I came into the lobby of my building a few weeks ago, and stumbled upon 1974. There, in a brick cube about three feet per side, were the brand new Manhattan white pages. Just off the press, wrapped in plastic, sitting and waiting for people to spirit them away.
Which, of course, no one did. It’s 2010. It may as well have been a pile of typewriter ribbon or ticker tape. Even if the Internet didn’t exist (which it does) (meta!), who has a landline any more? I haven’t had a landline since I had to get one for my DSL – in 1999.
The first telephone directory, somewhat less substantial than the pile that was in my lobby until it gracefully transitioned to the curb, was a single sheet of paper distributed to phone customers in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1878. It had no numbers, just a list of those individuals and businesses that had a phone, including three doctors, two dentists, the cops, and twenty-six businesses, including two stables. Early adopters, all.
It had no numbers, of course, because all calls went through an operator. Who was invariably named Sarah. You’ve seen the old movies in which a row of women sit at a bank of plugs, asking, “How may I direct your call?” and then plugging a cord into a hole in the wall. You haven’t? Well, courtesy the Internet Archive, here’s an entire film about telephone operators and the men that love them.
Eventually, as phone traffic increased and the cost of hiring all those winsome twenty-somethings to make connections became exorbitant, a new technology emerged – the party line. Party lines allowed a group of homes to share a pooled connection, and each house had a distinctive ring so they’d know when the phone was for them.
It doesn’t take a Thomas Watson to see the problem here: privacy. If it isn’t a telephone operator (Sarah) listening in, it’s the lousy Quigleys up the block. Enter direct dial which, starting in the 1920s, allowed any party to directly call another, sidestepping human interaction – and giving us phone numbers. The first directory intended simply to inform customers about who had phones. With the advent of direct dial, it became an essential tool.
A quick aside about phone numbers. It’s generally understood that numbers are seven digits (where they still are) because that’s near the limit of human working memory. But until the 1960s, phone numbers were broken out into an exchange followed by five digits. You know what I’m talking about: Klondike 5-2929, for example. The first two letters of the exchange (here, KL) were converted into the numbers they represent on the phone (55) and then dialed. (This example, Klondike 5, became, once exchanges went out of fashion, the 555 that we all know to be fictitious, thanks to movies and television shows.) In 1955, Ma Bell even created a list of approved exchange abbreviations, which will help spice up the phone numbers of those of you seeking to be more twee.
Another aside on the same topic. Eventually, area codes were developed to allow direct dial outside of a local region. In assigning area codes to municipalities, the phone companies were smart: recognizing how annoying it is to dial a high number on a rotary phone, they assigned the smallest codes to the most populous cities, in order. That’s why New York is 212, Chicago is 312 and Los Angeles 213.
What prompted this retrospective on phone books was stumbling across OldTelephoneBooks.com which delivers on the promise of its URL. A really impressive collection of the covers of phone books from across the United States, Canada and Australia, it’s a celebration of nostalgia and changing aesthetics. Consider, for example, this random sampling from my hometown of Rochester, New York:
The site makes it easy to see the evolution of phone book covers over time, but what of the insides? As more and more people needed to be added to phone books, the type necessarily got smaller and smaller. OldTelephoneBooks.com demonstrates some of the flavors that resulted, but it took Ma Bell to turn this into a science. (She does, after all, have the ill communication.) In 1938, typographer Chauncey Griffith created Bell Gothic, a typeface intended to be readable at very small sizes. While it was designed for print (obviously), at left is an image comparing it with, say, Times New Roman.
Understandably, phone books are also a great resource for those studying genealogy. The site DistantCousin.com, for example, allows you to peer inside a range of old phone books, from a disparate set of cities across the United States. (Did you know that a John Galt lived in New York City in 1859? He did. As for who he is: he was a machinist.)
Phone books also brought us one of the 20th century’s most memorable slogans (according to AdAge): let your fingers do the walking. Created by the Vice President of Marketing for Pacific Northwest Bell (at least according to his grandkid), the phrase simply popped into his head one night at dinner. The inspiration for the famous “walking fingers” logo, I never really considered what it meant. After all, by the time I was a kid, no one would go walking from store to store to see what was offered. We would call. The slogan was a victim of its success.
In trying to learn more about the phrase for this piece, I stumbled across a cool Google tool which tracks use of the term over time. It’s obvious from the graph (above, from Google) that it began in the early 1960s, and, clicking deeper, Google links to an ad from the Fredericksburg, Virgina, Free Lance-Star of January, 1962.
There, laid bare, the origin of the slogan.
In the pre-Internet era, the telephone was the ubiquitous information source. Time and temperature, Moviefone, insect identification – and, here in New York, the Public Library’s telephone reference department. Since 1963, you’ve been able to call the librarians at the NYPL and get the answer to whatever question was keeping you awake. (Think kgb, but without incurring text message fees.) In 1990, the Library released a compilation of the oddest and most common questions they’d received. They could certainly do a second volume; the service is still active.
A few years ago, the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters tested an urban legend – if you interlace the pages from two phone books, is it true that you can’t pull them apart? Ultimately, they proved that it was true, resorting to tanks to get the job done.
In the interest of scientific purity, I was hoping to re-create the above experiment – but when I walked down to the tank dealership, they were closed. And besides, where on Earth am I supposed to find a phone book in this day and age?
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