At one time if you exchanged telephone numbers with someone, you were exchanging two letters and five numbers. I’m ancient enough to remember that the prefix in the Blackfoot area was SU5. The SU stood for Sunset. Firth’s FI6, stood for Fireside. That changed in the 1960s.
An article in the May 18, 1961 Idaho Statesman announced the change to seven-digit numbers from the alphanumeric combinations. “Boise Main office number prefixes will be 342, 343, and 344, followed by four digits.” No doubt there was some grumbling about that, even though the digits were always there beneath the letters. Those Sunset 5, or SU5, prefixes in Blackfoot, for instance, simply became 785.
That 1961 article in the Statesman announced another major change. Idaho, along with every other state in the nation, was getting an area code, 208. More populous states got several, but Idaho could get along with just one. It was all to facilitate long-distance dialing.
There was little need for digits when Idaho’s first telephone was installed in Lewiston in 1878. There was just the one phone at the telegraph office, which according to the Lewiston Tribune did not operate well, perhaps due to “some defect in the instrument.” In 1879, John Halley’s telephone, the first in Boise, needed no number, either. It connected the stage office with his residence about a mile away. The first telephone exchange—a telephone system—in the state was started in Hailey in 1883.
So, that was then. This is now. Idaho is in the midst of adding a second area code. New telephone users in the state now get a 986 area code. Our growing population demands it. Today with the prevalence of cell phones and people keeping their area code when they move from another state, area codes are less and less an indicator of the location of a caller. The major grumbling point about having a second area code is that you must now use it whenever you dial any number, even if it’s across the street.
Dialing. There’s a word that could have been sent to history’s trash can, but remains in use today even though dials are now found mostly in museums.