Every issue of the local Yellow Pages phone book was cataloged at the library, and up-to-date copies were absolutely everywhere: every home, every business, chained up at every pay phone, etc. The book was as useful as it was ubiquitous — and it was easy to take for granted, since it was always at hand when we needed to “let our fingers do the walking.”
The first classified telephone directory, consisting of a single piece of paper, was published on February 21, 1878, by the New Haven District Telephone Company in Connecticut. It listed just 50 subscribers, who paid to have their names and addresses listed in the directory.
Something that was missing from this phone book? Phone numbers. In the days before you were able to dial your own telephone, all calls went through a switchboard operator, so just a list was enough.
A more formal telephone directory was produced in Connecticut in November 1878. It was still only 40 pages (20 pieces of paper), and included phone directions, advertisements, a list of the 391 phone subscribers at the time, and some short essays on the technology of the era.
One rare copy of the first edition of this phone book was sold at an auction by Christie’s in 2008. It was expected to sell for between $30,000 and $40,000, but when the bidding ended, the cost had reached $170,500. That’s a pretty hefty price tag for a bunch of phone numbers that don’t even work anymore… 😆
Why the Yellow Pages phone book is printed on yellow paper (1971)
From the Casper Star Tribune (Wyoming) February 23, 1971
Those yellow pages in the back of the telephone directory have a supply-poor Cheyenne printer to thank for their origin, according to an article in the January 19  Wall Street Journal.
Said the Journal article, “Classified directories have been around since the first list of telephone subscribers was published by the New Haven District Telephone Co. in 1878. The ‘yellow’ was added five years later, apparently by a printer in Cheyenne, Wyo., who ran out of regular white stock.”
That unidentified Cheyenne printer probably only printed a “yellow page” instead of Yellow Pages, however, according to information from the Wyoming Archives and Historical Department.
In 1969, the telephone company reproduced the Cheyenne directory of 1882, a year earlier. The “directory” consisted of a single page printed on one side — a column listing the 100 persons in Cheyenne who had phones, flanked by classified ads, the department said. By 1883, Cheyenne had 115 phones and still probably a single-page directory.
How to read the yellow pages phone book: A phone directory workbook for kids (1982)
Excerpted from Reading the Yellow Pages activity workbook
Reading the Yellow Pages is designed to show students that the Yellow Pages is a valuable time and money-saving resource.
Varied activities familiarize students with the Yellow Pages index, guide words, headings, advertisements, and other main parts.
Many of the activities are presented in terms of their utility for intelligent shopping. Students learn essential skills in analyzing the principal parts of the Yellow Pages. The activities may be completed in sequential order, or the teacher may select certain pages to coordinate with a day’s lesson.
How to use the Yellow Pages phone book index (1982)
When the product or service is printed in dark type, such as Cabinet Makers, you turn to the heading Cabinet Makers in the Yellow Pages. . . When the product or service is listed in lighter type, you keep reading until you come to a listing in dark type.
For example, if you were looking for cabins, you would read, “Cabins — Log — See Log Cabins, Homes & Buildings.” Then all you do is look under the heading Log Cabins, Homes & Buildings in the Yellow Pages.
An index will help you find — quickly and easily — what you are looking for in the Yellow Pages of the phone book.
What’s the difference between Yellow Pages and White Pages?
Old phone book business advertising guide (1982)
Eye-catching drawings get attention
Interpreting symbols used in the telephone directory
Special guides (Yellow Pages ad sections)
1950s Classified Yellow Pages telephone directory (1952)
Yellow Pages – the number one shopping center (1957)
How to buy a product or service easier: Yellow Pages (1961)
Shop by phone when you can’t leave home (1961)
Let your fingers do the walking! (1962)
If walking, shopping, walking, shopping all over town gets you down… Let your fingers do the walking!
Shop the Yellow Pages way: Tired of touring the town for something — and not finding it? Let your fingers do the walking first. Through the Yellow Pages.
What a handy local shopping guide! Just read the ads listed under the heading you look up… you’ll find useful information on brands, hard-to-find products and services, store locations and hours. Then, visit or call the dealer you select — the man you feel can best provide you with the exact product or service you want.
ALSO SEE: Vintage payphones: When phone booths, walk-up & drive-up public telephones were everywhere
1960s telephone operator looking up numbers in a phone book (1962)
MORE: Before 911 existed, you could just dial 0 for the operator to get help
Shop the Yellow Pages way (1962)
Snowy car: It’s a perfect day to shop by phone (1964)
60s Yellow Pages: Let your fingers do the walking (1964)
ALSO SEE: Vintage Princess phones: Remember the colorful telephones with a lit dial from the 60s?
This summer, have fun with the Yellow Pages (1973)
Yellow Pages made Joe Torre famous for football (1976)
You probably know Joe as a baseball star from New York. But he also owns a sporting goods store in Brooklyn. Which is why he advertises in the Yellow Pages. Although everybody may know him from baseball, not everybody knows he sells football equipment.
And that’s how the Yellow Pages helps him. If that starts you thinking that the Yellow Pages could help you, give us a call. We might even help make you famous.
ALSO SEE: President Eisenhower didn’t know how to use a rotary-dial telephone, even though he had the 50 millionth phone
Advertising in the vintage Yellow Pages (1977)
Vintage Yellow Pages phone directory cover: Lynnhaven (1983)
Yellow Pages TV commercial: James Earl Jones & Elvis
100 years ago, Donnelley invented the Yellow Pages. (1986)
Today history repeats itself. There’s more to us than just Yellow Pages.
It was our idea in the first place. 100 years ago, Donnelley invented yellow pages as revolutionary as the telephone itself. And along the way, we’ve helped millions of American consumers contact millions of American businesses.
For 100 years, Donnelley has published, marketed and sold yellow pages. And for 100 years, we’ve been working out new ways of giving American consumers and businesses what they need.
Today we’re putting all those years of innovation to work in a new yellow pages. Refined, updated, developed, designed, produced and delivered, The New Donnelley Directory is moving beyond all other yellow page directories. It’s the reference that will e used by everyone. It’s the directory you’ve been waiting for.
The yellow pages and much much more. Our yellow pages are easier to use — and easier to read — with better graphics, simplified headings, and cross-references. It’s accurate, concise and so much more. There are local street maps, guides, and coupons too.
Can’t miss. We know how to distribute our directory to the people most likely to use your business. We’re not confined by the phone company’s boundaries. We’ve looked over our geographical areas and worked them out so well — your advertising goes straight to the people you need to reach. It’s that simple. And very efficient.
More bang for the buck. We want your money to work every bit as hard as you do. Our volume and multiple directory discounts were designed so you can advertise more and spend less. The added plus: an ad in The Donnelley Directory can cost up to 40% less than an ad in Bell’s Directory. And that’s a better value than anyone else can offer.
Bigger. Better. Bolder ads. For the same price, Donnelley Directory ads are so much bigger than Bell ads. We’re more colorful too. We’ve developed a color system that’s so unique, it’ll give your ad the look of full color — for the same price as a black-and-red Bell ads.
And here comes Wile E. Coyote. On TV, radio, in newspapers and magazines, you’ll see Wile E. Coyote use The New Donnelley Directory to plot ingenious ways of catching up with the Road Runner.
NOW SEE THIS: Telephone history, plus see 50 old phones, like early rotary-dial models
If you were to travel back in time to any point before the 2000s and told people that, in the future, no one would use the Yellow Pages, they would surely express grave concern for your mental health (though if you showed them Google, they might understand). When I first entered the workforce in the mid-1980s, many businesses had large collections of phone books from all over the country. And growing up, my mother constantly referred to the Yellow Pages; by the time we got a new yearly phone book (kind of a big deal, usually in the fall), the current one was well worn and filled with scribbled notes. More recently, we were getting new phone books up until the 2010s, but by then they were pretty small and pathetic, and usually just thrown away.