One Day I Was Wondering About Area Codes

Do you ever have ever have curious questions pop into your head like “what does spindle mean in the phrase fold, spindle and mutilate”? The other day the question that popped for me was “when did area codes start?” I was online, so the answer was  close at hand. With any luck, this will be a question in a trivia game someday, and I will barrel to victory because of my earlier research.

Here’s the story. In the 1940s, AT&T was a monopoly also known as the Bell System. Long distance calls were still placed by speaking to an operator who made the connection for the calling customer. At that time, AT&T and Bell Laboratories began to work out a system to make the direct dialing of calls by the public possible.  The system, which went into effect in 1947, was called the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) and included the United States and Canada.

At first, the codes were used only by long-distance operators. It wasn’t until November 10, 1951 that the first directly-dialed call was made from Englewood, New Jersey to Alameda, California. Direct dialing was gradually instituted throughout the country, and by the mid-1960s, it was commonplace in most larger cities.

By the way, “spindle” refers to the spike used to hold pieces of paper. You’ve probably seen them used in restaurants, where the orders or bills are temporarily gathered. A few decades ago a spindle was a common office fixture. When it was full, the clerk would remove the paper, run a piece of string through the holes, tie the bundle and file  it.


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