Every year, telephone subscribers throughout the country receive an up-to-date directory, handily divided into ‘white’ and ‘yellow’ pages but old copies can be hard to come by. The Whanganui Regional Museum has a only few in the collection and needs more, says staff member Pat Goldfinch. They are looking for Wanganui telephone directories published before 1980.
As an historical document, they are invaluable, says Pat. “They tell you such a lot about the city, who lived there, what businesses were operating … and we throw them away.”
Recycling may account for a lack of modern copies, but when the directory was first printed, the phone would have been a rarity, and one’s name on the list would have implied some sort of social, if not economic, status. So why are there so few early copies?
The earliest directory in the museum is dated 1907, and a colour photocopy of the tattered and torn original is available for viewing. One of the entries is for Calver, John, with his occupation as Butcher and address as Riverbank. The area is still known as Calver’s Corner, although his butcher’s shop has long since gone. The directory is by no means a register of Wanganui citizens of the time. “You had to have been of substance to own a telephone,” says Pat, so the book is more like a Who’s Who. A WA Prowse advertised his dentist’s surgery, guaranteeing ‘absolutely no danger, pain or after effects’, proving advertising was no more truthful in 1907. The builder of the Opera House, Collegiate School and much more of Wanganui, Nicholas Meuli, has two listings – private and business. The Opera House and Opera House Stables are listed separately with St Hill St addresses. “This is a slice of life from 1907,” says Pat. Perambulator tyres could be purchased from Turner and Co, phone 319, and Whitlock’s is listed as sauce and pickle manufacturers, although Fred Whitlock had no domestic phone number.
Telephone subscribers were also listed in numerical order near the back of the book, followed by subscribers from around the region and the number of each exchange, sub-exchange and bureau, with hours of operation. The bureau office at Peep-o-Day was particularly intriguing.
Charges for making a phone call started at 3d for three minutes over the shortest distance by subscribers. Non-subscribers started at 6d for the same distance. Charges rose steeply from there, making talking long-distance an expensive exercise. Service was evidently important with the following message included in the directory: ‘You are respectfully requested to report at once, in writing, by the first telegraph message boy, or otherwise, any want of attention at the exchange, giving us full particulars as possible.’
The next directory is dated 1934 and contains a list of ‘courtesies’ for callers to observe, explaining how to answer and end a call. ‘The essence of telephone service is brevity,’ it concludes. It also contains step-by-step directions for operating ‘automatic’ telephones. There are even advertisements promoting the telephone (‘what a convenience, what a comfort’) for the princely subscription of 13s 2d a month, not including toll calls. “No wonder there were not many people on the phone,” Pat says.
The 1934 directory contained, for the first time, a separate ‘classified’ section for businesses only. A notice near the front of the book directed the reader to the ‘lemon-coloured pages at the back’. “My dad used to work for Maypole,” says Pat, finding the number for the Victoria Ave grocery shop.
In the 1961 directory, the Post Office classified business telephone directory is called ‘The Yellow Pages’ and the layout – and many of the names and businesses – is more familiar. By then the bureau of Peep-o-Day had disappeared but party lines were still the norm in country areas.
If you have old phone books you would like to donate to Whanganui Regional Museum phone archivist Sandi Black, 349 1110.
Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek on 3 July 2013. Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.