Saturday, March 22, 2008


Looking Up the Phone Book

I'm in Slate this week with a piece on the lost history of phone books:

The print run for the Manhattan directory alone passed the million mark in 1921. Within five years, it rose sixfold again and required a corps of 500 deliverymen, more than 500 rail-car loads of paper, and 100 tons of binding glue. And that's just in one city. The humble phone book spent the 20th century as the prince of print jobs. When AT&T gave all 2,400 local editions the same bicentennial commemorative cover, the resulting run of 187 million copies probably became the most reproduced book cover of all time. (Stanley Meltzoff's illustration of American archetypes playing "telephone" will induce the shock of long-forgotten memory in anyone over 35.)...

But despite being the most popular printed work ever, there's never been a single scholarly monograph on the phone book. There should be one: Its omnipresence has made it a barometer of societal change. In 1906, Jews in Trenton threatened to boycott Bell over a resort listing's promise, "Free From Hebrews and Tuberculosis Patients." Temperance groups in the North agitated to ban brewery ads from directories, while some Southern directories segregated into separate sections for "white" and "colored" numbers. Women's directory struggles are still within living memory: NYNEX's first listings for birth-control counseling only appeared in 1967, while Bell fought well into the late 1970s to deny women equal billing alongside their husbands in household listings, claiming it required too much extra paper and ink.

The phone book's familiarity also lent it to whimsical uses. The diminutive jazzman Errol Garner toured with one to toss on his piano bench. (You can glimpse it in the first seconds of this 1962 Amsterdam performance.) The Chiquiri Land Company once ordered two tons of used Manhattan directories for its armored payroll cars in Panama; they slipped perfectly between the studs of the armor for a handy extra layer of protection...

Weirdly enough, what got me thinking about phone books in the first place was an oddball search result that turned up a website -- and I am not making this up -- for a DVD titled How To Tear Phone Books In Half,

It champions the use of "legitimate" phone ripping techniques:

As for what illegitimate phone-book ripping must entail, well, the mind boggles.

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