As an ephemera collector, I find lots of old clippings inside my vintage magazines, retro catalogs, and even in my antique books. While the acidic old paper may be a threat to already fragile old paper, I am delighted by what I find. It’s somehow comforting to know that we humans have always clipped and tucked away little bits and bobs in publications, either to save them as related materials or as a bookmark in a pinch.
The trouble is trying to discover the age of the clipping itself, because, then as now, we humans don’t exactly tuck only ephemera from the same year as the publication itself.
Now for some, the year of the clipping is irrelevant; but I am an admitted obsessive, remember? So it matters to me.
When I found these old bits of paper in a recently purchased vintage copy of Watkins Household Hints, I wanted to post them to my vintage home ec site, Things Your Grandmother Knew — but I wanted to properly document them as accurately as possible. While the date on the old handwritten partial tip on whitening clothes would be nearly impossible to know, I felt compelled to do better with the newspaper clippings.
Neither vintage newspaper clipping has any masthead or anything to indicate the newspaper name or location, but I figured I could at least get a date or time period for them.
The first one, the larger one with the list of household tips, was easy. There was the complete short story of the resignation of Marvin L. McLain. No, I’m no expert on US assistant secretaries of agriculture; but Google helped nail that date to October 27, 1960. (Give or take a day, I suppose.)
The other clipping however…
The only clue I had to help me with this clipped and saved tip on brightening furniture was the ad on the back. An advertisement with an unusual phone number.
Now I’m familiar with telephone numbers with letters in them; prior to 1958, phone numbers used exchange name dialing or letter prefixes. (And, in fact, it wasn’t until sometime in the mid-1980s that exchange name dialing gave way to all-number calling or ANC.) However, the phone number in this ad, “1597-J,” doesn’t have a letter prefix, it has a letter suffix.
This I was not familiar with.
I knew it was a phone number, not some blind box number; the ad reads “Phone 1597-J.” Was it possible this was just a more fashionable way to write a phone number? It certainly wasn’t a pragmatic or effective way because the exchange would need to be dialed or given to the phone operator first. It just didn’t seem to make sense.
I tried to do some online research, but I didn’t find much to help me. I knew I was putting the wrong words or terms into search engines and data bases. Knowing I was at a wall, I decided to look up the “J” and see where it might least me…
According to the The Telephone EXchange searchable database, the letter — if a telephone exchange, belonged to San Diego. So I contacted the San Diego History Center. While I waited for a response, I also contacted the Library Of Congress, telephone book collector Gwillim Law, and Ammon Shea, author of The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads.
Not content to just sit back and wait for returned calls and emails, I turned to the only other clue I had: the name of the person can business mentioned in the old ad: Arnold Kholmetz, Auctioneer and Realtor. That turned up some old articles in the Milwaukee Journal – Sentinel Archives. This made sense because the first clipping seemed to be from a Wisconsin newspaper and the old household tips book itself was purchased in that state.
So, naturally, I then did what any true obsessive does and called the Journal Sentinel to speak to their archivist. Sadly, Mr. King hadn’t any idea himself regarding the phone number, but he suggested a few other places to try.
The first was AT&T, which does have a telephone history page, has no means of connecting you to anyone but customer service. (I’m not sure you’d call it “irony”: it was simply pure frustration to have their operator inform you that they outside of customer service they only have a list of names and extensions, no departments, etc.) I did manage to get to the voice mail of “Investor Relations” but no one has returned my call and I don’t expect anyone ever will. Note to collectors and historians: Don’t bother contacting AT&T; not by phone anyway.
The second place Mr. King suggested was the Milwaukee Public Library; they couldn’t help me, but stated I was welcome to come in and look through all their old phone books to see if I could find the research I needed.
Well, I wasn’t going to do that — at least not right now; but I wasn’t going to give up either. Like a dog with a bone, and fueled with the rationalization of helping other collectors by writing a great “how to” article, I wasn’t ready to give up. I could call the Watertown Public Library (because that’s where those old Journal Sentinel archive clippings said Mr. Kohlmetz was from) or I could try to research the partial radio show listings showing there at left of the clipping…
But then Jane Kenealy, Archivist at the San Diego History Center, called me back.
I explained to her that I no longer believed I had an old San Diego phone number, but did she have any idea what the “J” could be at the end of a phone number?
She said she didn’t know, but went to get the 1931 San Diego City Directory — the first city directory which listed phone numbers. I listened to her as she read numbers that ended in “J” and a few other letters, but it was clear, she said, that these letters were suffixes; that they were not exchanges because each page or section of the listings began with the exchange, then listed the phone numbers. We were both puzzled…
“All the phone numbers which end in letters end in either a ‘J,’ ‘M,’ ‘R,’ or ‘W’… But no place in the book is there an explanation…” said Kenealy with the excitement of a researcher enjoying her clues. “Let me go look for another book and I’ll call you back.”
Somewhere in the back of my brain those four letters meant something; I just couldn’t access it. Not yet. So I searched for “telephone J M R W” and found this:
A Restored Notchless Dial Plate with the letters J M R W in red, which are explained at that site as follows:
J M R W were suffixes used on the station numbers on certain manual (non-dial) common battery exchanges that had 10000 line switchboards with 4 subscribers on each line. In metropolitan areas where there was a mixture of dial and manual telephones because the transformation from manual to dial service was in progress and still had not been completed, the DIAL phones were provided with dials with these letters so they could call the MANUAL subscribers who did not yet have dial telephones. The conversion from manual to dial often extended over several years. Washington, DC for example started this conversion with its first dial exchange which was cut into service on May 3, 1930. But this conversion did not complete until the last manual exchange was converted to automatic dial operation on April 23, 1949 – some 19 years later. Chicago started its conversion in the early 20s, but it did not complete until 1957.
Upon seeing that vintage telephone dial plate, and this Western Electric Candlestick Telephone, I not only remembered the old party lines but knew that I just should have picked up my modern cell phone and called my parents about this old phone number; they likely would have known all of this and saved me a lot of work.
And then my cell phone rang and Ms. Kenealy was excitedly telling me that the “J” was referencing a party line. She had found this bit of telephone number history:
line numbers could be one to four digits long; multi-party lines had a letter tacked onto each station on parties sharing the line. All parties on the same line shared the same numericals however. 2-party lines differentiated each other with W & J 4-party lines used J, M, R, W
I felt embarrassed that I’d sent her on such a long wild goose chase, but Ms. Kenealy was more than kind — she was excited. “Thank you for helping me find out something I didn’t know! I’ve never had the excuse to look this up,” she said. And then we ended up talking a bit about how this party line information hadn’t been published in any of the directories or phone books because people then “just knew what it was.” Which, leads to a larger issue of why history and indeed collecting with an obsessive streak are so important — including our documentation of it all these years later.
And that brings us back to the date of this old newspaper clipping…
I did contact the Watertown Public Library, but they had no records regarding the end of party lines. But for me, this is where the research ends.
I’m satisfied at this point narrowing it down to somewhere between the 1930s and the early 1950s… Likely the mid 40’s, based on all the little clues, such as dates on the newspaper clippings (and ads without such patyline references), the fact that the clipping mentions using silk (and after WWII, nylon was more in vogue and use than silk).
It’s not pinpoint accuracy, but I think I’ve accomplished helping other collectors learn how to date the clippings they have, assisted in documenting a part of history — and been reminded that one’s own parents are still an excellent resource, no matter what kind of help you need.