Today we celebrate Area Code Day, which pays homage to a now bygone era where area codes actually mattered. The area code system was developed by AT&T and Bell Laboratories in the 1940’s, and went into effect in 1947. It was called the North American Numbering Plan and included the United States and Canada.
Back when phones had rotary dials, lower numbers had shorter “dial pulls” and were therefore easier to call. This is why areas with high population often had lower numbers, like New York’s famous 212 area code. Before mobile phones, moving to a new city meant changing your number and well, your whole identity really, by adopting a new area code.
When I was a kid we still had a rotary dial phone for a time and I thought they were fun. It felt like you were actually doing something magical in order to create a call. Of course if you messed up on the final bit of the number it was frustrating because you had to start all over or risk calling the entirely wrong person. Since I didn’t like to actually talk to anyone on the phone, even back then, I would just dial short and wait for the horrible tones that signaled you’d just messed up.
The push button phones came and killed that magic. But they came with one of the greatest inventions at the time – the extra-long curly cord. It was all the rage to raid Radio Shack and get the absolute longest cord available so you could freely move throughout your house while talking on the phone. Long before smart phones we were already trying to figure out how to do something, anything else, while talking to another person.
The extra-long curly cord was probably more dangerous than yard darts as it was often circling the furniture, tripping people on their way to the kitchen, and nearly strangling the family dog. If you wanted “privacy” for your important call, you’d simply pull the curly cord as far as you could and into the bathroom. There, you could finally take your call in peace and, of course, do something else while talking to another person.
It was a huge deal when we finally got a cordless phone in the house. It looked like something from the Jetsons, and we were all excited to leave the horrors of the curly cord behind us. We quickly learned that without a cord, there’s no reliable way to keep track of the phone and it would often be lost entirely behind couch cushions or left sitting on the bathroom sink. But it was so cool.
Soon after college, I got my first mobile phone. These were less impressive. They were the size of a regular handset which made you look like a crazy person who had wandered into the street with your cordless phone. If you were not of the persuasion to carry a purse, then figuring out what the hell to do with it in transit was particularly worrisome. So I just left mine in the car and used it only for emergencies, which is still the only way I tend to make personal phone calls.
But as mobile phones evolved into smart phones, long distance calls became a thing of the past, and people could keep their number even when they moved, the poor area code has lost it’s ability to geolocate you. While those who remember these times still throw parties when securing a coveted New York 212, the next generation just shrugs, says a name into their earbuds and starts talking to someone. They didn’t have to memorize the number that they’re calling, and couldn’t tell you any of the digits, much less the area code.
For some of us, though, we can celebrate Area Code Day with memories of how life once was. Back in the days of the curly cord, when telling someone your area code was as revealing as telling them where you went to college. Three amazing little numbers that changed the world as we knew it. Little numbers that we never suspected could lose their magic, until the world would change once again.