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.

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  1. Like the Coffee Table book, Shea’s book should double as an actual phone.

    Or maybe it should be printed on yellow paper. I don’t know, let his publisher figure out the hook.

    1. Or maybe it should be printed on yellow paper. I don’t know, let his publisher figure out the hook.

      Make it downloadable from the internet.

      1. There are some online phone directories of various types. My favorite one is though a lot of people seem to hate it.

  2. OMG! My local Yellow Pages has an “Escorts” section! Should I notify the Attorney General?

    1. No. You should notify Eliot Spitzer.


      1. I had some great sex with this hot asian “escort” girl in New York a few years ago.

        Fucking a hooker is something all men must do once in their life.

        And fuck that legal monopolistic bullshit outside of Vegas. I’m not paying some fat 40 year old cunt a grand to cum in her with a condom.

        Just legalize it already. And DON’T “tax and regulate” it either. Just fucking legalize it.

        Same with cannabis.

        1. That’s so eloquent. Do you write for a living?

        2. Eliot? Is that you?

        3. Am I the only guy grossed by the idea of sex with a woman with 50 other sex partners in the past week? “Fucking a hooker is something all men must do once in their life.” Really? Tell you what, HOFL, you can have mine, she’s all yours. Don’t say I never did nuthin’ for you.

          1. Out of sight, out of mind.

            If I don’t see the old semen residue in her filthy cunt, I’m going to town.

    2. The new phone books are here!!

      The new phone books are here!!

  3. There was a guy named Harold Dick in my hometown’s yellow pages. I am sure that he just loved the fucking phone book, and kids with phone books.

    1. He paid to get into yellow pages. Perhaps he liked strange young boys calling him.

    2. My favorite was Richard Head. You have to wonder about the parents.

      1. Believe it or not, there are people who would not get that name as a vulgar reference. More so many decades ago in a more innocent time. If you had told my grandparents that was someones name, they would have said “So what?” Of course, they were born in the 1800s.

  4. This Industry makes how much? And it’s completely unregulated?

    1. My statist sense is tingling!

    2. No, prog, you’ll be happy to know that NOTHING related to the phone industry has escaped the gov’t sticking its nose into our business.

  5. I don’t think I’ve looked in a Yellow Pages in about 10 years. I guess others must still be using them.

    1. Not when I can stop them.

      1. I’m looking in my phone book right now!! So there!!

  6. Good lord, Shea missed the story here – because of the phone book, Bell had to invent the phone!

    Otherwise the 50 people in that first directory would have felt pretty silly, being listed in a phonebook with no phones and all…


    1. Right, Bell invented it, jerk.

  7. Retrieve phone book in plastic bag. Carry phone book in plastic bag to trash/recycle. Throw plastic bag away, throw phone book in recycle. Total elapsed time: less than 1 minute.

    1. I have a Dex office building a mile from my house. I think they do some accounting sort of function there, but I make sure to throw my unwanted copy of Dex yellow pages onto their front stoop.

      1. what is a Dex?

  8. In the days before caller ID we as kids had a blast calling people out of the phone book and messing with their minds. Kids who do that today would probably get busted for stalking.

    1. I get a chuckle how the TV crime drama writers use old/new tech depending on the plot circumstance – they’ll either have the “keep them on long enough to get the trace” bit for ‘live’ action, but then go with the instant transaction logging recall via computer if the characters are investigating after the fact. Lazy bastards.

      1. What I want to know is, where is this huge muthafuckin’ database of all human knoweldge that they always tap into on CSI, NCIS, etc?

        Because I gotta find my cell phone charger cord, and it sure as hell ain’t underneath the couch…

        1. Duh! You just access it from your floating holographic 70-inch wide virtual touchscreen that is tied in to the infinite database over your standard 100Gigabit connection that everyone has. Sheesh! Pay attention!

  9. What’s a phone book?

    1. It’s an old-fashioned seat extender to help short people see over the dashboard of a ’76 Caddy.

  10. “…helping intimacy transcend proximity…”

    WTF? “Proximity” means “closeness”. Get a fucking dictionary!! Maybe you can find a bookseller in the yellow pages….

    1. Reading comprehension much? Should I make a chart? Here: “Instant long distance communication made it easier for people to be intimate without being close together.” Make sense? He’s also making a play on the connotations of closeness of location and closeness of emotion or relationship.

      1. I read transcend as “to overcome”, therefore you would not “overcome” proximity, but remoteness.

        But you’re right, too – point taken and perjoratives withdrawn.

      2. “pejoratives”…

  11. Growing up the Manhattan phone book was what we put on the chair for the littlest kid to sit on. It was massive in the 50s.

    My favorite person’s name was (he has since died … saw his obit too!) was Flegler Glymph.

    So I really have been known to read the phone book, and occasionally use the yellow pages, and make sure I have one of the new mini-books they produce thrown in the back of my car for when I’m out and about. And yes I too throw/recycle the many duplicates out every year.

  12. I run a nostalgia web site, and I think it’s interesting how hard-to-get old phone directories are given how ubiquitous they are. Luckily the local library has a good collection, but I’ve only been able to find one for my town to purchase myself.

  13. Before there were phone books–even before there were phones–there were city directories that listed EVERYONE in town, and what they did for a living. Like this 1848 Boston directory. But they exist as early as 1789 for Philadelphia.

  14. the city directories preceded the phone books, and they morphed in with phone books when folks started gettin them new fangled phones.
    so if ya want to start at the beginning, you should go back at least that far.

  15. Seems an idea years past its time. I don’t even remember the last time I used a phone book. I’m not sure we even have one in the house.

  16. I wonder if the existence of phone books accelerated the standardization of how people’s surnames are spelled. If you’re looking someone up, you need to know whether they spell their name Toomey or Twomey–an example from my own ancestors.

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