Telephone books from yesteryear offer trove of information

Posted 24 June 2021 at 3:13 pm

This is an early phone book, a simple alphabetical listing, with advertising only on the covers. Courtesy Medina Historical Society.

By Catherine Cooper, Orleans County Historian

“Illuminating Orleans” – Vol. 1, No. 16

We took them for granted. We used them as coasters. We used the covers as notepads. We even used them as flyswatters on occasion. Yes, we also used them for their intended purpose: to locate telephone numbers, addresses and businesses.

Now, we miss them, their comforting bulk, the reassuring feeling that all of the accurate local contact information we would need was contained therein. We save the last phone book issued to us because it still contains relevant information.

But, we have cut the land lines and “gone digital.” Our new technology is sleek, but only scammers can find phone numbers, it seems.

However, over time, the humble telephone books have become valuable research tools since they directly chronicle societal and economic trends at the local level.

The Orleans County Dept. of History collection includes several early local telephone books. This 1915 Bell Telephone Directory covered a wide area as indicated on the cover. A “Classified Index to Advertisers” lists the businesses featured.

Indicative of the transition from horse-power to automobiles, the Index includes listings for one Blacksmith, two Carriages Makers, one Harness Maker and two Livery providers, while there are six Auto Repair providers and six Auto Suppliers.

The 1945 Albion Telephone Directory features a split page presentation, with residential listings on the top and business listings underneath. The 1953-54 Directory is the first with the familiar Yellow Pages layout.

The disappearance of the “corner grocery store” is frequently lamented. That trajectory is reflected in the telephone books, as seen from these listings from 1953 to 2012. The independent grocers of 1953 were superseded by the corporate “Supermarkets.”

Listing of Grocers, Albion Telephone Directory 1953-54 is at left with the listing of Grocers, Albion Telephone Directory, 1974 at right.

The category changed to “Supermarkets” in the 1995 NYNEX Yellow Pages for Albion and vicinity at left. The listing for “Supermarkets” in the Verizon SuperPages, Albion area, 2012 is at right.

This is but one of the many sociological observations one can make from perusing telephone books. As you “Spring clean” or prepare for estate sales, please set aside any telephone books you may find. They will make a welcome addition to the local history treasure trove at the Orleans County Dept. of History.