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I am looking for data on historic telephone call prices in the US between 1920 and 1930. What did it cost to make a call? I know that, back then different rates were charged based on the distance of the call. But what where these rates? And what were the pricing categories at which different distances were bundled?

I have already searched the website of AT&T and the FCC as well as consulted articles and books in economic history but this information is surprisingly rare.

Edit: One source from the FCC (here, p. 62, table 13) shows the different rates charged for some specific distances. These are very helpful to get a good picture of the price differences. However, for my purpose it would be important to know at exactly which distances calls were classified as long-distance (or would fall in the next higher category) and thus become more expensive.

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    If I have time to look it up, I'll make a proper answer. However, while I'm not sure about the 1920's, I know the traditional business model in the USA in the late 20th Century was that calls to local exchanges were free (aside from the monthly charge just for having a phone), while long-distance calls cost extra per-minute. Long-distance calls were essentially used to subsidize the entire phone system. The question is how far that goes back. – T.E.D. Jan 25 '17 at 16:00
  • Thank you, T.E.D. I have found a source demonstrating that there were considerable price increases for longer distances in the 1920ies (I will edit the source into the question). What is more important for me, is the question at which exact cut-offs a phone call was considered long-distance and thus more expensive. – eigenvector Jan 25 '17 at 16:15
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    Well, again from my personal experience in the late 20th century, often even calls within the same area code would likely be considered long-distance (eg: Tulsa to Bartlesville). Probably a rough rule of thumb would be that calls within a MSA were likely local, but calls within the same CSA not necessarily. For the 1920's switching was done by people, so it likely had to do with what your operator had to do to get all the lines switched together. – T.E.D. Jan 25 '17 at 16:58
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    @T.E.D.: Not only was the switching done by humans, it often wasn't even real-time. (Or at least so I deduce from fiction of the period.) You might have to book a long-distance (e.g. East to West Coast US, or trans-Atlantic) call several hours ahead of time. – jamesqf Jan 25 '17 at 18:54
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    The price depended not on distance but on the connection between appropriate telephone stations and/or nets. Even the other part of the same town, being on another shore, could demand a more expensive ring. – Gangnus Jan 26 '17 at 14:54
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This is probably far too late to be of use to you, but may help others in the future.

To expand on another answer, many US telephone directories did indeed have lists of long-distance charges from their local network. For example, this extract is from the May 1920 edition of the New York City (including all boroughs) Telephone Directory:

long-distance phone charges

with the following caveats:

On calls from stations located in the Borough of Brooklyn to Long Distance points listed below the initial Station-to-Station day toll rates are $.05 more than the rates shown.

For rates on calls from stations located in the Boroughs of Queens and Richmond to Long Distance points call "Long Distance."


As you can see:

  • a call from New York to Indianapolis, Indiana would cost $4.15 for the first three minutes and $1.35 for each additional minute ("or fraction thereof").
  • a call from New York to Knoxville, Tennessee would cost about the same - $4.10 for the first three minutes and $1.35 for each additional minute.
  • and a call from New York to Los Angeles, California would cost a lot more - $15.65 for the first three minutes and $5.20 for each additional minute.

A search of archive.org currently (April 2019) returns 90 telephone directories with dates between 1920 and 1930, inclusive. In this case

  1. Search for `telephone directory'

search = 'telephone directory'

  1. Limit the result by 'media type' to just 'texts':

media type = texts

  1. Select just the years of interest from the 'year' filter:

year = 1920-1930

and choose the particular directory you are interested in. Most directories are available for download as pdf files.

  • Great, it's never too late on stackexchange! – eigenvector May 1 at 8:42
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In 1915 (celebrating anniversary of the first call) Watson and Bell made a cross-country phone call and it was 20 bucks for 3 minutes. This would easily be the equivalent of 400 bucks today, arguably more. Of course, such calls went like this: You would contact your local operator, they would set it up from local phone network to the one in the next city, literally making physical connections so multiple operators would be involved and they would contact you when it was all set up. Without modern technology, the labor would make such a call probably cost 100s per minute. That we can call China for pennies a minute is amazing. https://www.cnet.com/news/at-t-makes-the-call-100-years-ago/

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    Thank you very much for your answer, Jeff. I did know that it costed a lot. If you take a look, however, at the document I linked above, costs had already decreased quite substantially by 1927 and the years after. The question now is, how did these costs depend on the distance of the call. Any further information is much appreciated. – eigenvector Jan 27 '17 at 10:31
  • If costs had decreased it must have been due to automation but I think long distance calls into the 1940s and maybe later still required set up by a series of operators. It was not until 1970 or so that a long distance call could be made without an operator in at least some cases. – Jeff Jan 27 '17 at 10:55
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    My wife spent several months at the US embassy in the Hungary in the mid-1980s (still USSR). Calling her meant calling an AT&T overseas operator, having a time slot allocated, which usually meant hours later, and then the operator would call me back when my time came up. The operators had no way of knowing when we ended the call, so they had to check in periodically to see if we were still talking. (Couldn't tell which of the clicks were an operator and which were KGB listening in.) The costs were appalling. A 15 minute call was well over $100. – Carey Gregory Apr 17 at 19:16
  • @CareyGregory Hungary was an Iron Curtain country and a member of the Warsaw Pact, but was never part of the USSR. – bof Apr 17 at 22:57
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    That means you effectively rent 2790 miles of wire and 2455 poles for the duration of your call. Just try costing that, remembering capital and maintenance, and that the system would not be in use anything resembling 100% or 24 hours / day on average. Although wires may have been replaced by microwave or fiber, the main change is that the number of calls you can fit on each wire / cable etc. has gradually increased over time. One fiber can carry 25000 calls, or "millions" per cable. This is what makes the cost per mile per call negligible. – David Robinson Apr 18 at 14:59
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Old phone books from that era quite often had price schedules within, especially larger cities. Check a local large city library

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    I'm not sure that many local libraries in Europe would carry 1920s phone books from the USA. – Steve Bird Apr 17 at 19:27
  • @SteveBird Like most uncommon books, they can be obtained via interlibrary loan, no different from specialized technical books. I see a number of old phone books in Worldcat, by simply following a link and filling out a form I can get them sent to the library at work. – user71659 May 11 at 5:19

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