The Phone Book

The curious history of the book that everyone uses but no one reads.

You don’t ever hear, “I’m in the book” anymore. Once upon a time, it was an oft-used phrase indicating how you could be found. Today relatively few people let their fingers do the walking through the Yellow pages, and fewer still consult the White pages. But much to the chagrin of groups like Ban the Phone Book, new volumes are being printed all the time—updated editions of the White pages compelled by law, freshened-up Yellow books driven by the promise of advertising revenue.

Considering that there have probably been more phone books in print than any other publication in the history of the world, it’s surprising no writer thought to pen a book about “the book.” Until now, that is. Earlier this month, Perigee Books published Ammon Shea’s “The Phone Book,” a history of this once-indispensable, unfailingly humble reference guide—and a title that is considerably more compelling than its namesake.

Envisioning a Failure Interview, I procured Shea’s home number (fittingly, I did not use the White pages) and dialed. He answered with a friendly “hello,” though if things had worked out as Alexander Graham Bell envisioned, Shea might have greeted me with “ahoy.” We began our conversation by discussing the first phone book, issued on February 21, 1878, in New Haven, Connecticut.

Tell me about the first phone book.
It was a single piece of cardboard, so it’s probably a stretch to call it a book. There were fifty listings, and it didn’t have any numbers. It listed the names of the businesses that had a telephone.

I understand that early phone books included directions on how to use the telephone.
Nobody had any idea how to use one. There are wonderful passages in Herbert Casson’s “The History of the Telephone” in which he describes how they had public demonstrations to illustrate how to use the technology. When people first started using the telephone they would often yell into the wrong part.

Users also had to be advised how to begin and end conversations?
That’s where “hello” comes from. Hello existed in English for hundreds of years, but it was always used in the exclamatory sense of “Hello, what have we here?” What’s great is that Alexander Graham Bell preferred to say “Ahoy.” I just learned that Mr. Burns of The Simpsons answers the telephone with “Ahoy-[a]hoy.” So someone who writes for the show is a fan of early telephone history.

For a long time people resisted dialing numbers. Obviously, groups like the Anti-Digit Dialing League were unable to stop progress.
But the Anti-Digit Dialing League did slow down what it referred to as “creeping numeralism.” There were even songs about anti-digit dialing. One was by Allan Sherman [“The Let’s Call up AT&T & Protest to the President March”], released in 1963 on an album called My Son, The Celebrity. It started off:

Can you see him smirking and smiling? 
’Cause he’s got us all digit dialing.

It’s amazing the issue aroused enough passion that people were writing protest songs.

I understand that as part of your research you “read” a phone book?
I spent three or four weeks reading through a 1980 New York City phone book—one from my childhood. The great draw of the phone book—particularly the Yellow pages—is it doesn’t care about emotional content, it just lists everything within a certain time and place. So it’s a wonderful tool for sparking memories. Our memories are so inherently flawed that you can’t remember things with the kind of accuracy you think you remember them with. So in the sense that it’s complete and unemotional, the phone book is a wonderful emotional tool.

Why have relatively few old telephone books survived?
In the early twentieth century, the telephone companies had delivery people take the old telephone books away, because they didn’t want customers to have outdated information. Also, nobody felt like it was something you should hold onto. One of the earliest phone books recently sold for $170,000 at auction at Christie’s.

How are they most commonly disposed of today?
It seems like most of them go straight into the trash [laughs], though a lot end up in recycling where they get pulped and become phone books again. Telephone companies are required to send out the White pages. But the Telecommunications Act of 1996 said that anyone who wants can print the Yellow pages. So in some areas of the United States you get six or seven [editions] a year. The Yellow pages is a 14 or 15 billion dollar a year industry, which is why people are still very interested in printing it.

It’s also why goes against the White pages. Nobody accepts that there’s a need for it, and it doesn’t have any political power behind it because it doesn’t make anybody billions of dollars a year. People aren’t saying: Ban the Yellow pages, because they know it’s a losing proposition. 

Why do you think so little has been written about the phone book?
We have a curious relationship with reference works, which is that we treat them as tools. The phone book inspires more contempt that any other kind of reference work, because we don’t really think of it as a book. It’s so familiar that it breeds contempt.