I think my biggest industry surprise of the last year happened recently when I opened the front door and found that a new yellow page directory had been placed on my porch. I haven’t received a yellow pages directory for the last seven years living in the US or the decade before that living in the Virgin Islands. I hadn’t given it much thought, but I thought the yellow pages were dead.
The yellow pages used to be a big deal. Salespeople would canvass every business in a community and sell ads for the annually produced book. I remember when living in Maryland that the Yellow Pages was at least three inches thick just for the Maryland suburbs of DC and that there were similar volumes for different parts of the DC metropolitan area.
Wikipedia tells me that the yellow pages were started by accident in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1883 when a printer ran out of white paper and used yellow in printing a directory. The idea caught on quickly and Reuben H. Donnelley printed the first official Yellow Pages directory in 1886.
Yellow Page directories became important to telephone companies as a significant source of revenue. The biggest phone companies produced their directories internally through a subsidiary. For smaller telcos, the yellow page ads were sold, and directories were printed by outside vendors like Donnelley that shared ad revenues with the phone company. The revenue stream became so lucrative in the 1970s and 1980s that many medium-sized telephone companies took the directory function in-house – only to and found out how hard it was to sell ads to every business in a market. The market for yellow pages got so crazy that competing books were created for major metropolitan markets.
Yellow pages were a booming business until the rise of the Internet. The Internet was supposed to replace the yellow pages. The original yellow pages vendors moved the entire yellow page directories online, but this was never a big hit with the public. It was so much easier to leaf through a directory, circle numbers of interest, and take notes in a paper copy of the directory than it was to scroll through pages of listings online.
Merchants always swore that yellow page ads were effective. A merchant that was creative in getting listed in the right categories would get calls from all over a metropolitan area if they sold something unique.
Of course, there was also a downside to yellow pages. The yellow paper and the glue used to bind the thick books meant that the paper wasn’t recyclable. This meant a huge pile of books ended up in landfills every year when the new books were delivered. After the directories lost some of their importance, many cities required that directories were only delivered to homes that asked for them to reduce the huge pile of paper in the landfills.
Yellow pages are just another aspect of telephony that has largely faded away. There was a time that you saw yellow pages sitting somewhere near the main telephone in every home you visited. It’s something that we all had in common – and it’s something that the consumer found to be invaluable. A new business knew they had made it when they saw their business first listed in the yellow pages.