New Collections: The Berlin Telephone Books from 1881 to 1902

By Theresa Rodewald (Online Editor)

The first Berlin telephone book was published on 14th July 1881, just over 140 years ago. Just in time for this anniversary, the Museum für Kommunikation Berlin (Museum for Communication Berlin) has digitised the Berlin telephone books from1881 to 1902. The digital copies can now also be viewed in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (German Digital Library) and they invite you to take a virtual walk through the urban and technical history of Berlin.

Front cover of the first Berlin telephone book “Verzeichniss der bei der Fernsprecheinrichtung Betheiligten. Fernsprech-Vermittelungs-Anlage in Berlin” (“Directory of Participants in the Telephone Facility. Telephone Exchange in Berlin”). (1881) Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation (Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication) (CC BY-SA 4.0 International)

On 26th October 1877, Heinrich von Stephan, the Prussian Court Postmaster General in Berlin, made a call from the General Post Office in the Leipziger Straße to the General Telegraph Office in the Französische Straße – by telephone! A telephone call from A to B in real time was a sensation at that time.

From now on, Heinrich von Stephan made a real effort and used his political and social connections – to the Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and to the industrialist Werner Siemens, among others – so that the first “Berliner Vermittelungsanlage der Stadtfernsprecheinrichtung (“Berlin Telephone Exchange for the City Telephone Facility”) could already commence operation on 1st April 1881. At first, however, only for a modest number of 100 connections. On 14th July 1881, the telephone exchange then published the first “Verzeichniss der bei der Fernsprecheinrichtung Betheiligten” (“Directory of Participants in the Telephone Facility”) – the first German telephone book was born.

The 1881 “Verzeichnis” (directory) was, however, more of a pamphlet with its almost 30 pages. The “Beteiligten” (participants) were listed in alphabetical order in the form of a table – with number, name, “Bezeichnung des Standes oder Geschäftszweigs” (“designation of status or the branch of business”) and address. At the end of the pamphlet, all participants were listed once again according to their telephone numbers: from 1 (Börse (Stock Exchange), Zelle 3) up to 400 (Maklerbank (brokerage bank) at Leipziger Platz 19), whereby not all numbers had been assigned. The owner of the booklet illustrated here has even written in the newly assigned numbers in his best “Kurrent script” (Gothic handwriting).

Page of telephone book with handwritten note: “Verzeichniss der bei der Fernsprecheinrichtung Betheiligten. Fernsprech-Vermittelungs-Anlage in Berlin. ” (1881) Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It is naturally hardly surprising that that only few residents of Berlin had a telephone connection in 1881. The technology was new, and, like many new things, it was eyed sceptically at first: it was not for nothing that the telephone book was popularly known by the derisive name “Buch der Narren” (“book of fools”). Making telephone calls was, above all, an exclusive pleasure: the listing in the telephone directory and the purchase of a telephone cost around 200 marks per year – that was five nights in the luxurious Central Hotel and equivalent to about 1,280 euros today.

At first, it was mainly companies to be found in the telephone directory: a company could not only afford a telephone connection more than a private person – this could even give it a competitive advantage. It was, above all, publicly traded companies that became more and more numerous in the first telephone directory and these profited from the rapid transmission of information – especially when they got to know the latest market price before their competitors.

From the booklet to the book: Berlin made telephone calls

Despite initial reservations, the telephone spread quickly in Berlin. More and more people had a telephone connection and after only a few years there were more private numbers than company numbers in the telephone directory. Addresses and occupations of the participants were also listed in addition to numbers and names and this didn’t change until 1902. In this way, the telephone directory was also a kind of “Who’s Who” of Berlin. Whether you were a singer, a general agent for bicycles from the company “Wanderer” or Ernst Dübel, who lived up to his name by running a factory for wood processing in the Yorckstraße (“Dübel” in German means “rawlplug” in English) – the Berlin residents with a telephone were immortalised in the telephone directory. And those who valued their privacy, were even able to acquire a so-called “secret telephone connection” which was not listed in the telephone directory.

The Berlin of 1902 was considerably smaller than that of today: municipalities and districts which were not incorporated into the city until the Greater Berlin Law of 1920 – like Pankow, Adlershof, Rixdorf or Stralau – didn’t yet belong to Berlin and were therefore listed separately in the telephone directory.

From October 1892 onwards, the telephone directory was published by the Julius Springer Verlag. Companies were able to place business advertisements in it, which cost between 20 and 100 marks depending on the size. In the following years however, the number of advertisements decreased so dramatically that, from October 1897, the telephone book was again published by the Chief Post Office. At first, the telephone book was published several times a year, until it was finally agreed that a new edition would be published each April and October. The reason for this: changes of residence usually took place then and thus changes in the telephone numbers could be included at the same time.

Advertisement for pedal-driven machines and vehicles of all kinds: “Verzeichniss der Theilnehmer an der Stadt-Fernsprecheinrichtung in Berlin nebst Anhängen” (“Directory of Participants in the City Telephone Exchange in Berlin including Annexes”) (1895) Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation (CC BY-SA 4.0 )

From 15th August 1881, those who didn’t have their own connection could use the public phone booth in the post office at Unter den Linden 5. A call cost a good 50 pfennigs – that would be about 3.50 euros today.

There was not only an increase in the number of telephone connections in Berlin, but also in the number of public phone booths – in 1887, there were already seven public phone booths, one of them for example in the Zimmerstraße 26, not far from today’s Branch Office of the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek.

Moreover, in 1901, there were ten telephone connections for reporting fires. The telephone was, therefore, used for emergency calls at an early stage. But sometimes things didn’t go quite so smoothly with the communication in cases of emergency, which is why information sheets were enclosed with the telephone book with references to the reporting offices. For good measure, an example of a dialogue was also printed, with detailed instructions and information.

Reporting fires via the telephone: „Verzeichniss der Theilnehmer an der Stadt-Fernsprecheinrichtung in Berlin nebst Anhängen” (1902) Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation (CC BY-SA 4.0 )

As early as 1883, two years after the publication of the first telephone book, it was possible to make telephone calls between Berlin and Potsdam. From 1887 onwards, the residents of Berlin could also speak to Magdeburg and Hanover. 5 minutes between Berlin and Hanover cost 1 mark, which would be about just 7 euros today.

“Here operator” (“Hier Amt”): telephone etiquette at the turn of the century

With these prices it was no wonder that telephone calls were kept as short as possible – incidentally, this was also recommended in the preliminary remarks to the telephone books. These preliminary remarks explained the use of a telephone with the utmost seriousness, since the “most careful observance of the rules was essential for proper operation” (“[g]enaueste Beachtung der […] Bestimmungen ist für einen ordnungsmässigen Betrieb unerlässlich“). Over the years, the preliminary remarks increased from half a page up to seven pages. “At that time, there wasn’t so much to say to the participants like there is today” remarked Friedrich Ludwig Vocke in 1933, post officer in Berlin at that time.

Making telephone calls at the turn of the century was, however, rather more complicated than today. First of all, you had to call the telephone exchange, that is the post office. To do this, you had to pick up the receiver and press the so-called “Weckknopf” (call button) – in the beginning, telephones didn’t yet have a crank; these are mentioned for the first time in the October edition of the 1895 telephone book. After the call had been successfully placed, the call button had to be pressed again or the crank turned and the call could begin. On receiving a call, you didn’t have to press the call button or turn the crank at all; this was considered to be “quite inadmissible and brought about a premature disconnection” (“durchaus unstatthaft und bewirkt vorzeitige Trennung“). The preliminary remarks made it thus clear that making telephone calls was not child’s play, but a serious matter.

The publishers of the telephone directory would have been outraged at the spirited turning of the telephone’s crank as we know it from films: “With calls, the crank is to be turned slowly once. Turning it several times quickly can cause damage to the public officials and can lead to claims for compensation against the participants.” („Bei Anruf ist die Kurbel langsam einmal herumzudrehen. Mehrmaliges schnelles Drehen kann zu Beschädigungen der Beamten und zu Ersatzansprüchen gegen die Teilnehmer führen.“)

From 1889 onwards, there was, in addition, an instructive example of a dialogue in the telephone directory. The telephone exchange would take the call with “Here operator” (“Hier Amt”), whereupon the participant would give the name and number of the person they wished to call. The exchange would reply to this with “Please call” (“Bitte rufen”) or “Engaged, please call again after 5 minutes.” (“Schon besetzt, bitte nach fünf Minuten nochmals rufen.”) When the call had been successfully placed, the person called would say “Here is B, who is there?” (“Hier B, wer dort?”) and would receive the answer “Here is A” (“Hier A”).

It was recommended that “breaks in the conversation were to be avoided at all costs, just as much as the duration of the use of the facility should be limited as much as possible.” (“Pausen […] während der Unterredungen thunlichst zu vermeiden, wie überhaupt die Dauer der Benutzung der Einrichtungen nach Möglichkeit zu beschränken ist.“)

The whole thing had, therefore, something of radio communication about it, probably also because the connections didn’t have the quality of telephone conversations today. The telephone directory also even had a solution at hand for comprehension problems: “You should speak clearly, but not too loudly and not too slowly; your mouth must remain 3 to 5 cm from the sound opening of the microphone. If it is still not possible to reach a clear understanding in the communication of certain expressions, names etc., then appropriate use should be made of the spelling alphabet printed at the end (page xii).” (“Es ist deutlich, aber nicht zu laut und nicht zu langsam zu sprechen; der Mund muss 3 bis 5 cm von der Schallöffnung des Mikrophons entfernt bleiben. Ist trotzdem bei der Uebermittlung einzelner Ausdrücke, Namen etc. eine sichere Verständigung nicht zu erreichen, so wird zweckmässig von der am Schlusse (Seite xii) abgedruckten Buchstabirtafel Gebrauch gemacht.“)

Spelling alphabet: “Verzeichniss der Theilnehmer an der Stadt-Fernsprecheinrichtung in Berlin nebst Anhängen” (1895) Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation (CC BY-SA 4.0 )

At first, the spelling alphabet oriented itself on a number code: A was one, B was two and so on. DDB would have been thus spelled as four, four, two. From 1903 onwards, names were used for letters. According to this, DDB would have been spelled as David, David, Berta.*

Those who found the whole thing too complicated could dictate messages immediately to the telephone exchange in the form of telegrams, postcards, letters or couriers: the keyword here was “request to write” (“Ersuche zu schreiben”).

Whether for research purposes or for pleasure, you can scroll virtually through the urban and cultural history of Berlin with the aid of the digitised telephone books of the Museum für Kommunikation. They make it possible to understand how quickly communication technologies could spread and become a part of everyday life.

 

Warm thanks go to Claudia Loest, Head Librarian at the Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation, under whose direction the digitisation of the telephone books was carried out, and who has generously shard her knowledge of the history of the Berlin telephone books with us.

You can find the Berlin telephone books from 1881 to 1902 here in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek and here on the website of the Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation.

 

*We originally misspelled 'DDB' as 'Dora Dora Berta'. Until 1934, however, the Berlin telephone book used the pronunciation 'David' for the letter 'D', which the National Socialists then replaced with 'Dora'. At the moment, the DIN standards committee is apparently working on a new version of the spelling alphabet, which is expected to be released in 2022. The drafts are available for public comment.

 

Sources:

Loest, Claudia: „Früher unverzichtbar - heute nur noch ein Kuriosum? Das Museum für Kommunikation hat die Berliner Telefonbücher von 1881 bis 1902 digitalisiert“, in: AKMBNews Bd. 27 Nr. 1, 2021, S. 44-50. (You can access the German article here)

The program "SWR2 Zeitwort" was also dedicated to the first telephone book. You can listen to the broadcast, including an exciting interview with Claudia Loest, here (in German).

Vocke, Friedrich Ludwig: „50 Jahre Berliner Fernsprechbuch in Archiv für Post und Telegraphie“, Berlin Juni, 1931 Nr. 6, S. 145 – 161.