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History of the Telephone Directory

It’s hard to think of telephones without their crucial ancillary - the telephone directory. As more and more people look to the internet for their telephone directory, the traditional printed phone book is in decline with many now being used for tearing as a feat of strength. But when was the first telephone directory published and how has it changed over the last century?

The telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 and the first telephone directory soon followed in 1878. The first UK phone book dates back to 1880 and contained just 248 names but didn’t actually list any phone numbers. To get connected to the receiver, the caller would need to call the operator first. This soon changed though, and eventually every person listed in the directory was given their own number. It was quickly apparent that telephones had to have a directory service associated with them. Just 16 years later in 1896, the phone book covered every area in the UK. As very few people knew how to use the telephone, intructions were included on how to use this ‘new’ technology.

As a sign of how quickly the phone book spread, in 1914 1.5 million copies were produced in the UK, making it the largest single printing contract. Phone books for the whole country were produced not only by BT, but also Post Office Telecommunications, the National Telephone Company and other private companies.

In other parts of the world, telephone directories were commonly called the White Pages directory featuring only residential listings, but it was not long before companies discovered the value of being listed and the classic Yellow Pages service was born. In 1966, the first UK Yellow Pages classified directory was launched in Brighton, Sussex. 7 years later they were provided all across the UK.

From consumer telephone directories a plethora of other directories emerged:

  • Residential listings - White pages
  • Business directory - Yellow pages
  • Reverse telephone directory - Grey pages (phone numbers are listed first instead of alphabetical last name listings as in the white pages)
  • Government agencies - Blue or Green pages

For the UK White Pages, the provision of residential listings changed as the former monopoly supplier BT, and it's BT Phone Book, lost grip of the market. The industry itself has changed significantly over recent years as the proliferation of mobile phones has led to an increasing number of people disconnecting their home landlines.

Prior to BT’s privatisation in 1984, all UK phone books were classified as public records. In total, there were 1,780 British phonebooks released between 1880 and 1984. As part of the recent boom in genealogy, these back issues have been electronically scanned and are now available in an online collection provided by Ancestry.co.uk. This includes over 250 million entries.

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