Today in History: The First Telephone Book Came Calling

Today in History: The First Telephone Book Came Calling

The first telephone directory was nothing more than a one-page sheet of cardboard that boasted fifty listings of both residents and businesses but had no actual telephone numbers printed alongside the names. 

It made its grand appearance on February 21, 1878, in New Haven, Connecticut, less than two years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. 

What use is a phone book with no telephone numbers, you might ask? Well, no numbers were included in the new telephone book because people didn't need them as they didn't dial themselves. Instead, they would speak to a live switchboard operator to have their call directed to the appropriate person or business - now that they knew who had a phone with their new directory.

The single sheet of cardboard with the fifty listings eventually expanded into the first New Haven telephone book, published in November 1878. 

While no copies of the single sheet directory seem to have survived time, the only known copy of the first telephone book was sold on June 17, 2008, for $140,000 at an auction at Christie's New York. The 2008 sale followed a sale for the same book in 1996 by Christie's as well, but for $18,000.

Early phone books came not only with a list of names but also included much-needed directions on how to use a telephone. The instructions included which end of the contraption to speak into and how to initiate a conversation. 

Additional instructions included: 

  • Never take the telephone off the hook unless you wish to use it. 
  • Should you wish to speak to another subscriber... you should commence the conversation by saying 'Hulloa!'. 
  • When you are done talking, say 'That is all!', and the person spoken to should say 'O.K.'
  • Much trouble ensues from both parties speaking at the same time.
  • No subscriber will be allowed to use the wire for more than three minutes at a time, or more than twice in an hour, without first obtaining permission from the main office.
  • Any person using profane or otherwise improper language should be reported at this office immediately.

Yesterday's thick white page and yellow page phone books have mostly gone the way of landlines and have even been banned in some locations to save paper and thus the trees. But when it comes to frum homes, phonebooks are much more common for several reasons, and not only because the ad revenue still seems to pay for those still printing them. Other reasons phone books are still hanging on in our homes include the reasoning that one might need to look up an address on Shabbos and that homes without internet are much more common, so a phone is still the easiest way to look up a number. 

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