20 May 2017

THE VALUE OF USING OLD PHONE BOOKS FOR GENEALOGY

Recently a friend was telling me that her parents have had the same phone number and landline since 1950 when they moved to a new suburb and shared a party line!  These days some people change their cell phone number every year.  (And I know a lot of people who never answer their phone unless a friend first text messages them.)


So it may be difficult to understand the value of old telephone books with all the amazing technological changes in both phones and networks.  Concerns about long distance phone call charges have evaporated with Unlimited calling all around the country, but not so long ago it could cost a lot more to call a few miles away into another network. The cost of phone calling meant that people used the mail (as in snail mail) to write each other letters.


Recently I traveled to Los Angeles Public Library Central to look through a half dozen old phone books there in the stacks.  Oh they were really decaying so much so that I had to wonder if the particular city I pulled from the shelf to look at 1940, 1945, 1950, 1955, 1960, and 1965 for certain surnames would disintegrate beneath my fingers.

Why would I do this, seeking what may be trivial information, when years ago I looked through the City Directories for the same surnames?

Well, let's remember that City Directories were often PRE-TELEPHONE or sometimes CO-EXISTED WITH TELEPHONE DIRECTORIES because City Directories had more in common with Yellow Pages or Business Directories than Residential Phone Books.


It cost to list yourself in most City Directories and so people did so to advertise the kind of work they were available to do or their business.  Sometimes a young woman would list herself so young men who might want to court her or marry her could find her, particularly if she was self supporting and had left home.

And then the telephone came to cities, towns, villages, suburbs at different times and places and not everyone wanted one or could afford one.  I once met a woman who discovered a secret in her family. 
A father in the family was so angered that one of his daughters would want to WORK and be a TELEPHONE OPERATOR and had responded to signs posted up around town for workers that he beat her and she rolled down the stairs and died.  Everyone knew he was a violent abusive man and in that time and place he wasn't the only class conscious man who thought "No woman in my family is going to WORK!",but he wasn't tried.  That he'd killed his daughter because she wanted to be a liberated woman was the dark family secret.

This leads into the value of using the old phone books.

They can put people at an address between census.  They can let you know that the same people lived at the same address for a short or long time.  Sometimes if the address is the same but a different person is listed, say the son or daughter, it can indicate that the father or breadwinner has died or left the home and that a child is now paying the bills.

Sometimes you can cross reference the address with the City Directory. Sometimes you can cross reference it with a census.  Sometimes you can cross reference it with a Social Security Application.  Or a ship manifest.

Sometimes you know where the family was living from a census but they simply do not yet have a phone.  (The 1940 census would be most revealing because by 1940 most places - especially the larger cities and suburbs surrounding them, have phone service for those who wanted it.  1935 there are phones but not as many of them. The books get fatter and fatter as they years go by and then with the onset of cell phones begin to skinny down.)


By looking for the surnames in the old phone books that I did, I stumbled upon one bit of information that is of special interest to me. That the wife of a man who divorced her some time after he returned from World War II does have her own phone, is listing herself as Mrs. and so by 1950 he must be living separate.  Because in 1950 it was rare for a couple to list their phone under the woman's name unless she was widowed or divorced.


Which brings us to the use of the phone book to possibly narrow down the years we must look for divorce or marriage records or death records.



Some of the phone books have the month and year date on them which is helpful but unlike a census this is the date of publication not the date of a census taker's visit.
Depending on the city and the location of the old paper books, you may find the old names, addresses, and phone numbers, with their now quaint "exchange names" very interesting!


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