Monday, June 2, 2008

Way before there was was the book

Nation’s first telephone book calling all bidders

By Victor Zapana
Special to the Register

The country’s first telephone book has resurfaced, but telecommunications buffs may not be rushing to phone in a bid.
The first telephone book, a 40-page document bound and published by the Connecticut District Telephone Co. in November 1878, features 391 names and about 150 New Haven area businesses, according to Tom Lecky, New York head of books and manuscripts at Christie’s auction house, which is handling the book.
It is the only copy of the book that has been uncovered to date, he said.
“It really documents the beginnings of the most pervasive technology we have today,” he said.
The owner of the book, New York private collector Richard Green, recently decided to sell the book along with four other documents, including a first-edition copy of 16th century Nicolaus Copernicus’ “De revolutionibus,” which Lecky said is found on the “Top 5” dream lists of all rare scientific book collectors. The other three — two first editions and one doodle — were written by Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud.
Green could not be reached for comment. The book is expected to sell for about $30,000 to $40,000, the Christie’s Web site states.
The manuscript is not the first telephone directory, however, which has prompted some debate over its significance. The first directory was a February 1878 single-sheet list of about 50 names that was published by the telephone company’s predecessor, District Telephone Co. of New Haven, which telephone historians said has more historical significance.
But Lecky said what they have — the first book, as in a bound collection of multiple pages — is still quite the find.
“It is extremely significant because it is the first,” he said. “About 10 years later, these phone books had become so rapidly printed to such an extremely large number that they are much more common in the market.”
He added that the February 1878 single-sheet directory, or any single sheet for that matter, has been auctioned off, so it had no monetary value in place.
The book, entitled “The Telephone Directory,” features the 391 households in the beginning of the book and the businesses in the back. There is an entry for the New Haven Register, Lecky said. The book also had directions on how to have a telephone conversation.
After all, many at the time were still unfamiliar with the process. Alexander Graham Bell had created the telephone just two years before.
Local historical experts said they found the book a great artifact, but they still pointed to the single-sheet directory as the true prize.
Laura Smith, collection curator for the “Southern New England Telephone Company: The First Fifty Years, 1878-1928” exhibit, said that the single-sheet document has the greatest significance because it is the truly first record. Connecticut District Telephone Co. was a predecessor of Southern New England Telephone Co.
Smith said the exhibit she curates has the single-page directory on display. The exhibit is at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut.
“I guess any book that has that kind of information is special,” she said, of the directory being auctioned by Christie’s. “[But] the February 1878 directory was the big deal.”
Jody Georgeson, executive director for Colorado-based The Telecommunications History Group Inc., however, said that even the information in the book is not that valuable.
“I’ve seen reproductions,” she said. But she added that the book is still “a good artifact.”
Founded in 1766, Christie’s is an international fine arts auctioneer that sometimes showcases their collections.
The public will be able to view the telephone book in Christie’s Rockefeller Galleries in New York from June 13 to 16. The book will be auctioned at 2 p.m. June 17.
The first telephone exchange was performed by Bell in New Haven with the District Telephone Co. of New Haven on Jan. 28, 1878, just 13 days before the company was created. The company eventually became Southern New England Telephone Co., which was absorbed by AT&T in 1998.
Victor Zapana is a New Haven Register intern.

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