Paul Collins’s article on Slate, “The Book of the Undead: Why Won’t Phone Books Die?” is, oddly enough, the second article I’ve read recently on this topic. I know, it sounds like a snoozer; after all, what could be more boring than the phone book?
Having lived and worked in buildings where the phone books lie idly by the front door for months, to be used infrequently as doorstops, I know what a blight that ubiquitous yellow book can be. But it actually has a pretty interesting history. For example:
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
There’s more history and random stats (“the 615 million volumes produced last year come out to 1 million tons of phone books”). And Collins cover issues of waste, recyling, and opt-out policies. He also gives links to videos of some pretty goofy phone book-related pranks.
In the meantime, think we can get our Yellow Pages on Kindle?