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Hanging up on the phone book Add to ...

The very first phone book was published so long ago that it had to tell readers how to use that newfangled gizmo, the telephone.

"Commence the conversation by saying 'Hulloa!'" advised The Telephone Directory for residents of New Haven, Conn. in 1878. According to Christie's, which auctioned the book in 2008 for $170,500 (U.S.), it was the first directory to appear in book form and was published just two years after the invention of the device. It went on: "When you are done talking, say 'That is all!'"

It now appears that "that is all" for the phone book itself: At least in Canada's seven largest cities.

Yellow Pages Group Co. said last week that it would no longer deliver residential phone books in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa-Gatineau, Montreal and Quebec City, except to customers who request them. A Yellow Pages spokesperson said Winnipeg could soon join that list.

(LEFT) Montreal Bell Telephone directory, January 1882. (RIGHT)Toronto Bell Telephone Company of Canada directory October 1881
Toronto, Hamilton, Dundas.

The Montreal-based company now prints the white pages in most places across the country, as well as Yellow Pages directories in which businesses pay to place ads. In smaller markets where the Yellow Pages is combined with residential listings, the white pages will still appear on Canadians' doorsteps. But in the largest urban centres, they will all but vanish.

Before it ballooned in size and became a fixture of every home in Canada, the telephone directory began as a piece of cardboard, listing 68 businesses and residents in Hamilton, Ont.

The Hamilton District Telegraph Co. published the humble list in late 1878. There were no phone numbers, of course: A live operator made the connection.

Now, many phones are mobile and can hold their own directories. And with the Internet, there just isn't the same need for the book, said Annie Marsolais, a spokesperson for parent company Yellow Pages .

"They're becoming a dinosaur," said Janine West, manager of collections at the Eleanor London Côte Saint-Luc Public Library in Montreal. The library used to have a large collection of international phone books. In 2000, the collection was scrapped to save space.

One collector of antique phone books was unsentimental about the change, saying the eradication of the current print books would help to raise the value of older ones.

Photo No. 36375
Toronto Telephone directory hanging from table. 1915.
Bell Archives.

Though Gwillim Law, who lives in North Carolina and runs a website about old phone books, no longer actively collects phone books, he said new collectors would likely come to the market: "When people realize that something is not going to be around much longer, some of them develop an interest in holding on to it."

But Jody Georgeson is melancholy about their disappearance. As executive director of The Telecommunications History Group, a non-profit organization that runs museums in Denver and Seattle, she has seen the impact the phone book can have: Her organization has helped people who lived downwind from nuclear test sites in the fifties and sixties prove their residency and receive compensation from the U.S. government.

"My relatives will probably not be able to find me, or know where I lived … some of the documentation of the history will be missing in future. That's what upsets me the most."

Still, many environmentalists have criticized the printing of phone books that pile up in building lobbies or sit unused in cupboards. Yellow Pages Group will now print roughly five million fewer directories a year, the equivalent 3,500 metric tonnes of paper, Ms. Marsolais said.

"In this day and age, a lot of people don't find the White Pages necessary," said Jed Goldberg, the president of Earth Day Canada. "And there's a tremendous environmental benefit to not printing them."


Humble beginnings

Canada's first telephone directory was published by the Toronto Telephone Despatch Co. in June, 1879. It seems laughable today, but all of Toronto's phone subscribers - business and personal - fit onto just six pages.

Helpful hints

After The Bell Telephone Co. of Canada was incorporated in April, 1880, it began publishing phone books with helpful guidelines at the bottom of each page.

"Do not attempt to use the Telephone on the approach of, or during a thunder storm," was a tidbit from the 1881 directory in Toronto. "Never leave your Telephone off the hook," Montrealers were told.

Dial by rote

The 1882 Montreal book was the first to list actual phone numbers; though these were shorter than today's standard. The Accident Insurance Co. could be reached at 211. The number for Sir Hugh Allan was 10.

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