago reporter investigating a murder case, hearkens back to an even earlier time, when exchanges were followed by only three numbers. Telephone exchanges also inspired the names of the Glenn Miller song “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” and the Elizabeth Taylor movie BUtterfield 8.) Area codes were also introduced just after World War II. They were the beginning of the end for exchanges. Now, an area code is almost as accurate a delineator of a customer’s location as an exchange once was. Exchange names were officially phased out in 1977, but continued to appear in phone books until the 1980s, because not everyone appreciated the change. According the The New York Times, “in the early 1960s, when lettered prefixes like YUkon, TRafalgar and PEnnsylvania were being replaced in phone numbers…groups like the Anti-Digit Dialing League and the Committee of Ten Million to Oppose All-Number Calling were formed. They knew that 736-5000 just did not have the ring of the ‘Pennsylvania 6-5000’ that Glenn Miller made famous.”

Even though exchange names have disappeared, they still live on in the numbers that replaced them. Let’s go back to Undertaker Adams’s exchange, SOuth Chicago. “SO” corresponds to “76” on a telephone keypad. I just received a copy of the 2023 Yellow Pages (another relic of the pre-cell phone era), which only lists businesses still clinging to their landlines. The South Chicago Pentecostal Church of God, 9231 S. Houston Ave., is at 768-0558. HUmboldt corresponds to “48.” The phone number for the Humboldt Family & Maternity Medical Center, 2556 W. North Ave., is 486-0899. What about LAkeview? Does anyone in Lake View still have a landline, and is its number descended from the old LAkeview exchange? Yes! Call the Lakeview Funeral Home, 1458 W. Belmont Ave., at 525-0178.

Alas, the romance of the telephone is dead. Who makes phone calls anymore, anyway, now that we have text messaging, email and Slack? And “773-Ravenswood 8-3612” just doesn’t roll off the tongue the way it did before area codes.