How should I describe a telephone book? People searching for numbers and addresses are not necessarily interested in the same features that a collector would be, or a historian, or a genealogist. Nowadays, people can easily find numbers and addresses straight from their Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile new smartphones, but don't know how to use a telephone book. The first thing anyone needs to know is whether they can expect to find what they're looking for in that particular book. Therefore, the most important attributes of a telephone book are what sections it has, its geographical coverage, and its date. The actual information contained in each section is the meat of the book. It's also helpful to know what telephone company published it, what language(s) it's in, and what are its physical dimensions.
The sections most often found in a telephone book are an alphabetical list of subscribers (the "white pages"), a classified list of businesses (the "yellow pages"), instructions for telephone users ("information pages"), the covers and spine (usually printed on card stock), and a listing of government agencies ("blue pages"). Sometimes the white pages are classified by city, especially when one city is served by a different telephone company; sometimes all the business listings are separated from the residence listings. The yellow pages are almost always in a single list, alphabetical by classification and then by business name. In some of the larger cities, the white and yellow pages have been split apart into separate books. Rarely, they have to be split still further into, for example, an A-L and an M-Z volume. London, England used to have four volumes of white pages.
Additional features that may be found are a yellow pages index, a civic section showing such things as public parks and stadium seating charts, a removable card to use as a personal phone list, glossy advertisements, coupons, and city maps.
Although most telephone books around the world use the "normal" colors of paper (white for alphabetical listings, yellow for classified, etc.), there are many variations. Sometimes blue pages are used for the index to the classified section, or for the civic section. In Australia, the classified section used to be on pink pages. According to Pacific Access (an Australian directory publisher), a worldwide shortage of pink paper forced the publisher to switch to yellow around 1975. A Montreal book has the English-language information pages on pink paper, and French on blue. A Mexico City has tourist information on green pages. Kenya and Uganda use green pages for telegraph addresses. A Chicago Suburban North phone book has three alphabetical sections for three subregions; the middle section is printed on blue paper to help locate it quickly.
Covers and spine
Maybe you can't judge a book by its cover, but that's the place to start. The front cover almost always displays the book's title (or cities covered) and date; if it doesn't, the spine or back cover will. The very oldest telephone books usually had nothing but text and decorative borders on the cover; by the 1920s, simple logos and two-color pictorial ads often appeared. In the 1940s, many Bell System phone books showed the allegorical "Spirit of Communications" figure. It was the late 1950s when most U.S. phone books started having full-color pictorial covers.
Some recent telephone books have two front covers. If you open them from one side, you read
the white pages; from the other side, the yellow pages. If you try to read past the middle of
the book, the pages are upside down. I have a Marlborough, New Zealand phone book of this
type. The Phone Book Library reports that Australia's "flip cover" telephone books were phased
out in 2003.
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Ever since the mid-1960s, most U.S. telephone books have had a five-digit directory code at the base of their spines. The numbers are used for clerical purposes, like purchasing ads or ordering out-of-state phone books. Before the directory codes were inaugurated, New Jersey Bell had come up with a different solution. Its phone books had a two-letter code. The first letter represented the white pages coverage area, usually a county; the second letter represented the yellow page coverage area. Each white pages contained from one to five yellow page areas, so the second letter started at A and went as high as E. When the numeric directory codes were introduced, New Jersey used them alongside its older letter codes.
As our collection grew, we noticed some almost-duplicates. In Manhattan, Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Nassau, there were usually two white page varieties each year. What we first noticed was that some had plain spines, showing only the name of the telephone book, but others had either one or two white stars at the top of the spine. On closer examination, the books with the stars didn't have any information pages. Also, they had different ads on the back cover: ads for the telephone company itself, rather than a local business. We deduced that the ones without the stars were the ones distributed to local customers; the others were for sending out of town. What was the significance of the number of stars? It turned out that they simply had one star in odd-numbered years, two in even.
A 1968 Associated Press story said that in Brazilian phone books, most numbers were listed under the wrong name. New telephone lines were extremely expensive, but it was cheap to transfer your line to your new address when you moved. As a result, there was a black market in telephone connections. People would sell their line to someone else, and deceptively inform the phone service that they had moved to that address. Thus, the telephone book still listed the former owner alongside the bartered number.
One Los Angeles man wanted an unlisted number, but was unwilling to pay the small surcharge imposed by the telephone company. Instead, he asked to be listed under the name "Underground Airways", figuring that no one would ever call a nonexistent airline. It didn't quite work out as planned; he got about three calls a month from people whose curiosity was piqued by the listing.
It's a quirk of human nature that if enough people see a phone number, some of them will dial
it out of sheer curiosity. About 1965, in a Sunday Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown
mentioned a telephone number which I will call 343-xxxx. The artist, Charles M. Schulz, had
off-handedly used the real phone number of Lee Mendelson, with whom he was collaborating to
produce television specials. Starting at 5:50 a.m. on the Sunday the strip appeared, Mendelson
got hundreds and hundreds of telephone calls from people who simply wondered what would happen
if they dialed the number. This is why almost all fictitious telephone numbers now begin with
555. If you dial a number beginning with 555, the only person you'll disturb is the
The first and last listings in the phone book are coveted positions, since they catch more than their share of attention. An individual or company can maneuver for those positions by using false, or partly false, names. In the 1979 Chicago white pages, for example, there are ten listings for 'A' -- just plain 'A'. Six of them have occupations (e.g. "lie dtctn"), and are alphabetized by occupation. The first four have nothing but an address, and are alphabetized according to the street name. The people responsible for those listings are evidently counting on the curiosity factor.
According to a 1979 story in the Los Angeles Times, there was a brief Z-war between Zachary Zzzzzra and Vladimir Zzzzzzabakov for last place in the San Francisco telephone book. Mr. Zzzzzzabakov ended the competition by canceling his listing without explanation, but not before Mr. Zzzzzra had changed his listing to Zzzzzzzzzzzra. This was not a new tactic for him; a few years earlier, he had been listed as Zzzra, but added another 'z' to edge out Zelda Zzzywramp.
A correspondent tells me that in Netherlands telephone books from 1976 and 1977, all the
listings were experimentally printed in lower-case.
1902 New York City
1905 Middletown, CT
1968 Riverside, CA
2000 Raleigh, NC
1961 Tokyo, Japan
1970 Greek Islands
1941 Calcutta, India
One person wrote to me about a research project on desegregation that he was doing. He had heard that telephone books in the South used to mark blacks' listings with a 'c' for colored. I didn't have anything about that, but Wayne Henderson provided some information. He said that the 'c' wasn't commonly used, although he had seen it in a few telephone books published by small independent telephone companies. He added, "Contributing to this was the fact, often forgotten today, that prior to 1950, the telephone was largely a business tool in all but the biggest cities and many people did not have them in their homes. Certainly, those of lower economic position, where due to segregation most colored folks found themselves, were less likely to have home telephones than others. Many segregated businesses, particularly those that continue to cater to clients of their own race even today (funeral homes, barber & beauty shops, etc.) listed themselves with 'catering to colored' or 'for colored only'. This practice continued well into the 1960s.
"City directories were another story, however. Most all city directories designated colored residents and businesses with a 'C' until some time in the early 1950s, after which time this practice was discontinued. Actual year varied by city and publisher."
The 1930 Waterbury, Connecticut telephone book had a contest in it. Fifty misspellings were intentionally put in the yellow pages. Any subscriber who found them all and submitted them to the telephone company became eligible for a prize.
The 1960 Ann Arbor, Michigan telephone book featured the "Wolley Segap Fact Finder". Wolley Segap (spell it backwards, nudge nudge) was a cartoon character promoting yellow pages ads. The fact finder consisted of 60-some sidebars scattered among the display ads and listings in the yellow pages, with an index on the first yellow page. For example, you could look up the scoring for contract bridge on page 20. The average first and last dates of killing frost at nine Michigan cities could be found on page 210. A hundred-word capsule lesson in the care of house plants is nestled on page 93.
In general, the information pages section has become thicker and thicker as time goes by. It is almost invariably at the front of the book, right after the front cover. In early years, it had basic information like how to reach the operator, rates, paying your bill, and emergency numbers. Telephone service has become more complex, and now there are instructions on how to dial long distance and international calls. Hawaiian phone books tell what to do in the event of a tsunami. The 1964 New York City books had World's Fair information.
Telephone companies, when considering what areas to include in a telephone book, face conflicting pressures. If the geographical area covered is too small, subscribers will complain that they can't find all the numbers they need. On the other hand, if the book becomes too thick, it's expensive to produce.
Sometimes, the phone company responds to these pressures by organizing an area into several telephone books with white pages covering the whole area, but yellow pages for different smaller areas. Beverly, Lynn, and Salem, Massachusetts were an example. All three cities were included in a combined white page section, but each city had its own telephone book that contained the unified white pages, followed by yellow pages for just the one city.
In Westchester County, New York, each subscriber got a telephone book with "Westchester" on the cover, but with one of seven sets of localized yellow pages inside. On request, you could also get a book with only the white pages, or seven small books with each of the yellow page sections.
This situation was so common that we felt we needed a word to describe it. We chose the word "slock", which was short, easy to say, and didn't seem to be used for anything else. For example, I might say, "Do we have the 1964 Waukegan?" and my brother might reply, "No, but we have its slock, Arlington Heights."
It's vital to know the date of a phone book, because the book quickly becomes obsolete as people move or are assigned new phone numbers. Most U.S. phone books now have a line somewhere in the white pages that says, "Corrected through [date]". (That would be the closing date for new or changed listings to appear in the directory.) This is the most specific date you're likely to find. There is usually a month and year, or just a year, or a two-year period (e.g. 1989/90) printed on the cover of any phone book. When I specify the date of a phone book on this Web site, I choose the earliest year printed on the cover (1989 in my example). The date printed on the cover is typically a month or two later than the "corrected through" date, and tells when the book is scheduled to be distributed to customers.
Alexander Graham Bell's patent on the telephone gave his company, Bell Telephone, a monopoly from 1876 to 1893. During that period, the company opened exchanges in most of the large cities of the United States. It organized a number of regional operating companies. In 1899, American Telephone and Telegraph became the parent company. By 1970, the Bell System operating companies were:
In 1984, AT&T divested itself of the operating companies, following an antitrust lawsuit. They were reorganized into seven companies known as the "Baby Bells": Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, BellSouth, NYNEX, Pacific Telesis, Southwestern Bell, and US West. (Cincinnati and Southern New England, which were minority-owned by AT&T, also became independent.) NYNEX was subsequently absorbed by Bell Atlantic, which was later renamed Verizon; Ameritech, Pacific Telesis, Southern New England Telephone, and Southwestern Bell are now part of SBC Communications. US West is now part of Qwest. Telephone books published by any of these companies can often be identified by the bell on their cover.
After the Bell Telephone patents started expiring in 1893, independent telephone companies began to spring up in small towns not yet served by Bell, or sometimes in direct competition with Bell for the same territory. In most cases, the well-established Bell companies were able to force their direct competitors out of business or buy them up. It has been estimated that there were nearly 6,000 independent telephone companies in the U.S. at one time. Large holding companies or loose associations grouped many of the independents into "systems" mimicking the Bell System. These included the General System, United System, Continental System, and others. The General System, like Bell, organized itself into regional operating companies. It eventually became GTE (General Telephone and Electronics), and merged with Bell Atlantic. The United System evolved into Sprint Telecommunications.
At first, there were no telephone numbers; operators simply knew which plug to use for each subscriber. Telephone numbers were introduced in Lowell, Massachusetts in late 1879. Party lines were popular, because of their lower cost, in the first half of the 20th century. Telephones on a party line were electrically connected, so that they would ring simultaneously, and transmit the same sounds. A specific pattern of rings was used to identify each phone on the same party line. The telephone book listing usually gave a phone number, a hyphen, and a code to identify the pattern of rings. The number of digits in a phone number was variable, since the numbers were only used as identifiers. In rural areas, they might range from one to three digits. In larger cities, a telephone number would consist of an exchange name and a five-digit number. Uniformity came about slowly. In 1946, a Boston telephone number consisted of a three-letter exchange, a four-digit number, and for party lines, a ring code J, M, R, or W. All-number calling was introduced in 1961, so that the digits 0 and 1 could be used. Some telephone number listings immediately changed to seven digits, although exchange names continued to appear alongside them until late in the decade. (Enthusiasts have collected the old two-letter exchange names in The EXchange Name Project.)
To prepare the way for nationwide dialing, in 1947, AT&T and Bell Laboratories developed the North American Numbering Plan (NANP), creating three-digit area codes that would divide all of North America. Within each area code, every seven-digit phone number would be unique. When long-distance dialing was first implemented, it could only be used by operators placing calls for customers. Customer dialing was phased in as each central office invested in the necessary equipment. Generally, area codes were first announced in telephone books in the late 1950s.
City directories predate the telephone by many years. Obviously, the early city directories had no telephone numbers. Most city directories are hardbound, and many have a leather-look spine. The Reuben H. Donnelley Company corporate history page (click on "Company History") says that Donnelley published a Chicago telephone directory on May 15, 1886, for the Chicago Telephone Company; this is "generally acknowledged as the birth of classified telephone directory advertising, a medium that we know today as The Yellow Pages." Donnelley expanded to other large northeastern cities in 1906. A widely published timeline says that the first telephone directory featuring classified business advertising on actual yellow paper was issued by the Michigan State Telephone Co. in 1906, for Detroit. On the other hand, an article in the Futurist for April, 1999 says, '[In 1883], the Cheyenne Wyoming Telephone Company published a 6 1/2" by 17" broadsheet, carrying not only phone numbers, but two columns of advertisements for goods and services. The listings and ads were printed on yellow paper, so the story goes, because the printer had run out of white stock.'
In many parts of the country, especially suburbs of large cities, there are privately published telephone directories, supported by advertising, usually covering a smaller area than the official telephone book. These "proprietary" phone books go back well before World War II. In the United States, the official telephone book will usually clearly identify the telephone company that published it. Sometimes it gets hard to tell which is the official telephone book and which is the proprietary one for a given city.
During the Cold War, telephone books were classified documents in the Soviet Union. No one except government officials could possess them. For corroboration, read this 2002 lecture by a librarian (use your browser's Find function to search for "telephone").
In the U.S. there are two most common page sizes. The standard is about 8½" x 11", and the miniature is about 6" x 8½". As a city or region served by a miniature phone book grows in population, when it reaches a threshold (usually around 400 to 500 pages), it moves up to the larger page size. Other countries use sizes that are close, but rarely equal, to the two U.S. sizes.
The thickest telephone book I know of was the 1971 Chicago, IL yellow pages. It had 2,624 pages, including both covers. (For this information, I thank the Research Staff of the Chicago Historical Society.) The following year, the Chicago yellow pages were divided into consumer and business directories, which were smaller. This is usually what happens when a telephone book reaches a certain size, due to the growth of the subscriber base. The London, England white pages were divided into four alphabetical sections for many years. Now they're divided geographically, with the central section divided into residence and business. Since about World War II, at least in the U.S., yellow pages for a particular coverage area have usually been larger than white pages for the same area.
In a few places in the U.S. with large Spanish-speaking populations, the telephone company issues a Spanish edition of its phone book, and I've heard of a Chinese edition issued in San Francisco.
As far as I've seen, telephone numbers are always written in what we call "Arabic numerals" (0123456789). Arabic, Chinese, and some other languages have their own set of numerals that differ from these, but they're not used in telephone numbers.
Alphabetical order is not always straightforward. In most U.S. directories, acronyms like IBM are grouped at the beginning of their initial letter (after Hyram and before Iacocca, in this case). Smith Zachary comes before Smithers George, meaning that the first word is sorted before the second one is considered; but De Vito comes between Devereaux and Devonshire, because De Vito is the person's full last name, and counts as one word. In Spanish, ch and ll are treated as separate letters that come after c and l, respectively, so that Culebra, Chavez, David, Lucientes, Llosa, Marin are in correct order. However, the rules for Spanish are changing, and some recent publications may sort those names as they would be sorted in English. When accent marks are taken into account, different languages have different rules. In French, accent marks are only used as tie-breakers, to distinguish between words like étés and êtes. In the Scandinavian languages, the accented letters are usually sorted at the end of the alphabet. Germany and Austria use different sorting orders, even for German words, and I've heard that the rules for Austrian telephone books are not the same as the rules for Austrian dictionaries. In German, 'oe' is sometimes treated as equivalent to 'ö', and mixed in with it, but in some words and names, 'oe' must be treated as two letters. A person's family name is usually the first word in the listing. However, different cultures have various rules about which is the family name. The listings in the Iceland telephone book are printed with the given name first, then an optional middle name, then the patronymic, but they are sorted by given name, then patronymic, then middle name. For example, Einar Birgir Gunnarsson would come between Einar Gunnarsson and Einar Hannes Gunnarsson under the E's, but Ragnar Gunnarsson would be far away under the R's. Of course, alphabetization errors sometimes creep in to a telephone book, too.
Last updated: February 25, 2012
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