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  • Writer's pictureLand Insight

Historical Commercial, Trade & Business Directories

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

A Brief Review of History, Accuracy and Reliability

Obtaining information on historical site use from third parties is becoming commonplace in contaminated land assessments. However, there appears to be a lack of understanding surrounding the sources, accuracy and reliability of this data.

One of these sources is data derived from historic telephone directories, and an understanding of the options and limitations surrounding this type of data is crucial for appropriate due diligence.

Telephone directories have been useful in tracing the location and movements of people and businesses in the past. They have historically been used for tracing family history (Victorian History Library, 2017), to determine patterns in epidemiology research (Beard & Smitherman, 2011) and to uncover previous land use (NEPM, 1999; Keogh, R & Corbett J, 2012; Dept. of Human Services, State Government Victoria, 2006 and many others).

Until recently, commercial and trade directories were only available online from particular state libraries (i.e. State Library of SA and WA) and Councils (i.e. City of Sydney) and for particular publications only (Sands & McDougall SA 1864–1899; WA Post Office Directories 1893–1949 and Sands directory NSW 1858 to 1869; in respective order). Users could search a single address or name to identify records and as such, the practice was time consuming, particularly if surrounding land use research was also desired.

A Brief History

There are numerous different directories that have historically been published in Australia. Directories were available for many large towns from about the 1800s. Originally their market was aimed at commercial travellers so that they could find potential clients, and as such they are collectively known as ‘commercial’ directories (Gould, 2009). As the nineteenth century progressed directories became more and more comprehensive, and some then used the name almanac to indicate this greater range of material (Gould, 2009).

The introduction of postage stamps saw the introduction of post office directories and once the telephone service was introduced, so were telephone directories (Gould, 2009). A brief list of available historical directories (see SLQ, 2016; Ancestry Australia, 2016) includes the following:

· Sands Directories

· Wise’s and various State Post Office Directories

· Various Almanac’s

· Post Office Directories

· Telephone Directories (Telecom Directories; Telstra Pink and Yellow Pages)

· Other trade directories (Universal Business Directories (UBD); Insurance Directories, Medical Directories etc).

More comprehensive lists are available State by State and are easily accessible at State Library’s across the country.

Telephone directories were initially owned by the Commonwealth of Australia (Post Master General’s Department) (Estreich, B. 2013). In 1975 the telephone division of the Post Master General’s Department was split off into Telecom Australia, which was then rebranded Telstra in 1993 (Estreich, B. 2013).

During this time the telephone directories became so large, that the directories were split into a ‘white’ and ‘pink’ pages sections, where commercial and trade listings were separated. The ‘pink pages’ eventually became a volume issued separately and finally the ‘pink pages’ became the ‘yellow pages’ in 1975.

Directories were dominated by telephone companies, with some competition from independent publishers who had not achieved much success (Rysman, 2004). UBDs, discussed below, were more well known for their ‘street’ directories (the history of street directories has not been discussed here) (University of Melbourne, 2008) and also published a commercial directory separately from the 1950s up until the early 90s.

To find out more about our historical land use data, you can get in contact with us at Our team will be more than happy to speak with you!


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