Early U.S. Telephone Industry Data

The U.S. telephone industry developed through decentralized investment and the growth of many small businesses. This page provides data concerning the early development of the U.S. telephone industry. Contributions and corrections are welcomed. As always, verify and validate these resources as appropriate for your particular use.

A general source for early U.S. telephone industry data is U.S. Census Bureau, Bicentennial Edition: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (GPO, 1975), Part II, Chapter R, Series R 1 to R 45. For convenient reference, here's an annual series of telephones in service from 1876 to 1981, based on FCC publications, and annual data on the share of U.S. households with telephone service, 1920 to 2007 (Excel version).


1. Telephone company statistics in the general censuses of 1880 and 1890

The Census of 1880 reports individual returns from 148 telephone companies. The returns are published as two tables, one of financial statistics and one of operating statistics, in vol. 4 of the 1880 Census report, pp. 787-96. A machine-readable dataset of selected statistics from these tables (plus state population figures) are available as the tab-delimited text file, telcos-1880.txt The first line of the dataset provides field names. The definitional relation between "number of subscriber stations" and "number of receiving telephones in use" isn't clear. The "adj. telephones" field has been created from the latter field, augmented with three values from the former field to replace missing values. Here's some analysis of the expenses per telephone.

The Census of 1890 collected a wider range of telephone statistics, but the published report provides only summary statistics. The published statistics are in Census Bulletin No. 196, Statistics of Manufactures: 1890; Operating Telephone Companies (June 25, 1892).


2. Telephone Censuses: 1902 to 1937

Every five years from 1902 to 1937, the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, carried out a Census of Electrical Industries. That census included a census of telephone and telegraph companies in the continental U.S. The report on the census of telephone companies does not include any company specific reports other than a separate statistical category for Bell System operating companies. Many telephone statistics are reported on a state-by-state basis.

Links to pdf-versions of the census of telephone reports are available from the Census website: 1902, 1907, 1912, 1917 (alt. 1917 on Google), 1922, 1927, 1932, 1937.

Posts on purplemotes include links to machine-readable compilations of some of these data. Here are links to some of the compilations:


3. AT&T Annual Reports

AT&T Annual Reports include operating and financial statistics going back to 1891. Early operating statistics include miles of wire (of various categories), number of exchanges and telephones, number of telephone conversations, and number of employees. Financial statistics are in balance sheet and income statements. Categories in these reports varies over time.

AT&T Annual Reports are available on microfiche in the Business Reference Room at the Library of Congress. The reports are also available through ProQuest Historical Annual Reports electronic database.

Some data from AT&T annual reports, for the years 1891 to 1937, are available online (Excel version).

4. ICC telephone company data

The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) defined reporting requirement for telephone companies starting in 1913. The ICC defined Class A, Class B, and Class C telephone companies based on operating revenue thresholds. In addition, the ICC defined a Uniform System of Accounts (USOA) to standardize telephone company accounting.

class of telephone operating company
annual operating revneue threshold
USOA effective data
Class A
over $250,000
Jan. 1, 1913
Class B
over $50,000, not over $250,000
Jan. 1, 1913
Class C
over $10,00, not over $50,000
Jan. 1, 1915

On August 20, 1918, the ICC published a compilation of annual reports of telephone and telegraph companies for calendar year 1916. The motivation for this publication may have been the U.S. government take-over of all telephone and telegraph companies, effective Aug. 1, 1918. The compilation, published as a Memorandum, noted:

This memorandum was compiled from returns as made in the annual reports of telephone companies without any extensive investigation by the Commission as to their correctness. There were many obvious errors in the returns, especially of the smaller companies, and it has not been possible for the Bureau to correct all errors and inconsistencies discovered in the reports. The tabulation as a whole, however, will reflect the condition of the telephone business in the United States for the year ended December 31, 1916.
Image files for all the pages in the Memorandum are available in a source archive. The source includes data for 824 telephone companies. The U.S. telephone industry has also included many small telephone companies. Those companies are not included in this compilation.

Some of the telephone company data are available as a tab-delimited text file with field names on the first line. See dataset of U.S. telephone companies in 1916. Verify and validate these data as appropriate for your particular use.

In 1916, the ICC began requiring monthly reports from Class A carriers. Telephone counts from these reports were published in the Second FCC Report to Congress (1936), Table XV. These data are available in the worksheet, monthly telephones, 1915-1943.

In the National Archives, ICC telephone data is located with FCC records, Common Carrier Bureau (173.9).

Analysis and related data:

Sources relevant to ICC telephone returns:

United States. Interstate commerce commission. Memorandum Concerning Telephone Companies and Telegraph Companies Reporting to the Interstate Commerce Commission for the Calendar Year 1916. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1918.

United States. Interstate commerce commission. Uniform system of accounts for telephone companies [Class A and Class B]; effective on January 1, 1913. Washington, Government printing office, 1915. 79p.

United States. Interstate commerce commission. Uniform system of accounts for telephone companies, class C; effective on July 1, 1915. Washington, Government print- ing office, 1914. 44p.


5. Early FCC telephone company data

Since it was established by the Communications Act of 1934, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has published annually data on the communications industry. The FCC's First Annual Report to Congress (1935) included an appendix providing telephone company data for calendar year 1934. Subsequent annual reports covered the years 1935 to 1938. These reports do not include individual telephone operating company data. Early reports are available online: 1935, 1936 (plus inserts), 1937 (plus fold-out), 1938, 1939, and reports 1940-1965 (named year.pdf in same directory).

Telephone company data for 1939 was moved from the FCC's Annual Report to a new FCC publication entitled Statistics of the Communications Industry in the United States. The publication was renamed in 1957 as Statistics of Communications Common Carriers (SCCC or SOCC). It has continued annually to the present.

Statistics of the Communications Industry for 1939 (SCI, 1939) includes in Table 18 company-specific financial and operating statistics. The table includes Class A and Class B telephone operating companies subject to the FCC's annual reporting requirements. The FCC's definitions of Class A and Class B companies differs from the earlier ICC definitions. Under FCC definitions, Class A companies are companies with average annual operating revenues exceeding $100,000. Class B companies are companies with average annual operating revenues exceeding $50,000, but not more than $100,000. Under Section 2(b)(2) of the Communications Act of 1934, the FCC's annual reporting requirements did not apply to the following carriers:

any carrier engaged in interstate or foreign communication solely through physical connection with the facilities of another carrier not directly or indirectly controlling or controlled by, or under direct or indirect common control with such carrier
These carriers are subject only to Sections 201 to 205 of Title II of the Communications Act.

Some carriers were also required to file monthly reports of telephones, revenues, and expenses. These monthly reports followed similar monthly reports that the ICC had required. Compilations of these monthly reports apparently were a valued industry resources. Under FCC rules, companies with annual operating revenues exceeding $250,000 and not excluded under Section 2(b)(2) of the Communications Act were required to file monthly reports. Some companies voluntarily filed monthly reports to be included in the FCC statistical compilations. SCI, 1939, observes (p. 3):

carriers filing annually and monthly are not altogether the same carriers, and for that reason the totals of certain items for the year do not agree. The totals for the carriers filing monthly are slightly greater because many large carriers subject only to sections 201-5 of the act file monthly but not annually.
Evidently carriers voluntarily filing monthly reports outweighed carriers with annual operating revenues exceeding $50,000, but not more than $250,000. The later carriers were required under FCC rules to file annual reports, but not monthly reports.

Operating and financial statistics for telephone companies reporting to the FCC for calendar year 1939 are available online both as images of the source document and as machine-readable text compilation of selected data fields. The sources are Table 1 and Table 18 of SCI, 1939. Table 1 provides a list of the 132 telephone carriers reporting statistics to the FCC. It describes the telephone carrier's size class (Class A or Class B), reporting class (1=annual and monthly, 2=only monthly, 3=only annually), regulatory class (1=full Title II, 2=only Sections 201-205 of Title II), whether the operating company has more than 50% of voting capital stock owned by AT&T or its subsidiaries (Bell system: y=yes, n=no), a geographical category, and the states of operation. Table 18 provides provides a wide range of financial and operating data for the 91 Class A and Class B telephone companies subject to full Title II regulation (companies filing annually). The companies accounted for about 97% of gross operating revenues of all telephone systems and lines in the U.S. (SCI, 1939, p.3).

Tables 1 and Table 18 are available online as a zipped archive of jpg images. The file names indicate table and page in the source.

Some of the data in Table 1 and Table 18 are available as machine-readable text. The data file sci-1939.txt is a tab-delimited text file with data field names in the first data row. It includes company names and company classifications, as well as counts of central offices and telephones by technology types. The field names correspond to field names in the source tables, or are as described above.

Subsequent annual FCC Statistics of the Communications Industry / Statistics of Communications Common Carriers include similar tables of company-specific financial and operating data. They also included tables of telephone companies reporting to the FCC, as well as tables of inter-corporate relations. The largest number of telephone companies reporting to the FCC was in 1942. Here's a machine readable dataset of communications companies reporting to the FCC in 1942. It includes company classifications and descriptive fields, as well as operating revenue. Here's an archive of images of the 1942 source table pages.

Related data and analysis:


Return to Galbi Think! communications policy analysis main page