Kathleen Murphy column: The charm of names over numbers

There is an elegance in such simplicity. Our world is no longer that straightforward.

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Kathleen Murphy

I miss the days when we used to name everything.

In reality, I missed the glory days of this practice. I began thinking about it when I stumbled across an old postcard dated June 15, 1905. The postcard itself is made out of leather and still looks new, as though it could be plucked from the spinster at a Canal Park tourist shop and sent on its way. The front face of the postcard has the words “There’s no time to monkey around in Duluth Minn.” burned into the surface, except the words “monkey around” are replaced with a truly weird and slightly disturbing drawing of a monkey sitting on a branch.

On the backside, there is no note, no “wish you were here” or “we’re having fun, but it’s cold in Duluth.” There isn’t even a space for such personalization, but simply three lines for an address: the person’s name, a city, and a smaller line for the state. In 1905, the smaller population meant that a person’s name and a city or town name would often suffice. This postcard reached its intended recipient over 180 miles away with the simple address of “Mr. A.J. Campbell, Parkers Prairie, Minn.” All it took were a few names. Not a single number is found on that postcard.

This simplicity carried over to all sorts of different aspects of life. Many of you remember when Duluth phone numbers were relayed using a word that identified the neighborhood, followed by five numbers (or less in some areas). In the Twin Ports area we had exchange names Jackson (the Lakeside area), Randolph (downtown Duluth and surrounding areas), Market (West Duluth/West End) and Exeter (Superior). My paternal grandmother was a telephone operator back in the day, and my father still remembers the ease of which she remembered telephone exchange names from all over the state.

In 1940, were you to pass your phone number on, you would say “You can call me at Randolph 8-5555.” This practice ceased by the 1960s, but the first two digits of our local landlines (for those of us who still have a landline) often still follow the neighborhood patterns created by the exchange names.


When I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s, it was common for area businesses to help customers remember their phone numbers using mnemonics — a series of numbers that spelled out a word. These are still occasionally used today, of course. Just recently I followed a truck down I-35 that spelled out their phone number using their company name. I vividly remember when the Duluth Transit Authority used the phone number 722-SAVE so that kids like me could pick up our old landlines, dial without thinking, and hear the bus schedule.

The practice of using names rather than a series of numbers helped us to more easily remember a phone number, because names are simply easier for us to retain in our memory. Today there are too many people and therefore too many phone numbers for names to be useful. In fact, a few more numbers had to be tacked on in the late 1940s in the form of area codes to accommodate our growing population. Street addresses came about a little earlier, but as we see in our postcard example, in 1905 all it took was a person’s name, city and state.

There is an elegance in such simplicity. Our world is no longer that straightforward. We have given up the ease of a system of names to identify things we need to know and barrelled right into a numbering system that we rely on our computers to remember. It is a system that is, by design, devoid of any personalization. I don’t even know my own mother’s phone number. I don’t have to, my phone does it for me. And hence, the charm is lost.

I do miss the uniqueness and identifying nature that things like our phone numbers used to provide. These things were given up, however, for the sake of convenience in an increasingly complex world. I understand the need for change. I’m even grateful for it.

But it does lack a certain charm.

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. You can reach her at .


Related Topics: DULUTH
Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth.
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