Our Northwest

564 area code here soon, folksy prefixes long gone

Wednesday, July 12, 2017by  Jon Osterberg

Cell phone with new area code 564 on screenYou'll need to dial 10 digits in Western Washington starting July 29, even to reach someone across the street. That's because of the new 564 area code.

An additional area code became necessary as the supply of phone numbers dwindled for existing area codes 360, 206, 253, and 425. Starting Aug. 28, all new phone lines west of the Cascades will get 564 area codes.

Don't worry, local calls will remain local calls even when dialing 10 digits – you won't pay long-distance charges on landlines (if you still have one). And in emergencies, you still simply dial 911.

Longtime residents recall when Washington had just two area codes, 206 for west-siders and 509 for those east of the mountains.

So here's a question for you: Can you recall your childhood phone number?

And, have you been around long enough to remember exchange-name prefixes?

I know I'm getting old when I mention "letter" prefixes and get a blank stare from younger people.

Old rotary telephone with Seattle letter prefix, MA2-7628For example, my childhood phone number was Sherwood 6-0850, abbreviated as SH6-0850. Sherwood was the name of prefixes assigned to phones in the Lake Hills area, while our neighbors to the west in Bellevue proper had the Glencourt (GL) prefix.

In that era you knew where a person lived or worked by their letter prefix. If the number began MA (Main) or MU (Mutual), the phone was in downtown Seattle. Ballard residents were assigned SU (Sunset), Richmond Beach had LI (Lincoln), and where my wife grew up in Yakima her prefix was CH (Chestnut).

That started changing in the early 1960s when Bell Telephone System began phasing out exchange-name prefixes in lieu of all-number calling, which as I recall was standard in the Seattle area by the mid-1970s. My childhood phone number became 746-0850 – a real problem, because it was nearly identical to the number for J.C. Penney at Southcenter Mall. We got misdialed Penney calls all the time.

Record label for 867-5309 by Tommy TutoneCertainly, all-number calling was mainstream by the time musician Tommy Tutone hit it big in 1981 with "867-5309 Jenny."

Lots of people resented all-number calling and squawked that it was impersonal. A phone-history author likens the old telephone letter prefixes to today's screen names, a shared social media handle, a collective identity.

If all of that is irrelevant ancient history to you, here's a fun memory-jogger: What was your first screen name or email address?

If you're reluctant to reveal it, chances are you chose it as a youth. Well, it seemed pretty cool at the time, right?

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