Embracing community

Phone book cover2012-02-23 adj


The world is full of a number of things, and too many of them, I fear, have found their way into my possession. Some of them cause me to wonder “Why did I buy this?” and “Why am I keeping this?” but in this great world of things there are also a very few others that I wish I had picked up and didn’t. The item above is one of the latter.

I found it on a shelf of “miscellaneous stuff” in the Goodwill store in a small community in Southwest Virginia. At the time, I only knew it was quirky, and I didn’t have a use for it, so I took a picture and left it behind. To my surprise, this curious object kept visiting my mind, and in the years since I snapped that picture, I’ve pondered its significance and charm. Now I think I finally understand what it means.

The treasure I found that day is a handmade, plastic-canvas phone book cover. As I recall, plastic canvas needlepoint was particularly popular during the late 1970s and early ’80s, though it doesn’t appear to have ever really gone away. I can’t date this cover with great specificity, but the plastic canvas, the redesign of the Bell logo in 1969, and the breakup of the Bell System in 1984 suggest a time between the mid-’70s and mid ’80s.

What struck me first about this piece was the juxtaposition of symbols–Jesus and Ma Bell side by side–the sacred and the secular. That’s unusual of course, but as I thought about it more, I also realized how much time and love went into creating this cover. Who would take such care and why?

When this cover was first created, phone books mattered. Back in the day, phone books described and connected communities–particularly small communities. We all had each others’ numbers–it was rare that one should be unlisted. Our phones were attached to the wall, and a telephone directory was always near by. We used them daily–white pages and yellow pages, looking up names, addresses, and phone numbers–the cheap paper becoming dog-eared and torn with heavy use. A phone book might actually wear out! and so a cover like this would protect and personalize year after year, as each new book was slipped inside to replace the old.

But even if we can understand why someone would labor to make a telephone book cover, why would they put a cross on the back? What does Jesus have to do with telephones? What were they thinking?

It was the needlepoint that gave me a clue. Plastic canvas, often used for making tissue box and even iPod cozies, is surely a descendant of the punched paper mottos loved by the Victorians. You’ve probably seen examples of perforated card-board work made possible by new printing technologies. At the turn of the century, framed samplers proclaiming “God Bless This House” and “Give us this Day our Daily Bread” were displayed in many parlors. Perhaps the creator of the needlepoint cover had seen such samplers too, and so need and materials and tradition came together one person’s imagination and a plastic canvas phone book cover was created. A variation, perhaps, on the Bible cover. Probably unique.


Bless this house


I wish I had rescued that homemade cover from the Goodwill. It’s really rather extraordinary if you think about it. Someone once cared about their community, and the book that kept them connected. They wanted to protect the book and probably their neighbors. Someone wanted to make a statement, and they wanted to do it artfully. And this thing is evidence of that desire. I hate to see such things pass, though I know they often must.

Jesus and Ma Bell, wrapping their arms around this small community. Blessed be the ties.


  1. Steve says:

    I love reading about the connections you discover. It’s always a treat. Seriously.

  2. Ellen says:

    Operator, information, give me Jesus on the line
    Operator, information, I’d like to speak to a friend of mine
    Prayer is the number, faith is the exchange
    Heaven is the street and Jesus is the name
    Operator, information, give me Jesus on the line
    Operator, information, help me if you can
    Operator, information, connect me with the man
    Though I’m without the money, I’ll pay the charge
    Connect me with the man, I’ve called him to my heart
    Operator, information, give me Jesus on the line
    Operator, information, please tell me why
    Operator, information, I have to try
    My mother knew his number when I was very small
    Every time she dialled he answered the call
    Operator, information, give me Jesus on the line
    Repeat 1
    (as sung by De Dannan)

    • Awc says:

      This is a good one! I really enjoy all those metaphorical songs mixing faith and communication/transportation/technology: Gospel Train, Ship of Zion, Turn Your Radio On, Christian’s Automobile…

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