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Browsing through the Staten Island, NY telephone directory of January 1940, I found that certain phone numbers were printed with a suffix J, M, R or W. What do these mean? I've marked a few of them in the image below.
The phone book itself does not define these suffixes -- I checked carefully. These letters do not seem to represent calling rate zones, as Staten Island had only two zones.
Party lines? I'm aware that up to 4 customers could share a phone number and each would get a distinctive ring so the correct party would know to pick up, but I've never known how one would call a particular party on a party line. This phone book mentions that "party lines are available" but gives no further information about them.
You are correct that these are party lines. The letters represent an additional digit dialed after the others in cases where automatic operations was implemented. This article goes into great depth all about how multi-party telephone lines worked, but as a short excerpt:
A scheme widely used in the Bell Telephone System for four-party full selective lines (under both manual and automatic operation) used a suffix letter, generally from the set J, M, R, and W, to designate which of the four ringing signals applies to the station. These letters were chosen to not be easily mis-heard when spoken (with regard to manual operation).
With regard to automatic operation, in metropolitan areas, the dials had most of the letters of the alphabet associated with digit values, and through that scheme J, M, R and W were associated with the digits 5, 6, 7, and 9. In other areas, when the dials did not have the full repertoire of letters, they nevertheless had J, M, R and W on the corresponding digits.
Here is an image from such a dial:
Can't talk about New York (as I'm in Australia), but when I was a kid the Brisbane phone numbers had a one two digit alpha prefix, then a 4 digit number - eg my grandparents were J 2871, and my aunt LX 1710. These letters were merely mapped on to the dial (note that Australian phones go from 1 to 9 then zero): 1 A 2 B 3 C 4 J 7 L 6 M 7 N 8 P o X 0 Y (I think - i can't be certain of 6, 7 and 8).
Our party lines were listed by providing a suffix (a letter whose Morse Code was used as the ring for that number), eg 2028 R. I had a mate whose number was "Pony Hills 1 Z". When I was working near Sydney, I rang trunks to get connected to this number. After being summarily informed that there was no such number and that I must be joking, I stuck to my guns. It then took time to convince exchange that Pony Hills was a sub-exchange out of Injune, which was a sun-exchange out of Roma, which was 500km west of Brisbane! Yes, I finally got connected.
I realise that this is unlikely to shed any light on your question, but it reminded me of some very pleasant times in the Australian outback!
Best of luck with your telephonic peregrinations!
Although they may have been party lines, that has nothing to do with Telephone exchange names which were used, "so that each telephone number in an area was unique."
Until 1923, a dialer would call an operator and ask for the person they wanted to reach by giving their exchange name or number. Phone numbers were just three or four digits, with an exchange name tacked onto the front. Names were sometimes selected to be memorable or easily understood over the phone. “CALUMET-555,” for example, could be taken from local Chicago geography.
- The 311 On Chicago's Early Phone Numbers, wbez.org
Until recently my family owned a 100yo(? we're not sure) company that still had its original phone number prefaced with BR(unswick). We still have the sign and it's missing the zero that you'd have to tack onto the end to make it work.
Calumet is a suburb of Chicago, and '311' is how you dial information. I don't know where Brunswick is though. Likely it has something to do with where one of their offices were. "Brunswick billiard tables were a commercial success, and the business expanded and opened the first of what would become many branch offices in Chicago, Illinois, in 1848."
I don't think this has much to do with the Morse code. The letter is the same as dialing the number. Look on your dial the numbers are still there. Later when the telephone number system was expanded, my number in NJ was through the Charter exchange; Ch-9-0979. C is 2 and H is 4. So you actually dialed 24-9-0979.
It is quite correct to say this was done to make it easier for the human (mostly women by this time) operator. Transylvania-6 and -7 were NYC exchanges the most famous number was Transylvania-6-5000 used in the song by that name. (See note below.) That was before my time, but I remember it was the Hotel Pennsylvania near Madison Square Garden. (Its still there!)
The dial was a mechanical interrupter so the marks and spaces were the same length, as I remember it. This worked but was slow and eventually was replaced starting in 1961 by an electronic 2-tone system.
I also remember Mulberry was the Newark, NJ exchange and my grandmothers number in East Orange, NJ through the Orange exchange was Or-2-9306.Also, in Sussex,NJ my number was Wi-8-4018 which was a four-party line from the Windsor exchange . (One of the neighbors used to listen in on other peoples calls.)