How 18th-century guide spawned a phenomenon

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The Independent Online

While JR Hartley, the fictitious fly fishing author who famously let his fingers do the walking to locate a copy of his book, may epitomise the Yellow Pages for many people, the origins of what became the classic classified directory long predate Mr Hartley.

While JR Hartley, the fictitious fly fishing author who famously let his fingers do the walking to locate a copy of his book, may epitomise the Yellow Pages for many people, the origins of what became the classic classified directory long predate Mr Hartley.

They can, in fact, be traced to Germany in the 1700s when Leipzig became the first known town to publish a guide to its streets in 1701. From this, broader address books grew; incorporating information on where doctors, lawyers, hotels et al could be found – the forerunner of today's Yellow Pages.

Although the World Wide Web could eventually remove the need for printed directories, two of the world's oldest directories companies recently celebrated their bicentenary: the Danish company Krak and the British company Kelly. In comparison, the Yellow Pages is still a baby at 36 years old.

The first Yellow Pages was launched by the General Post Office (later to become British Telecommunications) in Brighton in 1966. This spawned many copycat imitations across the world, most of which stuck with the colour, favoured because yellow distinguishes the trade annals from the white telephone directors and because research has shown that black on yellow is the most easily readable combination of colours. Hence France has the Pages Jaunes, Germany the Gelbe Seiten and Italy the Pagina Gialle.

Most Britons had to wait until 1973 to receive their copy of the Yellow Pages, by which time a business-to-business classified directory was also up and running. Other key dates include 1985, when the first Talking Pages was launched, and 1996, when the classified bible make its way onto the internet via yell.co.uk.

While last year's creation of Yell and subsequent sale to a consortium of venture capitalists severed the tie with BT, many European telecoms operators still jealously guard their link to their classified pages.

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