Editor’s note: This is the 93rd of a series about growing up in Marysville during the late 1930s and the 1940s written by Bill Boyd. Each article is a snapshot of the people, businesses and activities during that era as seen through the eyes of a young boy.
Boyd was born in Marysville in 1932, graduated from Marysville High School in 1950, and lived the greater part of his life here.
It seems like every time I turn around, a new iPhone is coming out on the market. Each model, of course, is better than the previous one, and it does more things. I guess during my lifetime, there have been more improvements in telephones than just about anything else.
I remember the telephone that hung on the wall when I was a kid during the 1930s. It was black metal and it had a mouthpiece that stuck out in front and a hook on the left side where you could hang the receiver.
I can recall picking up that receiver to make a call and hearing the local operator say, “Number please.” Marysville phones had a three-digit number following a prefix. When we lived on West Fifth Street our prefix was “Hilltop.” When we lived on Court Street it was “Canal.” As I recall, much of the north side of town was “Empire.”
A few homes in town had private lines, but most home phones were on a party line. We shared a phone line with two or three other families. Being on a party line, you never wanted to talk about anything you wanted to keep private, as anyone on your line could listen in on your conversation.
I can recall one day when I was talking on the phone with my friend, Fi McAllister. He and I were making plans to ride our bicycles to Ostrander the next day, so we had been talking for quite a while.
Suddenly our conversation was interrupted by a lady on our party line. She was pretty cranky anyway, but she was really upset now. She said, “Would you boys just hang up? I have to order a dressed chicken for tomorrow from Robinson’s Poultry, and they close in 20 minutes.” We immediately hung up, but I always hoped she didn’t get her chicken.
During the late thirties, one of my sisters worked as a local operator for a while at the phone company office on North Plum Street. I believe it only took one operator at a time to handle the local calls. A long distance operator sat just across the room from her.
Making a long distance call took some time. Let’s say you wanted to call someone in Denver, Colorado. When the local operator said, “Number please,” you would ask for the long-distance operator and tell her the destination you were calling. You might hear her talking with an operator in Dayton, and she might forward the information to an operator in Indianapolis. Then you could hear the Indianapolis operator route the call perhaps to Omaha and pass the information along. The call might then be routed to an operator in Denver who would place the call locally. The whole thing could take quite some time, especially when any of those operators ran into any routing problems.
A friend of mine recently got a new iPhone. He showed it to me and explained all the things it can do. The thing he liked best was its ability to answer questions. “Just watch this,” he said as he asked the phone, “What is the capital of Uruguay?” He waited a short time and then held out the phone and said, “See, it’s Montevideo.”
I told him that was a nice feature, however, I could do the same thing with our old wall phone back in the thirties. He looked at me in disbelief, so I explained: all I had to do was lift the receiver, and when the operator said, “Number please,” I simply replied “Hilltop 237” (I’m not sure about those three digits). Then a lady would come on the phone, and I would say, “This is Billy. What is the capital of Uruguay?” Then there might be a slight pause, before I got the answer.
He thought I was pulling his leg, so I explained that that phone number was actually the number of our next door neighbors, the Robb sisters, Lena and Lillian. They were two elderly ladies who were the Marysville librarians. I spent a lot of time with them. They were really smart and could answer all my questions. The chances are either one of them could have told me the capital of Uruguay, but if they couldn’t, their house was full of reference books, and they would be glad to look it up and get the answer for me. I think they would have done just about anything for me.
I don’t think my neighbor was impressed, and he said he would rather have his iPhone, which was much faster. I couldn’t argue about the speed. But when Lena or Lillian gave me an answer, we could chat about it for a while. Then maybe the next day, when I went next door to see them, they might show me some photos of Montevideo from the pile of “National Geographic” magazines in their living room. And while I was looking at them, they would probably give me a cookie. It was nice living next door to the town’s librarians … even nicer than having an iPhone.
(Those wishing to contact Bill Boyd can email him at email@example.com)
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