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Column: More than a number, area code is history
November 20, 2013 11:45 PM | 2248 views | 0 0 comments | 74 74 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Thornton Kennedy
Thornton Kennedy

In 1881, the National Bell Telephone Co. produced the first directory for the Atlanta Telephonic Exchange with just 124 names of residents and businesses.

Dated Oct. 21, the single sheet of paper had a 1, 2 or 3 beside the name as the lines were shared. A caller picked up his or her mouthpiece and listening device, which were one in the same, pushed a white button to alert the operator they needed to place a call, loudly said the name or business into it and then quickly held it to their ear to listen as the operator connected the call.

The exchange was hardwired and was therefore in the top floor of the Kimball House Hotel on the corner of Wall and Pryor streets in downtown Atlanta. The wires ran directly into the board from the streets below, supported by the first wooden poles and connected to the homes and businesses.

Replicas of the exchange directory were given to several of those original families by former BellSouth executive Jasper Dorsey more than 100 years after they were originally printed. One of them was Northsider Lewis Regenstein, whose family founded Regenstein’s millinery in 1872 on Whitehall Street downtown. Regenstein’s sold hats and other accessories for ladies downstairs and sporting goods and clothes for gentlemen upstairs.

Many of those early names are not familiar. There are a few, like Van Winkle, Adair and Mayor James W. English, but one would be hard pressed to pick many more. Alfred Austell, my great-great-great-grandfather, lived here in 1881 on Marietta Street, but there is no listing for him or his bank, Atlanta National. Most likely stubborn family traits are to blame. I imagine Austell doubted the efficiency of the newfangled telephone, preferring instead to do things the old fashioned way: having a young clerk sprint from Austell’s home to the bank to deliver a message.

By the 1980s, that single-digit phone number increased sevenfold but most of the local lines began with the same three numbers like 231, 233 or 237. The area code was 404, and had been since 1947, but it wasn’t necessary for calls, just those seven digits. Ten-digit dialing became necessary in 1995, when the dreaded 770 area code descended upon metro Atlanta, which was closely followed by the gauche 678 area code.

Last week’s announcement that Atlanta had maxed out the 404 area code for what I believe is the third or fourth time — the rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated — is yet another reminder that change is the lone constant in our city.

Over the years, as Atlanta continued to pile on new numbers, I have fought for my little 404 number even for my cell phone. It is a prized possession, a memory of a faded Atlanta before the area code was necessary.

Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is a sixth-generation Atlantan and a former news editor of this paper. He can reached at

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