Among all the random stuff I’ve collected over the years, this 1881 Boston phone book is one of the standouts.


Published only five years after the telephone was patented (in 1876), there are a mere few hundred listings, including one for Alexander Graham Bell himself:


This is undoubtedly one of the earliest phone books, and as far as I know the only early one you can view on the web. The first book, issued in 1878 in New Haven, was auctioned by Christies in 2008.

As you can see, the cover isn’t in great shape, because it was stored in a non-acid-free manila envelope for many years. The rest of the book is better. I got it around 2003 as part of a whole lot of stuff from the estate of Gerry Billard, a collector (and pack rat) in Cupertino, CA. He’d sold copies of this directory for years to other collectors for a few bucks each, but must have lost track of the original … I found it buried in a box of mostly worthless papers.


The instructions above are for the earliest, crudest wooden phones – big tall handmade contraptions with multiple batteries (for power to signal the operator). These phones were so expensive that only businesses and VIPs could afford them.


The book is actually a pretty good snapshot of Boston at the time – the blue bloods dominate, a few Irish people are starting to show up, and major Boston institutions (Mass General Hospital, New England Conservatory of Music) are still in their early days.



Here’s the back page. It was in Charles Williams’ lab that Alexander Graham Bell finally got his first phone to work, and said the famous get-your-ass-over-here words to Watson, who was in another room.


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