Have you ever heard a speech or lecture described as being, “So boring it was like listening to someone read a phone book”? While I agree that listening to someone read a modern phone directory (the few that remain, that is!) would be dull indeed, older directories are fascinating documents. Many people who come to do genealogical research at the Sutro Library turn to the library’s large collection of city directories to see if an ancestor is listed, to find mention of a grandparent or great-grandparent’s business in the advertising pages, or to discover in what cities people who share their names have settled. But even if you don’t have a specific name to look up, you can still sleuth among the pages of directories, reconstructing lives and imagining cities quite different from the ones we live in today.
Look, for example, at this page from a nineteenth-century Charlestown, Massachusetts directory.
Eleanor Dempster is listed as widow, living at the rear of 31 Pleasant Street. Also living at the rear of number 31 is George R. Dempster. Perhaps George is Eleanor’s grown son, and she is, in nineteenth-century parlance, keeping house for him. Or perhaps he is supporting her, financially or emotionally, after the death of her husband. At least six women on this one page are listed as widows. Unfortunately the directory isn’t dated, but perhaps it was published after the Civil War and Eleanor Dempster and the other widows lost their husbands in combat. I wonder if you, like me, find it surprising that a woman at that time, residing in a house without her husband, would advertise that fact in a directory, potentially making herself a target of criminals. But clearly it was commonly done. A number of the men listed here have addresses where they board, meaning they pay for a room and meals in a larger house. They were probably all unmarried, relying on a landlady to cook and clean for them. Many of the people listed here have jobs that don’t exist anymore or are known by different terminology: morocco dresser, omnibus driver, hosemaker, hostler, currier.
A glance at a few pages from the business section of the Charlestown directory conjures up images of a very different streetscape than the ones we’re used to. On the page below, we see a list of those boarding houses, many of them run by women – perhaps some of them are widows, too, taking in boarders to make ends meet. A number of those boarding houses are on Chelsea Street, which ran, I’m guessing, through a neighborhood that was nearer to town’s commercial activity. I’m very curious about the two building movers listed. It’s hard to imagine a house balanced on a cart, being pulled by a team of horses. How perfect that the proprietor of the bonnet and hat bleachery is called Homer Snow.
See what you can discover in the following pages. I, for one, wonder at the demand for Morocco dressers, and suspect that the lone midwife included is kept extremely busy.
No matter what specific detail catches our eyes as we study the pages, we get an overwhelming impression of streets full of horses pulling carts; icemen delivering dripping loads; everyone who passes us wearing stout boots, and a cap, hat, or bonnet. Those streets would be crowded with signs advertising the services of Morocco dressers (lots of Morocco dressers, especially if you are on Medford or Main), oyster restaurants, and milliners. Of course the horses need to be fed and shod, and the horse shoers will need nails, so we might see blacksmith shops and stables on our imagined street. Feeling unwell? Mrs. Dalton has leeches if your doctor suggests a bleeding. (Imagine what her shop window looked like.) Gloves soiled? Josiah Reed cleans kid gloves. Of course, as library lover I can’t help but notice the three circulating libraries operated by Misters Carlton, Hobbs, and Kellam.
Next time you visit the Sutro Library, I urge you to take a moment to flip through a city directory, and imagine the lives of the people listed and the look and feel of the city as it pulsed with life. You might even find someone who shares your name.
This post and all of the images are by Isabel Breskin, Sutro Volunteer.