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Old Phone Directories 'Dial Back' Local History

Old phone directories from 1920s to present day detail growth of Mt. Greenwood, Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn from prairie outpost to urban center.

A stop on the 'Voice Highway' in 1924. | Oak Lawn Library
A stop on the 'Voice Highway' in 1924. | Oak Lawn Library

In 1924, “telephone operating” was considered a desirable occupation for young women. There were no long bus rides to questionable neighborhoods or exposure to rough talk in factories or bars, since the work was “permanent, interesting and near home.”

“Our operators are well paid. They like their work and associates. Vacations (with pay) are given each year. A liberal Benefit Plan is provided. Come to the Telephone Office and talk it over with the CHIEF OPERATOR,” read an Illinois Bell Telephone Company advertisement in the local telephone directory.

This early telephone directory, published by “Reuben H. Donnelly” 90 years ago for the towns of Oak Lawn, Evergreen Park and Mt. Greenwood, is one of dozens available for online perusing on the Oak Lawn Library’s local history website.

The old phone books, covering the 1920s through 1990s, offer a fascinating glimpse into the local area’s development from prairie outpost to urban center, as well as the evolution of mass communication in the 20th century.

“The directories tell us an awful lot, what the businesses were and what the population was like,” says Kevin Korst, the local history coordinator for the Oak Lawn Public Library. “People doing genealogy use them to find out where family members were living. We have people come in and use them several times a week, mostly to find locations of old businesses or restaurants they remember from childhood.”

During the 1920s, a telephone in the home was considered an extravagance by most Americans, and were just beginning to be utilized by local businesses.

The telephone was aggressively marketed for its convenience in clearing up business disputes (“A business perplexity may be cleared up within a few minutes by a long distance telephone talk”), letting folks know that you had arrived safely at your destination rather than relying on letters, or easing the pangs of one’s absence by chatting gaily with loved ones on special occasions (“The sound of his voice made his presence real. The telephone had saved the day”). Slowly, phones evolved into a modern day necessity that people could not live without.

Telephone numbers in the Mt. Greenwood, Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn areas were assigned in the order in which phones were requested. Phone numbers ranged from single to triple digits. If you were the fifth person in Blue Island to request a phone, your assigned number was "5."

A local operator connected calls between neighbors and family members, much like the unseen operator "Sarah" in The Andy Griffith Show. Calls outside the local area were handled “station to station," and patched through to other operators in Gary, Ind., LaGrange or points beyond.

The Donnelly telephone directories also encouraged Illinois Bell "subscribers" to familiarize themselves with the marvels of the modern telephone switchboard. There were detailed instructions on company regulations, sending telegrams over the telephone, and not abandoning station-to-station calls until the operator told you the other party wasn’t available, so that her work “wasn’t all for naught.”

To report fires or request a police officer in Evergreen Park or Mt. Greenwood, callers were instructed to ask for “Evergreen Pk. 30-J” or “Mt. Greenwood 7.” In Oak Lawn, the number for police and fire was "41-W-2."

The early phone directories also include alphabetized lists for subscribers in nearby Blue Island and Perry.

“The towns were small. Oak Lawn’s population in 1920 was 500,” Korst said. “They were all lumped together.” 

A phone call placed from Mt. Greenwood to Joliet, Evanston or Wheaton in 1924 cost 20 cents for five minutes, and 5 cents per each additional minute. 

A long distance call set loose a "voice highway" of operators patching calls through to other stations across the country until the local operator was able to make the connection.

Businesses were also figuring out how to market themselves in the local telephone directory, thanks to coaching from Reuben Donnelly. 

During the 1920s, Beverly Hills Lumber Co. offered “Real Service” at 95th Street and the B & O.C.T. tracks west of Western Avenue. Tinley Park undertaker J.E. Mohr offered cut rate prices and “a lady assistant.” Florists and greenhouses were proliferate on the outskirts of Chicago, and Behrend’s Dept. Store at 5300 W. 95th St. in Oak Lawn offered a complete stock of groceries, dry goods and haberdashery.

“Business ads were a huge thing,” Korst said. “This one tiny ad may be all that is left of the business's existence, and yet it tells us everything we need to know.”

The Oak Lawn Library’s collection of historic phone directories are available for online viewing on the Local History website.

OakLawnGuy May 22, 2014 at 07:20 AM
The Local History page of the Library site is great, I'm a big fan.
dave bird May 22, 2014 at 08:55 AM
my dad worked for R.H. Donnely for 30years and helped create the yellow pages.

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