Talk into the mouthpiece - and other wisdom gleaned from a 1924 telephone book

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A page from the Riverton-Palmyra phone book from 1928-29 lists some residents' occupations.

Today's telephone books - those tiny things that land on our doorsteps with barely a thud - are relics of a bygone age. What, after all, can you get in those books that you can't find on your phone?

It's a different story with old telephone books, the directories from the early decades of the 20th century, when residential phones were just starting to proliferate. To look at one today, you can witness history on a smaller scale, shedding a light on the way we were.

I got a look at a December 1924 directory published by the Delaware & Atlantic Telegraph & Telephone Co., a subsidiary of AT&T. Measuring six by nine inches, roughly the size of The Old Farmer's Almanac, the 128-page book, recently donated to the Pitman Memorabilia Committee, covered towns in five South Jersey counties.

Besides the numbers that were listed alphabetically by town, people had the option of including their occupations: farmer, painter, plumber, hairdresser, and "junk" (presumably for someone in the scrap business?). On the cover, blank spaces allowed people to write in phone numbers for the local police and fire departments.

In 1924, phone numbers were a mix of letters and numbers (884M, for instance); others had just two or three numbers. For some listings, one number would suffice: 6 for the Cumberland Trust Co. in Bridgeton. The first mayor of Pitman, J.M. McCowan, had the easiest number to remember: 1. Local calls were placed through operators, with callers providing the numbers they wanted to reach.

"Phone numbers evolved differently according to locale," says Brandy Bell-Truskey, a spokeswoman for AT&T. "Generally, they became longer as telephone service expanded. Those one-, two, and three-digit numbers were common in small towns across the country, and were used in the days of manual switchboards."

The South Jersey directory was published twice a year as more people added phones to their households. Not wanting its customers to have outdated information, the front cover of the 1924 book advises "Please Destroy the Old Directory."

Other advice: "Your voice will carry much better if you talk directly into the mouthpiece of the telephone," and "Desk telephones give more satisfactory service when standing on a flat, solid surface," and "A dry telephone seldom gives trouble. If the bell box or cord becomes wet, it will not work satisfactorily. Protect your telephone from rain, wet umbrellas, or other dampness."

As phones were quicker than mail, and more personal than telegrams, the cost of long-distance calling came at a steep price.

In 1924, a five-minute, station-to-station call from South Jersey to Los Angeles cost $15.10. The same call to San Francisco: $16.05, or $227.93 in 2017 dollars, according to the CPI Inflation Calculator.

Businesses quickly recognized the advertising potential phone directories offered to promote their products and services, and the 1924 book contains a forerunner of the Yellow Pages - "Consult the Yellow Section. It is a Buyer's Guide," the front cover reads - and maybe even of Amazon: a one-stop shop for chiropodists, drugless physicians, naprapaths, and underwear-makers.

As South Jersey was primarily rural, the Yellow Section features listings for apples, baby chicks, dairy feed, and fertilizers. At a time before franchised convenience stores and supermarkets were commonplace, there were more than 30 listings for general stores and more than 100 for neighborhood grocers.

Among the residential listings, businesses had the chance to provide a more detailed pitch. The Swedesboro Trust Co. urged would-be customers to "Let Your Dollars Work For You," offering 4 percent interest. W.D. Barrett's General Store in Daretown touted its "full line of water bowls and water carriers." But also: "We Do Dynamiting" and then reassured, "We know how."

Ammon Shea, author of The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads, promises insights to be gleaned from a cover-to-cover read.

"This is a book that is as boring and quotidian, or as vibrant and alive, as you choose to make it," he said.

Tom Wilk is a member of the Pitman Memorabilia Committee, which operates the Pitman Historical Museum.