By the Book

How telephone directories transformed America


Hollywood had a record year at the box office in 2009, but its $10 billion in revenues was only 66 percent of what the U.S. yellow pages industry generated last year. Remarkable as it is that clip-art display ads crafted by Topeka window cleaners are a more vital economic engine than all the CGI James Cameron can dump onto an IMAX screen, no one cares. According to Ammon Shea, author of the newly published The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads, he is the first person to write an entire book about phone directories.

And even he's a little circumspect about their impact on our lives. "I am not interested in making the claim, as has become popular of late with nonfiction books about a small subject, that this is somehow 'the book that changed the world.'" But if, as Shea goes on to note, such cultural D-listers as bananas, codfish, and the Beatles' 1964 tour have all been cast by enterprising publishing houses as world-changers, then surely the device that made every billiard hall and bird hospital in your village or metropolis easily accessible deserves a moment to shine in the bright light of bombastic over-appreciation.

The first phone book, published by the New Haven District Telephone Company in New Haven, Connecticut, appeared in February 1878. It contained 50 entries, a mix of individuals, government services, clubs, and most of all commercial enterprises. Phone numbers didn't exist yet–at that point, if you had a phone, the operator at your local exchange knew who you were.

The phone itself was a pretty big deal, of course, helping intimacy transcend proximity. But phone books provided a crucial element to the system: intrusiveness. In the beginning of 1880, Shea writes, there were 30,000 telephone subscribers in the U.S. At the end of the year, that number had grown to 50,000, and because of phone books, each one of them was exposed to the others as never before. While many American cities had been compiling databases of their inhabitants well before the phone was invented, listing names, occupations, and addresses, individuals remained fairly insulated from each other. Contacting someone might require a letter of introduction, a facility for charming butlers or secretaries, a long walk.

Phone books eroded these barriers. They were the first step in our long journey toward the pandemic self-surveillance of Facebook. "Hey strangers!" anyone who appeared in their pages ordained. "Here's how to reach me whenever you feel like it, even though I have no idea who you are."

Such democratic and unfettered access would eventually lead to prank and obscene phone calls, but its more immediate effect was that it facilitated commerce. Less than a year after the New Haven District Telephone Company issued its first directory, it issued a second, and that one augmented listings with advertising. (Perhaps because it had multiple pages and because the company itself listed this second effort as Volume 1, No. 1, it is now officially known as the first, and went for $170,500 at auction two years ago.)

For businesses, phone directory advertising would evolve into a crucial business tool. It reached the same mass audiences that newspaper and magazine advertising did, but it was cheaper, more persistent, easier to manage: Place one ad and you got a steady stream of inquiries all year long. For consumers, phone directory advertising was an even bigger boon. It gave them a comprehensive overview of the choices that were available to them for any given product or service, an efficient way to comparison shop. It made commerce more accessible and thus more competitive.

By 1954, the American phone system was producing and distributing about 60 million phone books a year. For all their impressive physical heft, they still signaled the coming shift from an industrial economy to an information-based one. While they cataloged a vast material world of carpet cleaners, typewriter repair shops, and smokestack painters, they also suggested that their world–the world of manufacturing and distributing data–was the rising paradigm.

In 1961, AT&T introduced its iconic "Let your fingers do the walking" campaign. The tagline and accompanying logo implied that the yellow pages were not just inert data on a page but a place you could navigate, a place that was both bigger and smaller than the real world, where you walked with your fingers rather than your legs and yet covered more ground. In short, the yellow pages helped paved the way for cyberspace, of information worlds so rich and vast they became as tangible as the material world. (AT&T's subsequent "Reach out and touch someone" campaign would do the same, essentially positioning mediated proximity as more intimate than a genuine embrace.)

Fitting every commercial enterprise in New York City into an object that could fit into a briefcase may not have had quite the wow factor as the iPad, but it was a big step in that direction. While cyberspace and computers were still the domain of large institutions then, the yellow pages were an early sign that individuals would ultimately be able to directly harness the power of these phenomena for themselves as well. Which may be more than one can say about the cultural impact of the codfish or the banana.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @GregBeato.