I was reminded of the Yellow Pages this past weekend, when some movie had a scene of the actor's home and an open Yellow Pages. And it had me thinking, what all have we lost from the telephone experience, in one lifetime (mine..)
Houses for Phones
I wrote last week about the tiny houses we used to build for telephones to live in (phone booths for payphones) and that Finland became the first country to start to decommission them.
Along the same lines, once there were stand-alone boxes we bought, with two tiny tape cassettes, one of which was a funky endless-loop tape into which you recorded your "outgoing message" (OGM), and then there was another tape which recorded the incoming messages. These machines connected to your phone and took incoming calls if you were not home to answer the phone. They were called answering machines.
The book with the yellow paper
Yes, then the Yellow Pages. Once there was an advertising industry all around these massive books printed in yellow paper. Every company in the city wanted to have their ad inside that book. Restaurants, locksmiths, dentists (and escort services) to assist with any need. The big thick books were distributed free to every home once per year. We really needed them too. For some businesses, the "best placement" of the ad in the Yellow Pages was crucial to business. Ha-ha, now its been ten years since I last opened a Yellow Pages.
And once there was a ring-ring sound to phones, real ringing. This is difficult to explain to younger readers. I don't mean music on your phone, or the "Nokia tune" It was not music, it was really ringing. Ring-ring-ring. And it was loud too. And annoying. You could not change the sound but usually at least you could set the ringer to be less loud.
How do you explain rotary dialing
And yeah, going back a couple of decades, the phones had dialing which was based on a rotary dial. This is really difficult to explain if you've never experienced one, but imagine a DVD disk but which has 10 holes in it, numbererd 0 to 9. Then to select a number, you had to stick your finger in the appropriate hole, and twist the dial (roll the disk). How DO you explain a rotary dial without showing a picture? Anyone in their 30s or 40s (or older) will obviously know exactly what this was like. You could do the rotary-dialling with your finger in the air, and if you did that gesture, others of our age would understand, yeah, an old-fashioned telephone, sure. But show that gesture to a teenager today and they are totally clueless, what is that weird pointing, are you drawing the letter C with your finger, or perhaps the Question mark?
Fax. Thats another weird one. We would type up a letter on something called a typewriter, then feed the paper into a machine, and it would do some weird beeps and then half a minute later, hundred miles away another such device would reprint that typed page. The person at the other end would read it, and then go to a typewriter, write a response and maybe an hour later you saw the reply appear on your fax machine, as the paper would be printed at your end. We considered this remarkably fast
Oh, then there were really important long-distance communciations, which we did by telegram. You couldn't send a telegram from your home or office, you had to go the phone company, write your telegram onto paper, give the paper to the company, and pay, and they would then send the telegram for you far away, like to another country. But the cool thing was, that at the other end, when the telegram arrived, someone would actually hand-deliver the printed version of your message to the address where it was intended. Telegrams were used for remote congratulations of weddings, or death announcements and that sort of things.
And back in my youth there wasn't something like international direct dial for the phone, for most international calls you might want to make. If you wanted to call another country, you had to book a call to that country. The call would be organized by the telephone company, and you would be able to make the call several hours later or perhaps the next day. When that call was finally arranged, you could actually hear the telephone switchboard operators from one country to the next connect the call, speaking their various languages and accents, until you heard that your connection had been put through. The calls would sound very distant too.
When Humans Answered
While with arranging calls, how about calling a company. There was a time when if you called a company, a human person would answer. A person called a switchboard operator. "You have reached Pan American Airlines, how can I help you". Not a machine with a recorded voice, sending you to an interactive voice response system. Real human people actually answered the phone. That was not always as good as it may sound now, because some of those switchboard operator personnel were very bored with their jobs, poorly paid, and could be quite rude, and deliberately disconnect your calls etc. But it was a time when a company seemed more human, when you called them, and it was a real person who answered and then connected your call, not a mechanized recording like today.
The Book with Everyone
But the one which is perhaps the most cute, is of course the white pages listing. An annual book of the who's who of any city. Every adult person would be listed there, in Alphabetical order, together with their home address and their phone number. When I was young, it was a significant achievement of growing up, becoming an adult, was to get your first own listing in the phone book.
But that of course led to the snobs who didn't want to be listed (and soon enough, I joined that group too) and then the desire to not be listed in the phone book. To have an "unlisted number" like rock stars and movie actors. Yeah, clearly that was proof that you were as important or famous as the rock stars and TV celebrities, if you too had an unlisted number. This was such a premium service that the phone company would charge phone subscribers a premium cost, not to be listed in the phone book.
My oh my have times changed in just four decades... Still, I prefer it this way today..