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What's in a name?

Dec 30, 2008 4:11 PM | 2 comments

Ever since one of my graduate art professors instructed her students to physically or conceptually transform the telephone book, I’ve been fascinated by city directories.  These lists of people--most of whom don’t know each other--are linked together by the simple fact that in one particular year, they all lived in the same village, city, or town. It is an archeological document of people, forever frozen in time.


Our city directories run from 1796 to 1934, and you can consult them on microfilm in the Popular Library. What makes them a lot more interesting than modern phone books, is that in addition to listing the name and address of each head of household, they also include the person’s occupation.  So, if your friend John Smith the mason asked you to call on him at home, you would have no trouble finding him at 55 Elliot Place, and would not make the mistake of bothering John Smith the sailmaker at 10 Clermont Ave, or John Smith, the shipfastener at 91 ½ N.3rd.  Also, because the directory publishers chose to list occupations, it’s easy to find out which jobs were prevalent at a particular time. You see the emergence of some occupations--

Atkins Joseph, photographer, h.357 Pacific;

the endurance of others –-

Sinnimon Mary, teacher, h. Lafayette near Navy;

 and the decline of others--

Seery Peter, marblepolisher, h. 379 Dean.

These examples are all taken from the 1863 directory.


Who you callin’ a ***?

In addition to the listing of occupations, African-Americans living in Brooklyn were further distinguished by a variety of terms, abbreviations, symbols, etc. from 1822 to 1870.  In the initial year of 1822 the directories  used the term “black” directly after a name  – no beating around the bush here. At first I wondered if they were referring to the occupation of blacksmith. But there were too many of them, and after cross-referencing the names of officers of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, I found that all of those names had “black” after them. 

What was also interesting is that in the 1820's, in most cases no occupation was listed after these names. Was it such hard work being black that they had time for nothing else? How did they end up in the city directory? Were slaves allowed in the directory? Only a few lucky inhabitants warranted the listing of an occupation, like Gilbert Gilberts for example: 

During the 1855's an * was used -- a bit more discreet.  During the 1860's, the abbreviation "col" was used, and by 1870 it was replaced by col'd.

What was the reasoning?  We may never know for sure, but whatever the reason it has opened up a way to do further research.  Where did these early African-American Brooklynites live?  What type of work were they able to find?  I've been combing the pages of the 1863 city directory and compiling a list of names of everyone with "col" after them.  I guess I'm making my own directory.  What I find out will be in my next post.    



12/31/2008 12:09:46 PM #

I can't wait! Who knew a directory could be so interesting...


1/22/2009 3:45:15 PM #