To regard this early edition of AT&T’s National Telephone Directory as quaint, from our cell phone-crazy vantage 130 years later, is to discount the significance of the technology at the time. But still, it is pretty cute, starting with the iconic blue bell on the cover and the introductory General Information, which includes some very useful instructions for those millions who didn’t know how to handle the horn back in 1894. One needed to “give the bell crank one sharp turn” to get the operator’s attention, take the hand telephone from the hook and “place it firmly against the ear,” then “speak into the transmitter, with lips as close as possible to the mouthpiece.” We smart (phone) alecs may be thinking “Well, duh!,” but 19th-century early adopters probably struggled as hard to master that pesky crank as we do one-handed texting.
When this directory was published, a little less than 20 years after the invention of the telephone, long distance service extended from New York City as far west as Wisconsin, south to Washington DC, and north through coastal Maine. A map on the back cover depicts the network in a web of red lines, many of which end abruptly, suggesting that a single call may require some pretty fancy routing by the operators staffing the switchboards. No wonder AT&T bragged that “long distance telephone is instantaneous … 1000 miles and return in 5 minutes!” Don’t laugh – satellites were a long way off then.
That a national phone directory can be contained in 336 pages (including index) shows how few telephones there were at the close of the 19th century, especially in residences. Who were these folks with telephones in their homes – were they the technophiles of their day? Status seekers? Or ordinary folks just trying to stay connected in a modern way with far-flung family and friends? The great majority of listings are commercial, very often simply the name of an individual followed by his line of business (preserving house, picture shipper, tallow grease broker, …). What fun to see a city or town this way, and what interesting possibilities for amateur cartographers and genealogists!