10 Ways to Use Telephone Books for Genealogy Research

Telephone books became the 20th century version of city directories. Where can you find them? Well, that isn’t as easy as one might imagine. There is a lot of information in the world that is in paper format. Paper formats that libraries add to their collections. paper formats that are DISCARDED because libraries have limited shelf space.

I was quite surprised to learn that a couple of libraries in historic Massachusetts towns only have a handful of telephone books in their collections. They have thrown them away!

Now, not all libraries have tossed them, so it is definitely worth a phone call or email to inquire. If you are lucky enough to locate a phone book of interest, take advantage and extract all the pertinent information you can.

Another source for telephone books is eBay, where they occasionally turn up. Over 2 or 3 years, I’ve managed to snag three from Passaic, New Jersey, my birth place.

They are from 1953, 1959 and 1961. Although they only span a period of 8 years, the amount of information they contain is very different.

Telephones had been around for a long time by 1953. Yet, many people still didn’t have one in their house. Passaic was a city of immigrants and many families lived in multi-family houses or apartments.

In 1953, the phone directory had but 352 pages. That covered a city of about 55,000 people, so it really wasn’t all that expansive. If you look at the cover (top, above), there is a yellow band across the bottom promoting the Yellow Pages, which I guess were somewhat of a new thing at the time. However, this phone book has NO yellow pages in it.

Business listings are still mixed in among the residential folks. Therefore, if you were looking for a dry cleaning business that your family owned in town, but had no idea what its name was, you’d be out of luck.

In between the two sections is this page, which I find quite funny. I am not sure why the phone company thought people needed directions:

It’s sure not hard figuring out how to use them!

How can you use telephone books to further your family history knowledge?

1. What was the exact address where your family lived? Did they move often like my grandparents? If you don’t know and they had a telephone, they family will be listed. There wasn’t any “opt out” choice back then.

2. Did they own or frequent a business? Often, the phone book listed a business address for an owner, but then listed a home phone number, noted by the inclusion of “r” (for residence) after their name, but before the address entry. If you know the type of business the family had, you can use the yellow pages to try to determine which was theirs if you don’t know the name of it.

3. Are you looking for school information, but you don’t know where family members attended? If you find the family address, compare the house location to school addresses. Both public and private schools are included in phone books, although I’ve sometimes found that public schools are only included under the town board of education with no separate address. If the school is still in existence, you can phone and ask your questions.

For families who sent children to religious schools, the phone book included the school names.

4. Speaking of religion, are you on the hunt for vital records, but can’t find them in the town or filed with the state? Many churches kept baptismal, confirmation, marriage and burial records.  Use the phone book to learn which churches were in town in your time period of interest. Then check to see if they are still there. Many have shuttered, but there are an enormous number of historic churches that are vibrant today. They might have the record you are missing.

Passaic was an immigrant city and has always had many churches of many denominations. Within denominations, such as Catholic, families attended parishes made up of their own ethnic groups.

Here’s a sampling of the many churches in Passaic in 1959. Some are still there today, while others closed down with new church goers, often of a completely different denomination making the church building their own.

In terms of ethnic parishes, town and county histories often identify founding groups. In Passaic, St. John’s Lutheran Church was German, but Holy Trinity Catholic Church was also founded as a German parish.

5. Are you looking for FAN club members – friends, associates neighbors? Since we are talking 20th century and not 19th, you may know surnames somehow tied to your family, there might be letters or holiday cards from friends and neighbors and you’d like to know more about them. The phone book will be your friend.

6. Is your goal to learn about some of the social history of the area? The Yellow Pages is your destination. Ethnic bakery? In there. Fraternal orders, clubs, associations and groups? In there! Clergymen? In there, too!

7. Are you telling your own story for your descendants? The phone book includes information on the local Y, Dotty Locker Dance Studio (where I took lessons), medical doctors and the local public library. I also found the local cleaners where Mom and Nana used to send me to return all the wire hangers.

8. Are you tracking when families moved in and out? Sequential book years will help you out.

I was able to narrow down when some of my childhood friends moved to Passaic because they weren’t in the 1953 book, but were in the 1959 or 1961 directories.

I also found it interesting that the 1953 book was the smallest of the three Passaic directories I own at 352 pages. Then, when I checked, the 1959 book has 440 residential pages and 348 yellow pages.

I expected the 1961 book to be the biggest. Was I surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. White flight had already begun to the suburbs. The residential listings were down 35 pages to 405 pages, and the Yellow Pages was really pared down to a much slimmer 244 pages.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, as my parents were already out looking for a house elsewhere. We didn’t move until 1963, but my family, too, was going to be part of the Passaic exodus.

9. How can you learn about various brands and products on the market? Of course, in the Yellow Pages. There are ads for the A.B. Dick azograph – I had to look that one up – but it was around in 1959. Maytag Appliances have also been around forever. Want to know about heating fuels for homes? Check out Reading anthracite, coke, blue coal and fuel oil. they were all in business supplying customers with ways to heat the home in the 1950s.

10. Last, but not least, use the phone book to find other families with your surnames of interest. Rarer names are bound to be related somehow, but even Smith and Williams can be doable research names if you’re looking in a smaller town.

If you haven’t ever researched using phone books, now is the time to get started!

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