Phone Numbers

When something simple isn't so simple.

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Searching for something not Trump-related* to post about this morning, I stumbled on Charlie Warzel‘s Atlantic essay “In Praise of Phone Numbers.” Which is amusing, because clearly he had a deadline and needed something to write about.

All in all, it’s an interesting ode to something simple that has lasted a long time—albeit in different forms over the years. But was especially amused by this:

But the phone number isn’t just the yeoman farmer of the technological landscape—a modest, utilitarian workhorse—it is also a vital cultural touchstone. I am and have always been a man without a county; a person who, because of childhood relocations and general adult restlessness, has had the great fortune to adopt many a hometown, from Manhattan to Missoula, Montana. Despite my wandering, my sense of place and a nontrivial aspect of my identity is forever fixed, thanks to three simple numbers: 610, which is switchboard speak for the “Philadelphia Suburb Zone.” I lived there for only a decade, but it was when I happened to get my first cellphone. My area code thus provides me with something akin to a clever disguise or even a passport. Stumbling upon another 610 number is like opening a door. What town are you from? Oh really, where’d you go to school? Three digits can turn a stranger into a fellow traveler.

Warzel is a relatively young man, having graduated college in 2010. Those of us over a certain age, though, remember a time when phone numbers weren’t at all permanent. Every time you moved, even across town, you’d get a new number. This continued well into the mobile phone era. If you moved and/or changed carriers, you got a new number. I don’t remember exactly when I got my current, “permanent,” number but it’s been in the last 20 years, maybe the last 15.

Additionally, Warzel forecasts us exhausting the limits of the current 10-digit system by 2051. But I’m old enough to have seen the “sense of place” associated with area codes slowly evaporate. We moved to Alabama in 1980 and had the 205 area code that had served the state since the creation of the system in 1947. My parents kept their number when the state split into two area codes in 1995 but had to switch to 256 when another split happened in 2010. The state now has six area code.

While my “permanent” 703 area code has been associated with Northern Virginia since 1995—indeed, it served all of Virginia from 1947-1973—the proliferation of cell phones, fax machines, and pagers and the steady population growth of the National Capitol Region meant that the region needed a second, overlapping area code. So 571 was created as an overlay in 2000.

The same thing was happening around the country, along with the advent of 10-digit dialing. Which, of course, mattered a lot less as most of us gradually stopped “dialing” at all.

The upshot of all of this is that our family of seven has four different area codes.

As noted, I’m a 703.

My wife and her two oldest have the 301 area code of the DC exurbs of western Maryland.

Her youngest has the 610 area code of the Philadelphia exurbs of eastern Pennsylvania.

I was able to get my oldest daughter a 703 number when she got her first iPhone a year and a half ago but we had to settle for a 571 for my youngest when she got hers at the beginning of the last school year—AT&T literally had no 703 numbers left to assign.


*The latest news has been pretty well chewed in the open threads and I just don’t have anything to add.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Science & Technology, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    Not only did we get a new home phone number when we moved, but we would get a new work phone number, sometimes even if we just changed offices. Because of that my mother’s habit of just crossing out an old phone number in her rolodex (the paper kind) and adding a new card when she ran out of room (without removing the old) I discovered that I had a thick section of that rolodex. Dozens and dozens of numbers from my first dorm room (shared) phone all the way until I could keep my cell phone number when I moved, and gave up on having a home phone.

  2. Mister Bluster says:


  3. MarkedMan says:

    @Mister Bluster: ?

    [Edit] Oh, got it

    That’s a deep cut…

  4. Rick DeMent says:

    I had a job were I was provided a cell phone starting in the mid 90s when I was given one of those “bag phones” while working in Cleveland. It would be another 5 years before I left that company and got my own cellphone. That was when I lived in SC and that is how I got my 803 area code.

    In an effort to combat spam, I got a google phone number and was allowed to pick the area code and chose the beloved Detroit area code from my youth … 313. I give out that number to companies that I deal with and check in from time to time to delete the spam voice and text messages.

    The only real advantage of a SC area code these days is I can still call the offices of SC members of of congress to voice my complaints.

  5. Daryl says:

    @Mister Bluster:
    Nice one.

  6. Neil Hudelson says:

    I destroyed my first cell phone, necessitating a new one, right at the end of the time when porting your number to your new phone was not easy, let alone standard practice. But, I was 19 and the random phone number assigned to me with my first phone happened to have BOTH of the very common taboo numbers that kids…and lets face it adults…find very funny. Fought like hell to keep that number, and every so often when I give it out I still get a surprised look or a chuckle.

  7. Tony W says:

    Phone number permanence has also allowed them to be used for two-factor authentication, at least temporarily until we can all agree on an authenticator protocol that is more secure than the telephone network.

    I feel like people don’t really understand the importance of clicking on “Profile” and assuring their phone number is correct on every website for which they have a login.

  8. MarkedMan says:

    @Neil Hudelson: Now you got me curious. 80085? 666? 420?

  9. Han says:

    @Neil Hudelson: I had a friend who won the number lottery with xx4-PLAY. No idea if she noticed it first, or if somene pointed it out to her, but she had fun with it.

  10. Jax says:

    There’s an entire industry based on Wyoming’s single 307 area code. And many, many businesses incorporating it into their business name. I’m sure eventually the population increase will force a split, but it doesn’t seem to matter how many boom/bust cycles we go through, the population remains under 600,000 people statewide.

  11. Scott says:

    I’ve had so many phone numbers that I only remember my first one (when I was five): AN1-2225. AN stood for Andrew. And, of course, my current one.

  12. Slugger says:

    When phones were not mobile, certain area codes had more cachet than others. People in Manhattan were convinced that 212 was better than 917. Cell phone mobility has removed this bit of snootishness.

  13. Neil Hudelson says:


    420; 69.

  14. gVOR10 says:

    Having retired from Cincinnati I carried a 513 number to FL. When I changed phone companies in Cincy I always enjoyed the sales kids pitch that his company, being the tech savvy nice guys they were, could let me keep my old number, what with it having become federal law that they had to.

    Northern KY is essentially suburban Cincy, but with a different area code. Not knowing a business’s location I’d dial a seven digit number only to get a message saying I needed to hang up and dial the 859 area code. To which I always muttered, “If you know the right number, why didn’t you just put it through?” The fact is I don’t know anyone’s number anymore. My phone and iCloud know them, there’s no reason I need to after the first usage. I don’t know my own or anybody else’s IP address.

  15. DK says:


    People in Manhattan were convinced that 212 was better than 917. Cell phone mobility has removed this bit of snootishness.

    I still get the “HOW did you get a 212 number?” several times a year, from people who then go on to explain the area code is associated with NYC old money.

    That’s a phone number I use only for business. My personal permaphone is a 213 number, the original L.A. code. From the reactions, it’s become associated somehow with ‘street cred.’ The snooty 212-equivalent out here is 310, the “original” West LA and Beverly Hills adjacent code.

    So among the weirdos who assign status to area codes, I get some New Yorkers thinking I’m from the Upper West Side and some Angelenos thinking I’m from Compton, apparently? It’s wild. My origins were firmly middle class suburban/exurban Georgia-boy.

  16. Andy says:

    We moved a lot but most of us have numbers from Florida. It turns out that having an area code for a state you do not live in is extremely handy to combat spam calls that spoof numbers from your area code. If I get a call from “my” area code that isn’t in my contacts, 99.9% of the time it’s a spammer or scammer.

  17. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Vinewood 37118

    in the 313

    I remember that black phone with the dial and cloth-wrapped wire. Sitting on its own small phone table w/ seat.

    Funny thing… (Since cell phones don’t even require it anymore) the leading digit “1” is the US country code.

    And we are “1” because we invented that shit!

  18. Mister Bluster says:

    The first place that I lived (1948-1956) was in the Charlotte exchange of the Rochester (NY) Telephone Company. I don’t remember our phone number but when I wanted to call my friend Susie down the street I would pick up the phone, the operator would say “number please” and I would reply “1426r”, “r” being the party line code.
    Somehow my selective memory retains BU-5761, the number at our new house when we moved in 1956 and got dial service. It was also a 2 party line that had a distinctive ring for our phone so we would know a call was for us instead of the other ring we heard when a call was made to our neighbors a few houses down Old Mill Lane. When the phone company upgraded their system to 7 digit dialing BU8-5761 was our number. BUtler was the exchange name. It was also the last telephone exchange name that I ever had. After 1961 when we moved again all the places I lived after that had dropped two letter exchange designations for all numbers.
    I remember reading stories years ago when telephone companies were transitioning to all numeric dialing and dropping MAin, CEntral, HUdson and all the others. It was predicted that people would lose their sense of community and the apocalypse was right around the corner. How civilization survived and we made it to “…The fact is I don’t know anyone’s number anymore. My phone and iCloud know them, there’s no reason I need to after the first usage.” is beyond me but somehow we have endured!

  19. Mu Yixiao says:

    My mother has had the same phone number since she moved into her house–56 years ago.

    When my brother bought Grandma’s house, he kept her phone number. That was from the 1940s or early 50s.

    Our town is small enough that it’s going to be a very long time before the local exchange runs out of numbers.

  20. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Neil Hudelson: I’d guessed 69. I didn’t think 420 had any significance going back far enough to include the days before numbers were portable.

    Then again, I probably didn’t get most of the jokes in Cheech and Chong’s comedy routines. Or get the “Doobie Brothers” either.

  21. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Tony W:

    Phone number permanence has also allowed them to be used for two-factor authentication

    This isn’t a good thing. Most people don’t have a single version of themselves that they present to everyone, and tying everything to a single phone number, while certainly convenient for corporations, make it much harder to keep the various spheres that make up one’s life separate. Especially in light of companies’ increasing willingness to intrude into the private and family lives of their employees, putting your phone number into an app can be dangerous.

  22. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    we have endured!

    Indeed, we have. Community, eh… not so much.

  23. de stijl says:

    @Neil Hudelson:


  24. DrDaveT says:

    the 301 area code of the DC exurbs of western Maryland

    When I had a 301 number, that area code ran right up to the DC border. Is that no longer true? (I seem to recall that all of Maryland, possibly excepting the City of Baltimore, was 301…)

  25. de stijl says:

    I remember the old Ma Bell dial home phones that every household in America had. Evey one was identical. All came in beige (maybe? That memory is fuzzy), all had the curly helix cord. Sucker weighed a good 5 pounds and the handset a pound. I remember the ring sound distinctly.

    My grandparents lived on a farm in a rural part of NW Wisconson. They still had a party line. One of their neighbors still used a stick phone that had to have dated from the ’30s. Another neighbor had one of the old units that’s bolted to the wall with a gorgeous oak box. From the ’40s, maybe?

    My current phone is a Samsung that developed the battery bulging issue. The back panel bulges out a good quarter inch in the center, and the front screen had popped out of the bezel on one side slighly. I can peak under the edge of the screen if I look at it from the side. Apparently Samsung phones from a certain time frame had an issue with batteries. They swell up and bulge out the back aluminum panel from the sustained pressure over time. It’s about a year and a half old. If I lay my phone on a flat, hard surface I can spin it like a top.

  26. Stormy Dragon says:

    @de stijl:

    YOU NEED TO REPLACE THAT PHONE IMMEDIATELY. Lithium batteries bulge because the lithium ion polymer inside is overheating and off-gassing hydrogen. You’re literally carrying around a bomb that could suddenly burst into flame at any moment.

  27. Gavin says:

    I have an area code from New Jersey because I lived there the first year Congress passed a law allowing cell phone owners to keep their number no matter where in the country they move.
    Only my one buddy with the same area code would call me today — everyone else is a scammer and gets blocked.

  28. de stijl says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Thanks for the heads up! I will tomorrow. TIL.

  29. Ol Nat says:

    In my hometown of Davis, CA, all of the numbers started with 75, so when you went to rent a video or order a pizza they would often just write “6-9693” with the 75 assumed. 752 was numbers at UCDavis. All of that has changed of course.

  30. de stijl says:

    I know my SSN better than I know my current phone number. Everytime someone asks I fumble around in my head for a few seconds to pull in up into operative memory.

    I am extremely choosy with who I share it with and usually give it to them by calling them or texting them after they’d shared there’s. For me, it really does not come up that often. It’s there in long-term memory I access fairly rarely. If you asked me cold it would take me 8-10 seconds to answer.

    Every now and again somebody asks you for the last 4 digits of your SSN as a quick identity check. I shut down for four seconds because I have to run it through my head in order and count back four digits from the end of what I just said aloud in my brain.

  31. steve says:

    ” I probably didn’t get most of the jokes in Cheech and Chong’s comedy routines. Or get the “Doobie Brothers” either.

    Firesign Theater was better.


  32. MarkedMan says:

    @de stijl: (The following is almost too wonderfully techy and nerdy to be true, but I recall looking into it a few years ago and finding out it was essentially right. However, I did a quick google just now and didn’t find it again so you can either trust my sketchy memory or take this as apocryphal)

    When Ma Bell got big and in its Glory created Stromberg Carlson to make the phones, they bade them use a carbon microphone with very particular characteristics. For the carbon, Bell (or SC) bought a trainload full of anthracite coal and dumped it in a lot at their manufacturing facility. They measured every parameter they could and experimented on microphone improvements until they reached perfection (a very sh*tty perfection by today’s standards) and then locked it down and started manufacturing the umpteen gazillion phones Ma Bell required. Everything was fine for a couple of decades or more until the microphones started causing problems. Eventually it got so bad they shut everything down and drilled into the cause. It turns out they were finally running out of that trainload of coal and someone ordered another, but the original mine had closed and the new coal had different characteristics. In the interests of speed, they located the original, depleted mine, bought it, and then hired miners to go in and collect whatever was still left down there.

  33. Mister Bluster says:

    @Ol Nat:..All of that has changed of course…
    I lived in the Carterville exchange of the General Telephone Company of Illinois for seven years ending in 1985. There was only one prefix: 985. The local electro-mechanical switch was so old that all anyone had to dial in that exchange was the last four digits to connect with another subscriber in the 985 exchange. That all changed a few years later when the Carterville Central Office was upgraded with at the time state of the art digital facilities. Since I was working on that project I would get an ear full from customers. You would think that their fingers were going to fall off for having to dial 7 digits instead of four. I just told them to get a pushbutton phone and quit whining. I can only imagine how they griped when they had to dial 1+Area Code+seven digits to make a local call starting about a year ago.

  34. de stijl says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    With an old school dial phone if the number you were dialing had a lot of 9s or 8s in it it took substantially longer.

    In my lifetime I have seen a lot of telephony generations come and go. Ma Bell, the break-up of that monopoly, competing services, touch tone dialing, phreaking, long distance calls costing an arm and a leg, cordless phones, early modems, the first brick cellular phones, car phones, dial-up internet, stick phones, flip phones, pagers, two-way pagers, burners, pay by the month with activated cards.

    It’s been a heady trip.

    In my working youth it was my job to send data to our off-site storage facility. We would send them hundreds of boxes of files and back-up tapes to them weekly, monthly with box numbers and file numbers. Huge data back-ups. I still remember that dial-up cacophony sound. I had to go to a special computer downstairs to send data that was isolated from the network. And monitor it. You have never seen a progress bar move so slowly.

  35. de stijl says:

    I carried around a pager for six years. In a belt holster. I was such a dork.

    If a server or a database went down I was on the call list. I don’t know why. I couldn’t do jack diddly squat. My job was managing the front-end applications. No database means no applications, no dashboards. My sole job then was to send out an e-mail informing people that these applications were currently off-line and tell them in corporate-speak we were working on it diligently. I’m not a hardware guy, I’m not a server guy, I’m not a network guy. But it was all hands on deck for the duration. This outage impacts my responsibility greatly, but is entirely out of my control. I couldn’t do anything about it. I fetched coffee and sodas and gave off good vibes.

    When a system fails you learn quickly the order of operations, who is responsible for what, what has to happen in what order, and to let professionals do their job as they see fit.

    I lived close. My boss lived in Stillwater or Hudson, at least 45 minutes away.

    After the third middle of the night call-out for a run-of-the-mill server restart I proposed to my boss a rethink on how we handled outages. Surely, there has to be a better way.

  36. Franklin says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: 313? That was my childhood. Before it became 810. Then 248. Then I moved to 734.

  37. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:
    Apparently all y’all ate too young to remember party lines. PArkway 2-8528. 3 long/2 short for Casa Luddite

  38. Mister Bluster says:

    @de stijl:..With an old school dial phone if the number you were dialing had a lot of 9s or 8s in it it took substantially longer.

    Yeah, I know. It was a tough life.
    I do remember running a trouble ticket one time. The customer stated that her rotary dial phone wasn’t working properly. Since the phone was on lease from what was then a Citizens Communications telephone exchange, one of the many Independent Telephone Companies (non Bell System) that I worked for over 35 years, I had to replace her instrument with a new pushbutton phone. I couldn’t believe how attached she was to her old phone. She literlly clutched it to her bosom and wasn’t going to let me change it out. Fortunately her son was there and took it from her. After I installed the new one I had her call a neighbor to test it out. She was surprised at how fast the call was completed. Another satisfied customer!

  39. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Or get the “Doobie Brothers” either.

    Ayup. First time I saw the album cover, I remember thinking that some of them were adopted, ’cause they sure didn’t look like any brothers I knew. Of course, most of our neighbors considered Richard and Karen Carpenter to be demonic, Satan-inspired godless rockers.

  40. de stijl says:

    @de stijl:

    As a basic outsider, I quickly noted that middle of the night, all hands on deck call-outs were chaotic and wildly impractical.

    No one was in charge, but the group self-organized around the common goal. There is a common problem.

    In many instances it was a dbms. There is no need to call in hardware people or network people if a dba can kill it and restart it remotely from home. We don’t even need to reload. It’s the cliche “have you tried restarting / powering off?” solution.

    Our outage reporting system over-reached, over-paged. It was a blunt force.

    Is this an application problem? If so page x and y. Is this a database problem? If so page z, and and x and y too, as they are directly impacted. Work your way down the system layer by layer.

    Our system was a blunt weapon entirely unmanaged set to auto-execute a decade before by someone long gone.

  41. de stijl says:


    I have my home-brewed double authentication.

    Step 1. Never answer unless that number is in your contact list.

    Step 2. Let voice mail take it – here is my special sauce. My voice mail greeting is 20 seconds of absolute dead silence. This is key.

    Ffs, don’t provide a greeting “This is x. Please leave a message.” No. That’s foolish.

    If you want to eliminate a lot of bullshit, nonsense, scammy shit never answer unless you know them, and let voicemail pick up where there is no sound for 20 seconds.

    Seriously, no one lasts it out. If you wait it through there is eventually a beep, but no telemarketer or scammer waits through 20 seconds of dead silence. My friends know, nobody else.

    My friends, people in my contact list, mostly text me if they want my attention.

    Simple, easy, fast, no cost solution. It took me several minutes because I live on a busy street so I had to go to the basement to record my 20 seconds of dead silence.

  42. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @steve: I’ve never seen anything from Firesign Theater.

  43. DrDaveT says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I’ve never seen anything from Firesign Theater.

    That would be “heard”, not “seen”.

    Some of the drug humor has not aged well. Much of it is timeless, and side-splittingly funny. It’s very hard to describe, though.

  44. Jen says:

    @Flat Earth Luddite:

    Oh, I remember party lines. When I was working in politics in Missouri, we had issues doing partyID work in parts of the state because we couldn’t attach a line to a household due to party lines. This was in the 90s.

  45. Tony W says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Yes, that was largely my point. Today people are using quite insecure cell phones as a “two-factor authentication” mechanism, rather than a universal authenticator app.

    This is both a trust and a market-share issue.

    People trust what they are familiar with, and everyone seems to be familiar with text messages. That will change over time, but the process will be painful.

    Apple and Google and Microsoft and Facebook and xxx will fight over who is the true arbiter of a person’s identity and they all will continue to market their own solution as the best one. And none of them will ever accept one of the others for their own authentication.

  46. Mister Bluster says:

    @Jen:..Show Me a party line

    The last job that I worked converting rural party lines to private lines was in the Salem exchange of the United Telephone Company of Missouri in the early ‘90s.

  47. BugManDan says:

    Apparently all y’all ate too young to remember party lines.

    My parents in SW MO had one well in the 90s,possibly early 2000s. When I still lived with them it had at least 4 houses on it. And a couple of old ladies that would listen to your call and gossip about you (or tell your parents if something they thought was bad).

  48. DrDaveT says:


    Firesign Theater was better.

    I adore them. My personal favorite is probably “Temporarily Humboldt County” from Waiting For the Electrician, or Someone Like Him.

    “…a chance for our children, and our children’s children, and the generations a-comin’, to carve a new life out of the American Indian…”

    “Want some fire water, Injun?”
    “No, our elders taught us not to consume anything that would make us weak or stupid.”
    “Heh. [aside] Put it in their well.”
    “That’s not a well; it’s the Eye of the Sacred Serpent Mound.”
    “It’s a beaut.”
    “No, it’s a mound.”
    “And right purty, too.”