Spokeo Blog

The Evolution of the Phone Book

Written by April 23, 2014


The phone book’s come a long way, baby. It’s been revered, derided, re-imagined, and digitized and it’s not dead yet, despite its unsustainable production and overall impact on the environment. Recent changes to the way local phone books are laid out have stirred much debate online about the usefulness (or uselessness?) of this time-honored reference.  Although younger generations clearly prefer to use the internet to look up local businesses or perform a reverse phone number search, there’s still a large contingent of Yellow Pages-using, phone book-heralding people out there.

In honor of the some-odd 5 million trees cut down each year to make tons of (unwanted) phonebooks, let’s take a trip down memory lane and a quick look at all the ways the phone book has changed over the course of its nearly 150 year history.

1878: The first-ever phone book was distributed in New Haven, CT. It consisted of a single piece of cardboard with the names of the 50 business in town who possessed a phone scrawled on it by hand.

1880: Aptly-named “The Telephone Company” in Britain released the first UK phone book. It didn’t have any phone numbers, though, just a list of 248 business and individuals in London who callers needed to ask the operator for by name.

1886: The first-ever “Yellow Pages” were released. The book consisted of a list of names and phone numbers (businesses and individuals) and its name was coined after a worker allegedly ran out of white paper while printing phone books and grabbed some yellow paper nearby.

1921: The Manhattan version of the phone book surpasses 1,000,000 recipients. A milestone! (Just four years later it would reach more than 5 times that many.)

1938: AT&T decides to get crafty and creates a new font just for phone books! Called “Bell Gothic,” the font was designed to be easy-to-read when printed in teeny-tiny phone book lines.

1984: AT&T breaks into factions and regional “Bells” started competing against each other. The phone book becomes privatized! Double-digit revenue streams on each book become the norm and still stand at over $13 billion a year.

Early 2000s: Yellow Pages manufacturers start moving operations online to complement their print editions. Currently, “yellow pages” is one of the highest-grossing search terms on Google and every independent producer of Yellow Pages directories has an additional online presence.

Mid-2000s: People Search Engines like Spokeo.com begin further separating individual and business listings. These engines allow users to find out name, phone number, address, and other pertinent information. In subsequent years, spinoff sites like Bizshark.com would complement these people search engines by providing additional and similar information on businesses.

2009-2013: Several U.S. cities and states decide to formally challenge the environmental impact of phone books. San Francisco becomes the first city to automatically opt-out of Yellow Pages directories unless individuals specifically add their name back to the list.

2014: Strongholds of the Yellow Pages in Texas and California see their 2014 copies delivered…minus the White Pages business listings. Other states like Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina say they’re in the process of eliminating business listings, too.

2014: Cities around the country notice that their phone books are getting smaller and smaller (and head to the internet to comment, of course) leading some to speculate that the medium is slowly disappearing.

Where will the phone book be in 2 years? 5 years? 20? No one really knows. Phone book companies have been surprisingly adaptable but many are still fighting the online revolution instead of embracing it and the roar of environmentalist is getting louder and louder. With the advent of people search engines and local directories it’s likely only a matter of time until all traditional phone book users make the switch.

 Spokeo is changing the way people look up other people, making it simpler and far faster than ever before by harnessing the power of technology. Where there’s big data there’s big opportunity and people search engines are the future of the phone book. It’s been a long time since those first New Haven residents scanned a cardboard cutout for phone numbers, and Spokeo’s leading the charge forward to a greener, more environmentally-friendly future.

Posted in News Flash, People Search, People Search Trends

Director of Public Relations & Community Initiatives

Vanessa joined Spokeo in 2012 and oversees all social media, media relations and community relations efforts for Spokeo. She is especially passionate about Spokeo programs focused on search and reunion and promoting STEM careers for women and children. During her free time, she enjoys writing, DIY home decor and crafts, and eating dessert!

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