Collecting Telephone Books

by Gwillim Law

1961 Cortland phone book It all began in 1953 in Cortland, New York. In those days, almost every U.S. telephone book had plain gray covers like shirt stiffeners, with a title and a small line drawing vignette. Since about 1938, almost every Bell System telephone book had had the familiar "Spirit of Communications" on its cover, a winged figure wrapped in cable and standing on a globe. That year, when our new telephone book arrived, it had a different picture - probably a telephone, but I've lost the details. I immediately formed the idea of saving our telephone books so that I could line them up and see all the different drawings from year to year. I set aside the outdated Cortland phone book, and kept saving them for a couple of years, until they went out in the trash.

In 1958, my brother Steven started saving Cortland phone books again. Then, around 1961, Steven asked our uncle Deryck, who worked in New York, to save a "fat, juicy Manhattan phone book" for him. The collection took on a dimension of space as well as time.

We began to see elements of beauty and utility in telephone books. Archimedes I Zzzyandottie was last in Manhattan but first in our hearts. Our neighbor Charles suggested that we write to him and say that his name had been selected at random from the telephone book. (We didn't, but I learned more about him when I read this blog entry.) Steven chose to write a book report for school on the Q section of the Manhattan phone book.

The development of a telephone book collection is largely a series of discoveries of new ways to acquire the directories. The next step came when I went away to college in 1962. I picked up old Boston-area directories when they were replaced, but that was our standard method already. Then I found that I could get a new phone book by going to the local telephone business office and asking for it. I also persuaded a few classmates to bring me their home phone books. By summer, the collection had grown to twenty books.

We moved to Connecticut that summer. Our mother was looking through the introductory pages of a phone book, and read that telephone subscribers in Connecticut were given any state telephone book they wanted, free. She lived to regret it. Steven and I hustled down to the telephone office and asked for a modest two telephone books. We saw the clerk open a cabinet containing the full set, about 25 books. After a few repeat trips, we were complete for Connecticut (and continued to update our holdings for years to come).

The former owners of our house in Connecticut had left behind two Baltimore phone books, but we were unable to turn this into a repeatable collecting method.

A little later that summer, we met our father at Idlewild Airport (now JFK). We were standing by a bank of telephones admiring the rack of exotic telephone books, when a repairman came to replace two Philadelphia books. Timidly we asked for the discards, and got them.

That summer, the three of us took a trip around New England. Everywhere we went, Steven and I were looking up the addresses of telephone offices and dragging our father to them. Unsure of the legitimacy of what we were doing, we asked to have the directories "for reference purposes", until we found out that the clerks didn't care if we used them for booster seats. In Keene, Steven walked in first and came back out with a Keene phone book. Then I went in and asked for three northern New Hampshire phone books. They didn't have them in stock, but offered to mail them to us at home. We felt as if we were pushing the limits of etiquette by that strategy, and didn't repeat it.

In the fall, I happened to see an exciting sight in my college's library: six shelves of current phone books from many states and countries. When I asked about them, I found that they were regularly replaced, and the old ones discarded. I put my request in, and went back at regular intervals to pick up the castoffs.

At Christmas, we decided to send a Christmas card to everyone who had donated a phone book to our collection that year. We didn't even think about finding a "telephone book thank you" card at the greeting card store. Instead, we mimeographed a crude drawing of a Christmas tree sprouting from a telephone book and hand-colored it with felt markers. In subsequent years, I got more artistic. Besides a couple with religious motifs (see example at right), I sent one showing the three Wise Men with their camels. One of them was in a telephone booth consulting the Bethlehem phone book.

I started writing letters to distant telephone companies, asking for their full set of telephone books. This worked a couple of times. I got all of Mountain Bell's New Mexico and Colorado telephone books. Most of the companies, though, told me to order through my local telephone company. In fact, Utah forwarded my letter to Boston, and someone in the Boston office sent me a hectographed form letter, saying just that.

I had been thinking that I was open to criticism for not contacting anyone in the telephone company to see where I stood with them. I went to the return address on the letter, an office building in downtown Boston. I used the letter to get past a couple of puzzled receptionists, saying that I wanted to "clarify" it. I wound up talking with a vice president, if my memory is correct. His main concern was that people often steal directories from phone booths. I assured him that Steven and I had a rule against knowingly accepting stolen books. He also said that the phone company doesn't want people looking up numbers in outdated phone books. At the end of the meeting, he gave me one of every New England telephone book that we were missing, and a price list intended for intramural use.

Consulting the price list, we saw that if we bought all the phone books listed for fifty cents, it would come to $300 or more; but there were about twenty priced at less than fifty cents. We went once again to the Hamden, Connecticut business office, and placed an order. For a total of $6.25, we acquired a motley group of directories including Gisborne (New Zealand), Malawi, and Madeira. At other times, we found old telephone books for sale in used bookshops, and once Steven got a telephone book as part of his family Christmas present.

We sat down and brainstormed about ways of getting telephone books. You have to get them from someone who has them. The main groups of people who have them would logically be telephone companies, ordinary telephone subscribers, libraries, book dealers, genealogists, and collectors. Presumably genealogists want to keep their telephone books forever. We had used each of the other sources, except collectors. Up to that date, we hadn't heard of anyone else with this rather singular avocation. To be ready in case we did, we started a club for telephone book collectors, with a membership of two. We called it the Organization of Universal Telephone Book Amalgamated Collectors, or OUTBAC. We started publishing a newsletter called the Joutbac, or Journal of the OUTBAC. In my dusty files, I have the four yearly issues from 1964 to 1967.

In 1965, we tried to locate other collectors by submitting a small advertisement to Hobbies magazine. The ad was rejected. The advertising department notified us that in Illinois, where Hobbies was published, the telephone directories remain the property of the telephone company. They wanted to avoid any legal complications.

We tried to get Charles, the neighbor mentioned above, to become a collector by giving him a starting set of 20 of our duplicates. He didn't persevere for long. It wasn't until I went to graduate school that I actually found another collector. One of my classmates knew Sam, an undergraduate, who had a shelf of telephone books in his room. It turned out that the books came from Sam's older brother Andrew, who lived in Florida. I exchanged a few books with Sam, and wrote to Andrew. He responded enthusiastically, but for reasons I don't clearly remember, we never actually made any trades.

Now that I've put my collection on the Web, I have actually made contact with a few other collectors. Wayne, who also lives in North Carolina, is trying to get every North Carolina phone book published since 1945, and has over 3,000 out of the 6,000. His family encourages and helps him. John specializes in New England phone books of the 1950s and 1960s. His oldest is a 1904 Boston; his smallest is one from Alaska's North Slope measuring 4 x 2 inches. Sam, in Australia, has over 5,000 directories from Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific. He provides a free information service (temporarily offline as of Aug. 28, 2005) on telephone directories. Scott, a telecom worker in New Zealand, started collecting after he saw an L.A. phone book torn in half on TV.

Steven, Gwil, Geoff, Dave with loot from the California trip. Not shown: Jack
In the summer of 1967, five of us guys took a 20-day trip around the U.S. and Canada. Steven and I used our votes to stop at telephone offices along the way. Dave remembers that when we got to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and opened the trunk to arrange the phone books, the hippies looked at them and said, "Heavy, man!" We mailed two cartons of them home from San Francisco to make room for more.

Try this sometime. Make a pile of old telephone books about three feet high, as in the photo. Then slap the top of the pile with your palm. We found that it would tremble as if it were mounted on springs.

And now, I have a confession to make. While I was in graduate school, I could no longer resist the mad impulse. I tore one of the telephone books in half. I think it was a Memphis, TN, about 800 pages - a duplicate. You do it by curling the book so that the leading edges of the pages form a wedge shape. As the tearing begins, you're only starting a rip in one page at a time. It's still not exactly easy.

We planned our telephone book trips using a hectographed map. We would check off the box representing each telephone book as we got it. Note: this map shows most of New York, New Jersey, and New England, tilted.
This is an enlargement of an area centered on Westchester County. The two-letter codes in circles were our private codes for white pages areas.
How many of you have "telephone book trips" among your fond family memories? The careful planning in the evenings leading up to the big day: gathering maps, making lists of the addresses of telephone business offices, checking off the areas that we already had covered ... setting the alarm for 6:30 a.m. to get an early start, because every minute counts ... finding our way to the telephone office in an unfamiliar town ... asking for just the right number of phone books, the ones that were most likely to be on hand, but not so many as to seem greedy ... changing our itinerary if we didn't get what we expected ... on to the next town, typically a half hour's drive ... as closing time approached, wondering if we had time for one more stop ... back home for dinner ... and finally, cataloguing and shelving our acquisitions and admiring how neat they looked in rows. Our record was 17 stops in one day, and on another banner day we got 41 telephone books.

By 1975, we had amassed about 3,000 telephone books. We kept a U.S. map, covered with yellow highlighter for every area whose phone book we had. Many states were solid yellow, and there were at least several yellow patches in every state. Probably a slight majority of the books had been given to us as outdated discards by various libraries and businesses. Around a third of them were the fruit of our telephone book trips. The rest came from miscellaneous sources. Friends and family contributed some; we bought a few old ones from used bookstores; a few were salvaged from the dumpster; a couple of times we asked hotels where we were staying if they had any spare copies; and, of course, we kept the ones that were delivered to us as if we were normal people.

There aren't many people who have the problem of shelving a large number of telephone books from different places and different years. Our sorting method was designed to bring telephone books of similar appearance together. All of the small phone books (about 6" x 9") went on top shelves, with the standard-sized ones below. The U.S. telephone books came first, sorted alphabetically by state, followed by foreign books alphabetized by country. Within each state or country, we arranged the books as we saw fit. The New Jersey ones were sorted by year, because the covers for a given year were all the same. In California, all the Los Angeles books were gray, Northeast Suburban L.A. were blue, and so on, so we grouped them by color.

For me, one of the best features of my collection was that it was a good ice-breaker. When a conversation lagged, I could say, "I collect telephone books," and it was usually good for at least a few minutes' chat. People might go away saying "What a weirdo", but the awkward moment had been dealt with.

After 1975, several things changed. The telephone companies started shutting all of their business offices. They had awakened to the realization that, as telephone companies, they ought to encourage people to do business by telephone. As for me, I took a job that left me without enough free days to continue my telephone book trips. It also moved me to California, where I couldn't find any libraries that would give me their cast-offs. And I was running out of space.

Perhaps the first question that strikes most people when they hear about a telephone book collection is, where do you keep it? We were well positioned at first. By the time we had enough telephone books to worry about, we were living in a house with a large basement rec room. It was so damp and cold that no one else wanted to use it. That rec room became our telephone book library. Within a year, we had filled up the built-in bookshelves, so we started building bookcases. About once a year, we bought 20 or 30 feet of lumber and built another rudimentary bookcase, floor-to-ceiling. We bought a dehumidifier to keep the mildew at bay. As the years went by, we lined the walls of the rec room and started extending out into the middle. People commented that it would make an ideal bomb shelter (which was debatable, because the books might fall off the shelves on us), or that it was a fire hazard (also questionable: I think shelved books are too dense to burn quickly). All of the telephone books poured into that rec room just about as soon as we acquired them. Every time we brought in a new batch, we started by cataloguing them in a large file of index cards; then we stuck them on the shelves in their proper order.

We decided that we could save space by getting rid of duplicates. We loaded a U-Haul with several hundred duplicates from the collection, and moved them to the basement of my father's house on Long Island. A few years later, they had mildewed so badly that we moved them once more, to the dump.

When I moved to California, and continued to acquire phone books, it was impractical to carry or ship them back to Connecticut. The collection remained split between the two coasts. Then I married and started a family. The phone books took up needed space. I had invested so much effort in gathering them that I couldn't bring myself to haul them to the recycling center. We eventually packed them in boxes and put them in the garage.

I got the news that my mother's basement had been flooded in the spring rains. Many of the phone books in the rec room were damaged. I wasn't able to get back to Connecticut just then, so Steven recycled the damaged ones and packed the rest of them in boxes.

Finally, we moved to North Carolina. When the movers came to give us an estimate, we showed them the garage full of boxes, and said, "They're all books". Either the movers didn't believe us, or they had no experience sufficient to guide them, because they gave us a very low estimate. I put all the books in the attic of our new house, and over the years, brought a few boxes at a time from Connecticut to North Carolina after every visit.

Now, at last, the time has come to declare that the purpose of gathering all those telephone books has been fulfilled, and to reap whatever profit I can from the hobby. We're starting to sell the telephone books, which have become nostalgia items, on eBay and on our own Web page. Jesus says, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal" (Matthew vi:19). I've finally learned not to store up for myself telephone books in the basement, where silverfish and mildew destroy, and where moving them costs more than they're worth.

Most of the people who have bought telephone books from me so far, seem to want them for nostalgia reasons or genealogy. There have been some interesting exceptions. For example, several prop wranglers have bought them to use in movies or plays. In one case, it was to get authentic period advertising art. Some books have gone to museums. At least one lawyer has bought them to use as evidence in a trial - to prove that a certain company was in business at a certain location at a certain time. And, oddly enough, some people want them for a telephone book collection. (We've all heard about recycling telephone books, but how many of us thought that it meant from one collection to another?)

Last updated: November 22, 2010

Copyright © 2001-2010 by Gwillim Law. All rights reserved.