Boomers Watch Their Print Phone Books Disappear

The end of printed phone books has been predicted since the dawn of the internet in the 1980s. Nonetheless, a majority of homes from coast to coast continued to receive printed phone directories up until recent years. Though many areas of the country eliminated the print version in the early 2010s, other areas have continued the practice, including Mister Boomer’s area … until now.

Boomers recall seeing and using phone books their entire lives. The first printed phone directory appeared in New Haven, Connecticut in February of 1878, generations before Baby Boomers. It was a single page that listed all the names (but not numbers) of the people in town who had a telephone. George Coy was awarded the Bell Telephone franchise in that city, and came up with the directory idea along with inventing a switchboard with which to connect one person to another. Prior to Coy’s switchboard invention, telephones were on direct lines, causing a cacophony of connections and eavesdroppers on the line at any given time.

By 1878, people saw the logic of separating residential listings from business listings, and the Yellow Pages was born. The color of the paper was different, but also, unlike residential listings, which were alphabetically ordered (and dubbed the White Pages), business listings in the Yellow Pages appeared in categories of business first. Residential listings would remain in the White Pages. At the dawn of the Baby Boom, Bell Telephone continued to hold the monopoly on phone service in the country, and the annual delivery of printed phone directories was commonplace.

Mister Boomer has chronicled his own family’s phone trajectory from a party line to a private number, and on eventually from dial phone to push button. Yet, like most families, the phone books were a constant in his household. They were kept in a lower cabinet in the kitchen, closest to the phone on the wall.

Many boomers may recall literally being raised by a phone book, used as a booster cushion on a dining room chair, long before they could read. The sheer size of the books in metropolitan areas suggested uses other than phone number look-ups, like a quick foot stool in a pinch, or booster seat for the youngest family member to reach the dining room table.

As boomers became teenagers, the anecdotal info Mister Boomer has accumulated says that most families discouraged the use of an operator in favor of using the phone books to look up numbers. This may coincide with some areas beginning to charge a fee for directory assistance in the 1970s, and on to the breakup of the Bell Telephone monopoly in 1982.

Coupled with the news of discontinued printed phone books is info that personal directory assistance has been or is also being eliminated by many companies. The first online directory appeared in 1996. Instant look-ups online have completely replaced the need for human assistance. The fact that younger people prefer not to even make phone calls is perhaps a topic for another day.

What memories of printed phone books come to mind for you, boomers?

One thought on “Boomers Watch Their Print Phone Books Disappear”

  1. I’ve seen phone books expand from one, to several (one each for each ‘near zone’) to small, to none at all. Despite the prevalence of ordering by phone during the pandemic, there have been no phone books.

    Calling information for phone numbers has changed. I remember calling information for free and speaking with a live local human. Once the person not only gave me the number of the business I was inquiring about, but she gave me the location and directions to the business! So she was not only information, but iMaps (or Google Maps) as well. I knew that was too good to be true and the next time I called information I got a person 200 miles away and the time after that it was ‘press 1, press 2’.

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