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?

For Boomers, Phone Followed Function

It’s been well documented how telephone technology has changed so dramatically since the dawn of the boomer years. Mister B has chronicled many aspects himself over the past decade. However, even though people regularly talk about the fact that boomers grew up in a time before cell phones, there has not been much mention of how, when and why we did use the telephone.

From the time Mister Boomer could remember, his home had one phone, and it was securely fastened to the wall in the kitchen. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, if the phone rang unexpectedly, Mister B’s mother would utter, “Uh-oh,” before answering. Mister B’s mom immediately thought if someone was calling, somebody had died. Coming from a large extended family on both parental sides, as his grandparents’ generation aged, this was often the case. Great aunts and uncles passed away with regularity between 1955 and ’65. It was an era when family lived closer together, and at least in families like Mister Boomer’s, he grew up knowing aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins. The phone might be used to form up plans for a visit, but not much else, unless bad news was coming. Often, it would be to relay funeral arrangements.

Mister Boomer does not recall his father ever making a phone call. His mother would call her mother, but the family saw her practically every Sunday for dinner, so there was not much reason to phone. She’d occasionally call her sister, or one of her brothers, but the calls were generally cordial and quick. As Mister Boomer mentioned, prior to the early 1960s, his home phone was what Bell Telephone called a “party line.” It was literally a line several homes shared, so if you picked up the phone and someone else was on the line, you could not make a call. Mister Boomer’s mother regularly complained about it to his father and ultimately the family got their own line, somewhere in the early 1960s. That new number remained the Boomer household phone number for the next fifty years.

If teenagers were lucky enough to have one of the first push-button phones in their bedroom, they might use the phone in much the same way that today’s kids contact friends through social media platforms. Mister Boomer’s sister used the kitchen wall phone on occasion to talk to her friends, but there was always an imposed time limit, not the hours-on-end conversations of teenage boomer girls depicted in movies. Besides, with the phone being in the kitchen, the whole family could hear your conversation. Brother Boomer rarely used the phone, and it was the same for Mister Boomer. If so, it was to arrange something: a ride to school, a meeting time or the like.

When you were out and not where you had told your parents you would be, it was wise to tell your folks that plans had changed, and you were not at Jimmy’s, but went to Kathy’s house to do homework. If you weren’t at someone’s house where you could use the telephone, you would have to use a pay phone. Luckily, they could be found everywhere: most stores had them, as did gas stations, libraries, the roller rink, hamburger joint and malt shop. Also, there were phone booths peppered throughout the city. These were glass and metal, with an accordion door that closed. You could “drop a dime” on your parents, which meant the phone call was ten cents. The younger generations can watch older Superman movies to see him go into phone booths to change from his Clark Kent persona. A weird scenario seeing as the booth was fitted with glass on all sides. There is a scene is a later Superman movie where Clark rushes to a phone booth, only to find it had evolved into an open-air kiosk housing the pay phone. At that point the rotary dial had been replaced by push buttons, as well.

Dating required a telephone, when young men got up enough gumption to ask young ladies for their phone number, but didn’t ask for a date yet. (Remember the Marvelletes singing, “And my number is Beechwood 4-5789 / You can call me up and have a date any old time”?) As in Mister Boomer’s case, the kitchen phone was hardly the location to carry on a conversation, other than setting up times and places. For that reason, Mister B more often than not tried to set up dates from a pay phone.

If the phone rang and you were not home, it rang until the other side gave up. There were no answering machines. If someone called and you were already on the line, the caller would hear a busy signal. In Mister Boomer’s home, if the phone rang while the family was eating dinner, it was left unanswered. The caller would usually give up after ten or twelve rings.

Once a boomer began a job search in earnest, the phone could be vital to getting information on the location and time of the interview. Pay phones were used for such purposes, as well as by business people who had to travel from one location to the next, whether for sales work or regional management. Mister Boomer recalls one of his early retail jobs, where the store pay phone was used to send in daily sales totals to regional headquarters, and in return, a regional manager, who often visited in person, would otherwise relay information via the phone to the store manager to be distributed to staff.

When a call was made out of your area, it was termed “long distance.” The calls could be to a different part of your own state, or across the country. Regardless, these calls could be expensive. That’s where “collect calling” came in. To avoid the charges of long distance, families came up with elaborate codes to give information without actually speaking directly to one another. For example, a soldier returning home might call collect from a bus station several states away. The phone operator — a live person — would ask if the receiving caller — the soldier’s father — would accept the charges from caller “Albee Bus.” The soldier’s father would refuse the charges, saying he didn’t know an “Albee Bus.” At the same time, both the soldier and his father could hear each other. When the operator said the call could not be put through, the soldier might add, “OK, thank you, operator, I guess I’ll try again on Sunday at 2 p.m.” His father could hang up the phone without either side paying long distance charges, knowing his son would arrive at the bus station at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

In short, we see the phone in the boomer years, though used for casual conversation and connectivity among friends and family, was most often a means to communicate needed information that today might be put into a few-word text message.

How about you, boomers? How did you use the telephone in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s?