End of an era: the printed phone book has had its day...
End of an era: the printed phone book has had its day... PTT Archive

The last phone book

Switzerland’s last printed telephone directories were issued in 2022. What started in Zurich in 1880 now faces the final curtain. A look back.

Heike Bazak

Heike Bazak

Heike Bazak is a historian and head of the PTT Archive.

Unless you’re a true digital native, you’ll still remember those heavy old phone books with the razor-thin, densely written pages. They were in regular use up until the 1990s, to chase up a phone number that had slipped your mind, to still your pounding heart long enough to ask a crush for a date, or simply to make a childish prank call. These days, they’re a rarity. The history of the telephone directory is closely linked to the technical evolution of telephony. Switzerland’s first experiments with the new medium of the telephone were conducted in 1877, via a telegraph line between Bern and Thun. An adjunct noted: “Following the experiments I have done so far, I have the impression that the telephone is a marvel that is yet in its infancy, and still has a number of refinements to go through.” The business world, however, latched onto the new means of communication straightaway. In 1880 Wilhelm Ehrenberg, a Zurich businessman, applied to the Post- und Eisenbahndepartement, which was responsible for postal and railway services, for a license to set up a telephone network in Zurich. The Federal Council decided to grant the license. Switzerland’s first telephone book, with the title “List of speaking stations of the Zurich Telephone Society”, was released in Zurich in 1880. This, the nation’s first telephone directory – a slim booklet – contained 99 entries.
Telephone directory of the Zurich Telephone Society dating from 1880.
Telephone directory of the Zurich Telephone Society dating from 1880. PTT Archive
Bern telephone book dating from 1881.
Bern telephone book dating from 1881. PTT Archive
The federal government must have regretted its decision shortly afterwards, because the following year the Bund began to be actively involved in building and operating public telephone stations and networks, based on the 1880 “Verordnung über [die] Errichtung von öffentlichen Telephonstationen” [Regulation on [the] construction of public telephone stations]. After buying back the Zurich network, from 1886 the federal government finally had all public networks under its own management. Telephone lines were installed throughout Switzerland – first in the economic centres, with the interurban connections between those centres following slightly later. This meant telephone calls could also be made between cities, and were no longer confined to a single city’s network. The first of these interurban telephone lines was installed between Zurich and Winterthur, and came into operation in 1883. It was an ambitious project for the federal government because the costs of setting up the telephone network were very high. The telegraph office estimated around 400 francs per kilometre. That’s equivalent to a present-day value of around 128,000 francs per kilometre. Nonetheless, the federal government endeavoured to keep the charges for telephone services reasonably low so that more and more people could afford to have a telephone.
Putting up a telephone mast in Geneva, c. 1900.
Putting up a telephone mast in Geneva, c. 1900. Swiss National Museum
All the same, in the early years of telephony the initial outlay and the charge rates for calls for a private telephone were expensive and, as with all steps forward in telecommunications, there was significant scepticism among large parts of the population. In 1881 only a few hundred households had a telephone line. But the benefits of having a telephone were so great that the scepticism soon dissipated. As of 1882 there were already 1,000 connections. By 1895 the figure had risen to 21,000 connections, in 1905 there were 50,000 connections and by 1915 there were around 80,000 connections throughout Switzerland. But due to the high cost of a connection and the call charges, only wealthy private individuals tended to have a telephone. There were numerous tradespeople and businesses in the phone book, since a telephone as a rapid means of communication brought professional advantages. This remained so until the 1920s. An urban-rural divide is also clearly apparent in the entries in the telephone books, as telephone lines were only gradually rolled out to rural areas. So it’s not surprising that the telephone caught on earlier in urban centres than in rural ones.
The Hotel and Kurhaus Hochwacht Pfannenstiel featured its own telephone number in its 1923 advertising.
The Hotel and Kurhaus Hochwacht Pfannenstiel featured its own telephone number in its 1923 advertising. Swiss National Museum
As of 1925, 154,000 people in Switzerland had a telephone line; the country’s population at the time was around 3.8 million. After World War II, the number of connections continued to rise. The PTT’s annual report from 1945 lists around 415,000 connections. Having a telephone line of one’s own was slowly becoming the norm. To make sure children learned at a young age how to use a telephone and a telephone directory, lessons at school taught them how to manage the thick, heavy phone books and how to find the local baker’s or an aunt’s telephone number. With each new connection, the costs fell and the number of connections continued to rise rapidly as a result of economic growth in the post-war years. In 1965 there were 1,466,000 connections, followed by a further increase to 3,277,000 in 1985. The peak was reached in 1995 with 4,318,000 connections. Based on a PTT instruction of 1992, which remained valid until liberalisation in 1997, an entry in the telephone book was mandatory for all landline connections. Between 1980 and 1997, virtually every household in Switzerland had a telephone connection. This meant that each of these households had a telephone book entry. Since not every municipality issued address directories, for those years the telephone directories were publicly accessible listings of residents. This high-volume production of phone books was a complex challenge to manufacture, and used a phenomenal mountain of paper. Richard Erismann, former CEO of Swisscom Directories AG, recalls hearing an estimate that the paper used to produce all the telephone books for a single year would have filled a railway carriage stretching from Bern to Zurich.
Collection of obsolete telephone books, 1966 (in German). SRF
Up to 2022, new analogue telephone directories were issued each year for every municipality in Switzerland, but the number of copies printed and the number of entries was falling steadily. This era will end when 2022 finally draws to a close, and telephone books will then become relics of an analogue world.
This article was originally published on the blog of the Museum für Kommunikation.

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