Surveying Wired Landscapes: Early Telephone Directories & Mobile Perception

Curator's Note

Mobility is a complex term not easily untangled from its association with contemporary communication technologies or cultural conceptions of space and spatial practices. For those of us with an interest in its historical meaning(s), however, we might interrogate earlier media that afforded similar conceptual freedoms of movement across geographic, social, economic, and technological spaces; in this case, the telephone directory. The associated slides aim to furnish a sense for early directories as well as the geographical metaphors used in its advertising to the public. The more textual of these slides suggest the ways in which users approached and interacted with the directory.

The Chicago telephone directory, an early prototype, was distributed to incentivize telephone subscriptions and assuage calls to the operator. In practice, however, it was a survey tool for its users. Through the directory's use by subscribers and residents, individuals mapped new pathways for understanding and acclimating themselves to urban life at-large. The directory-surfing mobile telephony enthusiast of today echoes the directory users years ago who extolled telephone directories as "intensely interesting and absorbing" (Nelly Gordon, "The Story of Chicago," 1912).

The telephone directory facilitated different kinds of participation in local geography. Users’ interactions with its data content and structure found not just a manual for the telephone, but a guide toward fuller realization of Chicago’s very parochial intricacies. As the textual slides suggest, directories did not simply encourage a plea for the locatedness of place (as if it has somehow been lost in the shuffle of urbanization). Rather, they signal the use of the directory as a mediator of local geographies of the city. Modern Chicago citizens quelled anxieties of spatial annihilation by flipping through the directory’s pages, pouring over maps, and absorbing numerous classified ads. The ‘enchantment’ of the directory, illustrated by the slide containing the poem, was found in its ability to communicate the places, spaces, and potential relationships in the heart of a growing metropolis. The sensational prose suggests that the directory user not only referenced, but read the telephonic guide as a means to experience greater familiarity with the landscape in which they were a small part.

The narrative function of the telephone directory, its users gleaning from its pages a mental map of the city, allowed directory users to engage in spatial practices that constructed the lived space of modern, wired Chicagoans. The conceptual freedom of movement within Chicago afforded by the telephone directory may be explored not as taking place in Chicago—but rather as a living or embodied city itself intertwined in and resulting from spatial practices, material relations, bodies, movement, and tactical trajectories mediated via the directory's text-cum-screen.







Hi Emily

This is a really fascinating subject and shows how rich something like phone directories can be. The map on the first slide reminds me of the London Underground map which represents a very limited or even distorted view of the city and the way an individual moves through it - something that surely also comes through in the tiny maps on classifieds. I can think of occasions where I've walked through London expecting to reach my destination sooner (or later) than I did because of how close it seems on the tube map. How much of our understanding of an urban environment actually comes from graphical representations that create connections just as much as depict them? 

This leads to my second point which is that I'm also curious about how such early directories were organised - were they divided by category and alphabetically (that seek to remove literal spatial relationships such as which shop is next to which) or in some other way? Modern directories seem to both privilege locality (in focusing on a specific area) but also deny it.

Hi, Elizabeth.  Thanks so much for your comments.  I hope the following addresses your questions appropriately.

Although maps set one dreaming of space, maps are ultimately the product and perspective of the mapmaker. They seem to represent fixed space and singular politics in ways counter-productive to embodied, lively space.  So, I think one's authentic understanding of an urban environment rarely, if ever, is gleaned from graphical representation.

That said, the ways in which the telephone directory (its maps, listings, ads, etc.) set its users dreaming of the parochial spaces in Chicago unreachable via foot or too expensive to reach via horse and buggies or early autos is fascinating.  The ways in which users discussed different neighborhoods and individuals in popular journalism was remarkable, if colored by the R.R. Donnelley Co.'s data design of the maps and listings.  While perhaps an authentic feeling for the city was not always the take-away, certainly directories did allow their users to feel as though were able to assert control over the very undisciplined place they lived during a time of rapid economic, urban, and telephonic growth.

Chicago's early directories were similar to today's telephone books. Individuals were listed alphabetically (last name first) and sometimes included their occupation.  (Something a husband's wife like to fib about to the individual collecting that data). Business listings were organized per business category and businesses were listed alphabetically under categories. Advertising pages and classifieds were listed within/near the business index.

Emily, this is such a provocative, thoughtful, and lovely post.  I’m particularly drawn to the wonderful poem about the directory, and the concept of directory as Baedeker for the city one already inhabits.  Much as the directory encourages a mental map of the city, it also proposes a shadow city that exists as a transparent overlay atop the actual city—at the same time that it suggests a deeper understanding of one’s surroundings, it also romanticizes and thereby distances the observer from her own urban locale, makes mysterious the space through which she moves everyday.  In this way, perhaps we might also think of the telephone directory as an early pedagogical tool for understanding how to navigate cinematic spectatorship: the process of both immersion and distance, a network both graphically spatialized and impossible to fully inhabit, a creature both aesthetic and scientific, both tangible and completely elusive.  Like cinema, barely in existence when the phone book shown here was published (assuming I read the date correctly as 1899), the directory both makes and makes enigmatic multiple facets of modern urban space.

Thanks for your lovely, provocative comments, Jocelyn. I am definitely excited by your linking of the directory and its mediation of the modern city to cinematic pedagogy. I wonder if other kinds of visual cultures may have also benefited from and co-constructed the directory's design in its earliest incarnations. I am compelled to think that commercial window displays, museum presentations, and other visual culture artifacts of the 19th-century provided both design genres for the publisher to work within as well as frameworks of action within which users of their directory found themselves familiarly navigating both immersion in and distance from the city in which they lived via a textual/visual format.  Certainly all threads to follow.

Thanks for the beautiful work of the phone directory.  A traditional phone directory could share with us space, network, and information in a city.  I learned many cultural meanings of the directory from your post.  Your post really remind me that the “Google Maps for mobile” and “Google Maps for mobile with My Location.”  I am wondering if you would share your views in this “mobile directory.”  Information on Google Maps is often rated by the users.  I am wondering if this type of the “user's generalized culture” might be different than the traditional phone directory.


Thanks for the interesting post and the ways it highlights Chicago's role in defining U.S. telecommunications.  It seems that the telephone directory performs a role in Chicago not fully performed by newspapers in that the telephone directory was seen as a critical tool of solidifying a definition of the "imagined community" of Chicago where members of ethnic enclaves and North/South/West-siders came to see themselves as Chicagoans or as residents of the Chicagoland area.  Even the notion of a Chicagoland area shows a slippage between immediately micro/local and marco/regional/national identifications.  

I wonder what parallels and disconnects there are between the print phone directory and Chicago as industrial city (as Sandburg's "hog butcher to the world" and the HQ of Sears, Roebuck, & Cp. who through its catalog, helped create modern retail and catalog culture) and the mobile/networked directory and Chicago as sprawling post-industrial metropolis.  I bring this up, because for the first time this year, the free yellow pages languished on my building's front stoop, despite Boston's (even today) complicated transit network and urban planning.  It's interesting to note the disposability of the white and yellow pages today and to use research such as yours to render them strange again - to remember that there was a time when these inspired not just awe, but research and investigation. 


I'm so intrigued by the combination of the map on the first slide and the advertisement appearing on the last slide. The toll lines on the map resembling a nervous system that organizes and manages the exchanges of the city, not unlike the London Underground map Elizabeth mentioned in her comment. The combination of the map and the ultimate ad's identification of names in the phone book as "stations within the bounds of 'business civilization'" makes me wonder (like other commenters have) about the hinterlands existing outside of these bounds.

There seems to be an understanding of the places absent from the telephone book (and consequently the telephone network) as less valued places, but simultaneously as highly valued places to be explored and known as part of the city. It's interesting how the beaches, prairies, marshes (presumably spaces without phones) are articulated here. The mapped phone lines in this example, like mapped transit systems, seem to be a suggested, managable route of travel through the chaotic, developing urban environment of Chicago. It makes me wonder how, if at all, these phone lines matched transit lines (which were also being developed in the late 1800s in Chicago), and places of interest in Chicago travel brochure.

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