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Operator, connect me with Edgewater 2520, please

Phil Egan Today, we panic if we leave the house without one. But there was a time not that long ago when very few Sarnians owned a telephone.
Lambton County Archives Sarnia Observer Negative Collection 01264-10
Switchboard operators connect calls at the Bell Telephone building in Sarnia, circa 1950. Photo courtesy the Lambton County Archives, Wyoming. Sarnia Observer Negative collection, 01264-10

Phil Egan

Today, we panic if we leave the house without one. But there was a time not that long ago when very few Sarnians owned a telephone.

Phil Egan
Phil Egan

In the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Gus Portokalos says, “Give me a word, any word, and I’ll show you it came from the Greek.” The telephone is from the Greek for “distant voice.”

Invented by Brantford’s Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, the telephone replaced the telegraph as the primary mode of communication.

The invention made its appearance in Sarnia shortly after the Bell Telephone Company was incorporated on April 29, 1880.

Mr. A.H. Dalziel operated an insurance and ticket office on Front Street that became the first “agency” of the new telephone company. A subscriber list published in January of 1885 revealed that Sarnia had 55 telephones. By December of 1886, the number had grown to 75.

Of course, you could only use a telephone when the shop was open. Hours ran from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with calls possible only from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays, and on holidays only from 10 a.m. to 12 noon and from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.

By the 1920s, telephones were in common use in the city. My two great-aunts both worked as operators for Bell Telephone in the ‘20s and ‘30s. They spent their days surrounded by a crew of other young women in front of massive switchboards, pulling phones into the appropriate jacks. Each pair of plugs completed a circuit. A light above the jack was activated when the receiver was lifted.

Some families shared “party lines.” It was possible, but considered impolite, to pick up your receiver and listen in on the conversation of others. The telephone operators, of course, could monitor every conversation!

Long distance telephone calls involved a process in which the local operator connected you with a local operator in another city, or overseas. The system lasted into the 1960s, when direct-dialling became the norm.

Double, triple, and then four-unit telephone numbers were common up to the 1930s and 1940s in Sarnia. Then, as numbers grew, Exchanges came into being. In Sarnia, we used “Digby” and “Edgewater.” Your number might be Digby 4121, which meant you dialled 34 for Digby, followed by the numbers 4121. Using Digby and Edgewater began to die out in the early 1970s when Sarnia’s growth led to the addition of the “542” and other exchanges.

And pay phones, now tough to find, were everywhere in the city in the earlier days of the telephone.

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