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“It is up-to-date. It is accurate. It is reliable.” Historical Telephone Directories and Advertising

This guest post was written by Sophie Lefebvre, a 2020 Junior Fellow in the Business Reference Section of the Science, Technology & Business Division.

White Pages and Yellow Pages – Santa Clara County – April 1932 thru January 1938

While I was looking for examples of historical advertisements to include in my research guide “Consumer Advertising in the Great Depression,” I found the Library’s U.S. Telephone Directory Collection to be a great resource. The historical telephone directories available online are the product of a recent effort when Library of Congress staff digitized 3,513 microfilm rolls of its collection of 8,327 twentieth century telephone directories. Although these telephone directories can be used to check whether specific people or businesses could be found in the area the telephone directory was issued for, they are also an incredible source of historical advertisements! This may seem strange to those of us who grew up with the internet, but the city directory, and its successor, the telephone directory, provided essential information about local businesses.

The first telephone directory was printed in 1878 in New Haven, Connecticut. It was only 20 pages long, contained information exclusively about local businesses, and did not include any phone numbers. The first telephone directory borrowed its format from the earlier city directory, which predated the telephone and was more or less a business directory without phone numbers. In 1867, a decade before the invention of the telephone, the authors of South Bend, Indiana’s first-ever city directory noted with pride that their advertising department was “a feature well worthy of the notice of every class of buyer” and “show[ed] the spirit of go-a-head-ativeness in our merchants and business men who desire to make known the wares and commodities they have for sale.”

In the decades that followed the publication of the first telephone directory, it evolved into its most recognizable form, with white pages, a “business directory,” and advertisements scattered throughout. According to The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book that Everyone Uses But No One Reads by Shea Ammon, advertisements in telephone directories weren’t always a given. In the 1880s and 1890s, some cities, such as Chicago (1889-1901), had ordinances banning printing advertisements in telephone directories.  However, selling advertising space in major cities’ telephone directories proved to be a lucrative business and lowered the expense of supplying telephone users with directories. In 1920, businessman W. C. Smyth argued in the Telephone Engineer & Management that telephone directories were a “necessary part of the furnishing of telephone service” and removing advertisements from telephone directories would disadvantage consumers and businesses alike by causing an increase in consumers’ telephone bills and removing a means for businesses to advertise. Smyth admitted that the telephone directory had certain limits as an advertising medium. Unlike magazine ads or radio jingles, “It does not entertain and it does not instruct,” but it was the “most used and most useful advertising medium in any locality.”

California – White Pages and Yellow Pages – Colton – January 1919 thru October 1938 (1930, Image 129 //www.loc.gov/item/usteledirec01691/)

Sales associates’ efforts to convince local businesses to buy advertising space in their business directories didn’t stop once a telephone directory was published. When flipping through digitized telephone directories from 1930s Santa Clara, California in search of eye-catching ads, I noticed two recurring types of advertisements: first, ads encouraging businesses to invest in a spot in their business directory, and second, ads from the telephone company encouraging telephone owners to consider investing in another phone line. Telephone directories could be issued several times a year and despite telephone directories’ less-than-convincing tone selling ad space, these advertisements could provide a significant boost to business, especially as the percentage of households that owned a telephone steadily increased from 35% in 1920, to 40.9% in 1930, a trend that continued over the course of the 20th century, according the Federal Communications Commission.

California – White Pages and Yellow Pages – Santa Clara County – April 1932 thru January 1938 (1932, image 58 //www.loc.gov/item/usteledirec03609/)

Although telephone directories may not play a significant role in our daily lives today, the Library’s collection of digitized telephone directories is an incredible resource for anyone interested in changes in the business landscape or even in the popular perception of telephones themselves. As the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company announced in 1932, “the Buyer’s Guide Way is the Modern Way of Transacting Business.” When you’re looking for information about business history, don’t forget to check the phonebook!

Further Reading:

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