The Library will be closed on Monday, May 27, 2024, in observance of Memorial Day.

Looking at Art: The Art of Advertising in Vintage California Business Directories

Maya Peterpaul, Librarian, Business & Economics Department,
Advertisement from the Los Angeles City Directory, 1918, LAPL City and Street Directories Collection
Advertisement from the Los Angeles City Directory, 1918, LAPL City and Street Directories Collection

Vintage city directories contained alphabetized lists of the names of residents and their street addresses (if they existed). Additional information could include their occupation, spouse, property ownership, and, in certain instances, after 1879—telephone numbers. Within the city directories were business directories, along with lists of institutions, street directories, transportation timetables, and more. Directories, therefore, are rich resources for genealogy and history research because, unlike the decennial census, they typically offered annually updated information about where people lived and what they were doing.

Vintage business directories focused on businesses, services, and products. Business directories could be published under an assortment of titles, like the Los Angeles and Orange County Business Directory, the Mercantile Guide Business Directory of the Principal Cities and Towns of the State of California, or the Yellow Pages. Printed business directories were tools that were essential for financial success and consumer research before the widespread use of the Internet. City directories and business directories could be published in one volume or in separate volumes.

Advertisement from the Los Angeles City and County Directory, 1884-85
Advertisement from the Los Angeles City and County Directory, 1884-85, LAPL City and Street Directories Collection

Most city directories were eventually replaced by residential/non-commercial telephone directories after the telephone became a common household item in the 1920s. The residential telephone directory eventually became known as the “white pages.” Business directories continued to be published and eventually became synonymous with the name "Yellow Pages." The printing of the white pages and Yellow Pages directories has largely ceased; however, specialty business directories, like the Wine Business Directory/Buyer’s Guide, continue to be printed.

Vintage business directories provide portals to bygone eras through which we can witness consumer trends and cultural shifts, advancements in the fields of technology and medicine, shifting advertising psychology, innovations in printing, graphic design preferences, and much more. The art of the business directory is an appreciation of both the imagery and design of advertisements and the craft of marketing.

Advertisement from the Los Angeles City Directory
Advertisement from the Los Angeles City Directory, 1918, LAPL City and Street Directories Collection

1846

The book Seventy-Five Years in California, by William Heath Davis, offers a reproduction of the "First San Francisco Directory" compiled by the author and described as "... a list of the inhabitants of Yerba Buena, Mission Dolores, and Presidio in 1846, which comprised the district of San Francisco…" This list is possibly the first California directory. [Note: California didn’t join the Union until 1850 and was previously known as Alta California under Mexican rule, during which time there could have been directories in existence. Also, San Francisco wasn’t officially renamed from Yerba Buena until 1847.]

The directory’s handwritten list of residents includes their names and information such as occupation, relatives, and property ownership. Because the manuscript for Seventy-Five Years in California wasn’t completed until 1902, the author was able to provide updates in 1889 to his original 1846 directory. For example:

"Juana Briones de Miranda, one of the first settlers in Yerba Buena, who is still living (1889) on her large tract of land in Mayfield, Santa Clara County, at the advanced age of four-score and ten years; two sons and three daughters—small children."

The San Francisco City Directory
The San Francisco City Directory by Charles P. Kimball

1850

The San Francisco City Directory by Charles P. Kimball was published in 1850. Believed to be the oldest California business directory, it hosts an extensive list of tradesmen, business owners, laborers, and professionals that spans 115 pages. The effect of the booming economy and rapid population growth of California during the Gold Rush era is evident in these pages. The directory also includes the following sections: Streets (geographic description of City streets), City Government, Officers of the Superior Court, Police Officers, Policemen, Post Office, Expresses, Amusements, Places of Public Utility, Places of Public Worship, Newspapers in the City, Pilots, and finally the Business Advertisements Section—which is only five pages. The San Francisco City Directory is pure text with minimal typesetting variety and no embellishments or imagery.


1872

The First Los Angeles City and County Directory was published in 1872 by Waite & Beane—who also published the Los Angeles Daily News. The Directory is the first published list of the residents and history, of Los Angeles and surrounding areas. 1872 also happens to be the birth of the Los Angeles Public Library, then known as the Los Angeles Library Association.

The business section of the Directory displays a beautiful array of advertisements that showcase a variety of typefaces and imagery that speak to the remarkable talent of the printers at the Job Printing Office at No.14 Commercial Street, whose business is advertised throughout the publication.

Advertisement from The First Los Angeles City and County Directory
Advertisement from The First Los Angeles City and County Directory, 1872, LAPL City and Street Directories Collection

One of the advertisements for the printing office illustrates a printer using the Franklin press, otherwise known as the Gordon Jobber. Invented by George Phineas Gordon, a Spiritualist who said that Benjamin Franklin gave him the idea for the press in a dream, the Franklin press significantly advanced printing technology by improving both the quality and consistency of prints. Prints were made by pressing down on the foot pedal, which turned the wheel and set the press in motion, placing the surface with the paper against the inked plate. The press only needed one person to run it, which made it ideal for small print shops.

Another advertisement in The First Los Angeles City and County Directory offers a glimpse into the extracurricular preferences of the early days of Los Angeles, namely saloons. Here we see a saloon ad that warns, "No Killing at 300 yards here."

Advertisement from The First Los Angeles City and County Directory, 1872
Advertisement from The First Los Angeles City and County Directory, 1872, LAPL City and Street Directories Collection

1878

The world’s first telephone directory was published in Connecticut in 1878 by inventor and Civil War Union Army veteran George Coy and financiers of his company, the New Haven District Telephone Company. The directory listed the names of 50 residents and businesses that could be connected through a telephone exchange (the interconnection of telephone subscribers) managed by a switchboard operator. That operator was Coy, who was the first telephone operator in the world. Coy also designed and built said telephone exchange, the first of its kind in the world.

New Haven District Telephone Company Directory
New Haven District Telephone Company Directory, February 21, 1878, University of Connecticut Archives & Special Collections

1879

Dr. Moses Greeley Parker invented the concept of the telephone number during an epidemic of measles in Lowell, Massachusetts. He wanted to facilitate the training of substitute telephone operators who replaced two of the four original operators who fell ill. Phone numbers were placed above the switchboard holes that corresponded to telephone subscribers. That way, the substitute telephone operators did not have to memorize the switchboard locations of over 200 phone company customers. Dr. Moses Greeley Parker was also the first person to photograph electric currents. His photographic evidence of the spiral form of currents led to the creation of spiraled telephone wires, which could extend communication over greater distances.


1881-82

The Victorian Era, also known as the "Electric Era," saw the dawn of modern city life with the invention of electric lighting. During this time of electricity revolutionizing society, electricity was thought to be of use in all walks of life, including wellness—as seen in the following advertisements from the Los Angeles City Directory (1881-82) and the Los Angeles and Orange County Business Directory (1890-91). Electrotherapy was very popular and considered to be a cure-all by many consumers.

Advertisement from the Los Angeles and Orange County Business Directory
Advertisement from the Los Angeles and Orange County Business Directory, 1890-91, LAPL City and Street Directories Collection
Los Angeles City Directory
Advertisement from the Los Angeles City Directory, 1881-82, LAPL City and Street Directories Collection
Advertisement from the Los Angeles and Orange County Business Directory
Advertisement from the Los Angeles and Orange County Business Directory, 1890-91, LAPL City and Street Directories Collection

1882

The Los Angeles Telephone Company published the Los Angeles Exchange, the city’s first telephone directory, containing 90 telephone numbers of residents and businesses. Who had the first telephone number: 1? The offices of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Advertisement from the Los Angeles City and County Directory
Advertisement from the Los Angeles City and County Directory, 1884-85, LAPL City and Street Directories Collection

1886

The Chicago Telephone Directory is produced by Richard Robert Donnelley’s Chicago Directory Company for the Chicago Telephone Company. The Directory is the first to include a classified business telephone directory, a precursor of the Yellow Pages.


1918

The Los Angeles City Directory was published in 1918, which was the first year of the Great Influenza pandemic and the last year of World War I. In the following advertisement, we see the Holt Manufacturing Company’s Caterpillar tractor. The Caterpillar continuous track tractors were used in World War I, replacing horses for the purpose of heavy-duty transportation. Caterpillar tractors also served as the inspiration for the design of British and French tanks.

Advertisement from the Los Angeles City Directory
Advertisement from the Los Angeles City Directory, 1918, LAPL City and Street Directories Collection

Advertising space in directories was maximized through the use of margins, fore-edges, end-papers, and spines.

Fore-edge and spine advertisements, Mercantile Guide Business Directory, various dates, LAPL Collection
Fore-edge and spine advertisements, Mercantile Guide Business Directory, various dates, LAPL Collection
Margin advertisement, Los Angeles City Directory
Margin advertisement, Los Angeles City Directory, 1942, LAPL Collection  End-paper advertisement, Mercantile Guide Business Directory, 1902-03, LAPL Collection
Margin advertisement, Los Angeles Business Directory
Margin advertisement, Los Angeles Business Directory, 1918, LAPL Collection

1928

Signature fashion styles of an era can be seen in vintage business advertisements, as is the case with the flapper featured in the ad for "T. S. N. Maloof Co." in the Syrian Directory of the State of California. The flapper’s short “shingle bob” hairstyle and flowing dress, with short hemline and arms exposed, was a style of freedom and independence from conservative fashions and values of yesteryear during a time of dramatic change in the Jazz Age/Roaring Twenties.

Advertisement from the Syrian Directory of the State of California

Advertisement from the Syrian Directory of the State of California, 1928, LAPL City and Street Directories Collection

1930-31

The Los Angeles Negro Directory and Who’s Who, the first directory of the Black population of Los Angeles, was published by The California Eagle Pub. Company. The preface of the Directory was written by activist and educator Charlotta Bass, who was the first Black woman to own and operate a newspaper (The California Eagle) in the United States. (The California Eagle archive can be accessed digitally at any LAPL location.)

"The gigantic task of enumerating the names that appear on these pages has been a triumph in itself. An army of young women early in 1931 went forth, sought out and compiled these names. They were set up on our own linotype machines and printed on our own printing presses, nearly ten tons of paper was used in the publication of this edition, which will give the reader an idea of the number published."

"In the publication of this book, our chief aim is to stimulate a greater desire for a thorough education in the things worthwhile on the part of our youth and to make for greater business activity within our group."

Directory page from the Los Angeles Negro Directory and Who’s Who
Directory page from the Los Angeles Negro Directory and Who’s Who, 1930-31, LAPL City and Street Directories Collection
Advertisement from the Los Angeles Negro Directory
Advertisement from the Los Angeles Negro Directory and Who’s Who, 1930-31, LAPL City and Street Directories Collection

1932

The psychology of advertising seeks to evoke a feeling and/or touch on a need, and this is especially true when an advertisement is reaching out to a specific community. Mount Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia and the biblical resting place of Noah’s Ark, is the namesake of "Ararat Bakery" in the following advertisement featured in the Armenian Directory of the State of California. The bakery’s slogan reads, "Land on Ararat, and you will be safe!" capturing both a sense of spirituality and community-based fortitude. Mount Ararat is depicted beautifully in a circular vignette with a bird soaring high above. (The bird could be the Golden Eagle, the national bird of Armenia.) Adding to the welcoming words and imagery of this advertisement is the description of the baked goods as having “native taste,” a promise of the comfort of home, family, and delicious flavors.

Advertisement from the Armenian Directory of the State of California, 1932
Advertisement from the Armenian Directory of the State of California, 1932, LAPL City and Street Directories Collection

1936

The Green Book was founded and published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green. This annual guidebook and directory for African American travelers was "the bible of black travel" during the era of Jim Crow laws, when open and often legally prescribed discrimination against African Americans and other non-whites was widespread. Green wrote this guide to identify services and places relatively friendly to African Americans so they could find lodgings, businesses, and gas stations that would serve them along the road. Shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed the types of racial discrimination that made the Green Book necessary, publication ceased, and it fell into obscurity.

Directory pages from the Green Book Railroad Edition, 1951
Directory pages from the Green Book Railroad Edition, 1951, New York Public Library Digital Collections

1938-1939

The 1930s saw a thriving Japanese American business community in Los Angeles, as can be seen in the Japanese Telephone and Business Directory (available in print in the History Department of Central Library). This came to an abrupt end with the issuance of Executive Order 9066 in 1942. American citizens of Japanese ancestry were forcibly relocated to internment camps, which caused a widespread and devastating loss of their property, assets, and businesses.

Advertisement from the Japanese Telephone and Business Directory, 1938-39
Advertisement from the Japanese Telephone and Business Directory, 1938-39, LAPL Collection

Golden Age of Advertising

The 1960s marked the beginning of the "Golden Age of Advertising," which lasted until the end of the 1980s. This era saw the titans of brand building turn products into stories that formed emotional connections with consumers. The sale of the experience of a product was a successful marketing method, especially with the newly targeted demographic of young adults.

Advertisement from Wines and Vines: Directory of the Wine Industry, 1970
Advertisement from Wines and Vines: Directory of the Wine Industry, 1970, LAPL Collection

1985

Los Angeles County received its first Spanish language Yellow Pages: Las Paginas Amarillas, distributed by Pacific Bell. An article from the Wall Street Journal (Feb 18, 1988) stated:

"Last fall, the Census Bureau reported that since 1980, the country's Hispanic population had increased by 30%, to 18.8 million from 14.5 million—five times the growth rate of non-Hispanics. Although the Hispanic advertising market is still small at $491 million, it grew 23% last year, according to Hispanic Business magazine. ‘Anybody who looks at the size of the Hispanic consumer segment would have to be `nuts not to do business there,' says Charles E. Morrison, a vice president of Coca-Cola USA, a unit of Coca-Cola Co."

"Other companies agree. In the past year such major marketers as Pillsbury Co.'s Burger King Corp., Southland Corp.'s 7-Eleven Stores, and Domino's Pizza Inc. began comprehensive Spanish-language advertising campaigns for the first time."

Advertisement from the Los Angeles Times, December 5, 1985
Advertisement from the Los Angeles Times, December 5, 1985, Los Angeles Times Historical Archives

Vintage directories are informative, and they are also beautiful. A considerable amount of strategic thought and craftsmanship went into creating printed advertisements for businesses. Being able to reach out to a consumer from the two-dimensional space of a printed page and affect real life through the purchase of a product or service was a significant marketing achievement.

Vintage directories offer journeys back in time through society’s past lives. We can see how our neighborhoods and cities developed and expanded. We can remember what everyday life was like during our younger years, and learn what life was like for our parents and grandparents and ancestors. We can study consumer trends, cultural currents, and evolving technologies. Most importantly, we can see before our eyes a record of human civilization.


Vintage business directories can be viewed in the Business & Economics Department, the History Department, and the Rare Books Department of Central Library. Directories can also be accessed online through the LAPL City and Street Directories Collection in Tessa.


 

 

 

Top