A Look at "The Book": The Fall and Rise of the Telephone Directory
It can't have escaped your attention that there has been a lot of talk recently about the imminent demise of the book, at least the print version. But what about the book? Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have this year reported that the White Pages may soon be discontinued. This is perhaps understandable. How many copies of this book currently lie abandoned in a cupboard or drawer, waiting to be recycled? Should we mark the passing of a book we've never treated with any respect? We've ripped out its pages for lack of a pencil, used it to prop open doors, and have adorned the cover and pages with coffee cup rings and doodles. The best end the book can hope for is that moment in the sun when its pages are shredded for ticker-tape. But why this sentimental nostalgia you may ask? The telephone book is supposed to be used and abused. The book's title page declares its ephemeral status with the legend "Destroy All Previous Issues." Why on earth should I be interested in that tatty, thin paged, dog-eared, information rich source of primary evidence that... oh I get it.
Ammon Shea, in his 2010 book The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads, suggests that the telephone directory was first identified as the book in Agatha Christie's Secrets of Chimneys in 1925, with the the line "By the way, Eversliegh, you might ring up a number for me now. Look it up in the book." Ironically the first telephone directory wasn't a book, but a single sheet card listing the names and addresses (but not numbers) of 50 subscribers to the New Haven District Telephone Co., in February 1878. No copy of the directory exists save in facsimile form. Incidentally the only known surviving copy of the second (officially the first edition, but who's counting) New Haven District Telephone Co. directory, issued November 1878 was sold by Christie's for $170,500 at auction in 2008.
The first telephone directory for New York City, issued October 23rd 1878, by the Bell Telephone Company of New York, also a card, listed the names and addresses (still no numbers) of 256 subscribers, all business addresses: residential subscribers were not published. Included in the listings were 46 banks and bankers, 26 jewelers, 27 produce, cotton, oil and commission merchants, 21 importers, 19 dealers in drugs, chemicals and essential oils, 18 "milliners [...] etc", 10 hotels, 10 insurance companies, 9 "silk and lace," 6 transfer companies, and numerous sellers of luggage, safes, burglar alarms, cigars, railroad tickets, kid gloves, collars and cuffs, tailor's trimmings, and suppliers/purveyors of "passé partout" (possibly picture framing). A few of the businesses listed are still household names: E. Remington & Sons and C. Pfizer & Co., for instance. The Fire Department (or Fire Patrol as they are named) was an early adopter of the new technology, with five addresses listed in the directory.
Before the telephone directory if you wanted to look some one up you would use a city directory. City directories in the 19th century might list the name, profession, home and business addresses, and sometimes race of an individual. A contender for the title of the first New York City directory is A Directory for the City of New York in 1665, a list of mostly Dutch householders, men and women, in New Amsterdam, arranged according to the streets they lived on. Perhaps fittingly the Honourable Peter Stuyvesant, who lived on “‘t Marckvelt” (the east side of Bowling Green, now the beginning of Broadway) is the first name listed. The Directory was compiled the year after the city was first captured by the British and renamed New York, and is an invaluable record of the Dutch colonial period, a unique document that captures a particularly important moment in history.
In December 1785 David Franks placed an advertisement in the New York Gazeteer announcing that “The New-York Directory [...] will be put to press in the next few days,” with a subscription price of “six shillings.” Published February 14, 1786, Franks described his directory as "the first of its kind ever attempted in this city." In addition to listing the names, addresses and professions of subscribers, The New York Directory for 1786 included a map of the city, a monthly almanac, the names and titles of local and national political figures, educators, directors of banks, lawyers, notaries, and the memberships of various societies and organizations, including the Masons, the Society for the Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen.
There have been numerous other kinds of directories, for instance, business, elite (notably Louis Keller's Social Register (1887), and the Brooklyn Blue Book (1899)), classified, and reverse lookup: all invaluable primary source documents, rich in information, useful to genealogists, historians, students, and private detectives alike. To say that the directory—city, telephone, or otherwise—is an excellent place to look for information seems a bit obvious. Over time, however, the information contained in the directory takes on new meaning. The book is no longer just a useful tool for helping you get in touch with someone. It becomes a document, a record, primary evidence of historical importance, and a useful genealogical reference source. Can't make out that scrawled name in the 1930 Federal Census? Want to know who lived in your house in 1947? Need to locate the Marx Brothers* in Manhattan, circa 1900? Wondering how many Chinese restaurants were in New York in the 1890s? All of this information is in the book. So when you throw out your still shrink-wrapped White Pages, spare a thought for what it contains, what it represents, and where it might lead you. The Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History, and Genealogy, and the Microforms Reading Room have a huge array of historical local and national telephone and city directories, a plethora of other kinds of directories, and even directories of directories, in print, online and on microform. Look us up. We're in the, ahem, book.
"White Pages May Go Way of Rotary-Dialed Phone." New York Times. May 7, 2010.
"Verizon seeking permission to stop delivering white pages in Maryland, Virginia." Washington Post. November 17, 2010.
Henry F. & Katharine Pringle. Sixty Million Headaches Every Year. Saturday Evening Post, April 3, 1954, pp.27, 94-96.
*OK, not the Marx Brothers, but Marx Bros., 127 Bleeker, call Spring 452.