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Telephone exchanges, like this typical one from 1899 with an unidentified operator, were opened in business establishments, stores and even residences. North York got its first exchange in 1925. - Bell Canada Historical Department
Telephone exchanges, like this typical one from 1899 with an unidentified operator, were opened in business establishments, stores and even residences. North York got its first exchange in 1925. - Bell Canada Historical Department

North York’s First Phone was its Only One From 1888 Until 1910

First telephone exchange opened in 1925, writes Susan Goldenberg

It was a step into the modern era when, in 1888, North York general store Lindsay, Francis & Company obtained the first telephone in the then small, mostly rural community. It paid Bell Telephone $100 for a connection to its north Yonge Street premises. Alexander Graham Bell had invented the newfangled device 12 years earlier. The first phone installed in Canada was in 1881, in a Hamilton stationery store.

No more were installed in North York until 1910, when a grand total of two Willowdale residents got a phone.

Willowdale didn’t have a telephone exchange for years. Customers were served from Bell Telephone’s Thornhill office and interlisted with Thornhill customers in the telephone directory. In 1925, William Wallace, a Willowdale farmer, struck a deal with Bell whereby he would build a local exchange according to company specifications and then rent it to the company. The exchange opened that year.

The system was primitive. People couldn’t dial directly. Instead, calls were routed via a manual “switchboard,” an “exchange” or transfer point. Operators plugged electric cords into jacks and pressed switches to connect circuits. The board was a jumble of criss-crossing cords. Ernestine, the hilariously snooty telephone operator, played by Lily Tomlin on “Laugh-In,” used such a board.

Willowdale’s exchange, a room in a small house, provided far more than telephone service. The operators arranged for help in emergencies — crimes, fires, illness — and told the time, food prices, church service schedules, election results and more. Office hours were from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. The cost per call was $1.50 for residential and $3 for business. Urgent messages at other times cost an extra 25 cents.

Long distance direct dialing began in 1958.

The housing boom after the Second World War created a huge demand for home phones. The number of North York subscribers jumped from just 700 in 1940 to 4,000 in 1950. In 1952 a second exchange was started in anticipation of even greater growth. It was a wise decision. Growth was exponential. By 1960, there were 100,000 subscribers out of a total population of 248,000.

Written by Susan Goldenberg.

Originally published on January 28, 2021, on toronto.com.