Since most people looking up a telephone number these days go directly to the mass media of the 21st century Google or some other search engine, these once essential directories are in danger of becoming a fading memory. Verizon is eliminating routine delivery of white pages, although printing of yellow pages will continue.We will grant Verizon that these handy information sources are quickly becoming obsolete for modern day usage, as it’s been a long time since we paged through the pages. But they were once essential, the annual publications having recurring daily use and kept in a readily accessible place. The books were published for over 100 years in the mid-Atlantic, according to Verizon spokesperson Stephanie Hodge. “From the very beginning someone always wanted to advertise in them.” The early ones were thin affairs but they spoke volumes about what was happening in every community.
Early in 1900, as the Diamond State Phone Company was busy installing instruments in Elkton, it published the first list of subscribers in Cecil County. It was a simple register of individuals who were on the network. Most were clustered in Elkton (70) and North East (12), but there were “talking machines” in Childs, Bay View, Providence, Singerly, and Chesapeake City
With each passing year the content grew. By 1908, as the Delmarva Peninsula was becoming a “network of wires” and the instrument was coming more and more into general use, the Cecil Farmers Telephone Company in Rising Sun issued an eight page publication. By 1945, the Chesapeake and Potomac publication contained 48 pages and included yellow pages with headings that are recognizable today.
Once, decades ago, while do an investigation I talked with the “Clerk of the Phone Directories” at Verizon’s headquarters in Richmond, VA. The clerk, apparently a holdover from the regulated era of telephony, managed the library for the directories that had been published by the telecommunications giant. It’s hard to say as companies have streamlined and reorganized to create efficiencies what happened to that position and all those valuable sources of information.
Here are a few tips for deriving dating clues old phone numbers. Into the 1950s, telephone numbers were listed by naming the exchange and the three or four digits for each connection. The Cecil Theatre was thus listed as Cecilton 3551. However, starting in the mid-1950s the exchanges switched to various names, which involved dialing two letters and five numbers so, for example, Keetley Motors in Port Deposit was DRake 5-5481 in 1956. Port Deposit was the first exchange switched to this modern dialing convention, but others soon followed. Elkton’s exchange was known as EXport 8. By 1965, the Bell Network eliminated exchange names since it was a source of dialing errors. So the number in 1965 for Union Hospital became 398-4000, replacing EXport 8-4000.
The Historical Society of Cecil County maintains a large collections of these serials to help patrons with research questions. Such ordinary, everyday things as a phonebook, when published annually for over one-hundred years can be a particularly valuable tool for historical and genealogical research.