Alas, the poor phone book.

Once, it was the cornerstone of American connection, an indispensable resource people relied on to find pizza shops, plumbers, and the number of the cute girl in math class.

But now, when a new phone book lands on a homeowner’s doorstep, the tome most often gets tossed in the recycling bin.

They might be used to press flowers, or as a booster seat or a door stop, but fewer and fewer phone books are used for what they were originally intended, to look up telephone numbers.

So, why do phone books still show up on thousands of doorsteps in Southwestern Pennsylvania every year?

Current Pennsylvania Utility Commission regulations require telephone companies in the commonwealth to provide a White Pages phone book for customers who request one – it’s no longer required for telephone companies to send all residents a White Pages phone book.

That requirement remains in effect until 2026. After that, said PUC spokesperson Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, the fate of the White Pages phone book is unknown.

With the internet and an increasing number of people abandoning land lines for cellphones, which are not listed in phone books, the white pages are increasingly becoming a relic of history.

Said Steven Samara of the Pennsylvania Telephone Association, “There are people who don’t have a computer or who don’t have access to the internet who use a phone book, but it is increasingly rare that phone books are delivered.”

At Hickory Telephone Co., which has served thousands of customers in Hickory and surrounding communities since 1905, demand for White Pages phone books has dwindled to fewer than 10 requests annually, according to Brian Jeffers, the firm’s chief executive officer.

“People have other options to look up phone numbers. Requests for physical phone books have shrunk to almost nothing,” said Jeffers.

The Yellow Pages phone books are a different story.

Yellow Pages directories are produced by third-party companies and are packed with ads that generate income for Yellow Pages publishers, Samara said.

The Yellow Pages phone books are targeted toward key demographics, such as older generations and audiences in rural areas.

But the internet has made it much easier for small businesses to target consumers directly, rather than spending on advertisements in the Yellow Pages. One recent survey showed 97% of consumers went online to look for businesses.

“I recall the Yellow Pages ad being an important decision I made every year. I’d spend, at that time, what was a significant amount of our advertising budget on a quarter-page ad. But, it’s like so many things today with technology, it’s not the way to do it anymore,” said Tom Yakopin, owner of West Penn Life and Health. “Everything that you want to find is online, so what’s the point? Nobody’s using them anymore.”

Kerry Staley of Staley Tree Service has advertised in the Yellow Pages for almost half a century, and said it had proven to be a sound investment.

“We do still get calls from people who find us in the Yellow Pages, but we don’t track how many,” said Staley, noting he keeps a White Pages phone book in the truck in case he finds himself in an area without internet access and needs to find a phone number.

The first U.S. phone directory was printed in 1878 in New Haven, Conn., on a piece of cardboard. It listed the numbers of 11 homes, 38 businesses, and the police department.

By 1921, Manhattan had printed over a million copies of the telephone book, and within five years, that number would increase to 6 million.

And, fun fact: In the mid-1950s at New York’s Grand Central Terminal, phone books had to be replaced with new ones every two days because so many people tore the pages out at phone booths instead of writing down the numbers.

In 2008, one of the only known surviving copies of the world’s first telephone books sold at auction for over $170,000.

The demise of the phone book began on Oct. 14, 2010, when regulators in New York approved Verizon’s request to stop mass-printing residential phone books.

Virginia regulators would make a similar request in 2011, marking the beginning of the end of the beloved household staple – and saving an estimated 1,640 tons of paper.

“It’s much more environmentally friendly to look up phone numbers in a non-paper method,” said Samara.

While phone books might be obsolete, they provide a glimpse of the past for some genealogy and history buffs.

In 2015, for example, the Brooklyn Public Library digitized 107 years of city directories and phone books, spanning 1956-1967 and enabling people to find Walt Whitman’s home address from when he lived in Brooklyn, or to look up their home and find out who was living there a century ago.

And, others simply like the nostalgia of the books, which often were tattered and worn and written on by the time the next phone book arrived.

“I miss the old phone books,” said Sandy Sabot of North Franklin Township. “People go online for businesses, but community phone books were so helpful finding individuals and families.”

Note: You can opt out of a Yellow Pages phone book at the following website: https://www.yellowpagesoptout.com/, or by calling the number in the front of the Yellow Pages.

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