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Digitized City Directories

Apr 10, 2012 3:15 PM | 2 comments

I'm writing today to introduce you to one of the underappreciated workhorses in our collection -- the city directories.  These are the ancestors of the big, cumbersome yellow page directories that land on your doorstep and often linger there, unused, until you finally carry them to the trash bin.  These days the print directory may seem an outdated relic of the past, what with geolocating, dynamic, user-specific directory services like Yelp and GoogleMaps just a few clicks or finger flicks away.  And who lists their telephone number in the white pages anymore?  Who even has a landline telephone anymore?  Although it may seem that the white- and yellow-pages are only useful for demonstrating our strength in feats of paper-ripping, a trip through the pages of our newly digitized city directories from the 19th and early 20th centuries shows the wealth of knowledge that can be found in pages upon pages (upon pages) of lists.

My fellow Brooklynologist, June, already demonstrated the narrative power of directory listings in her fascinating series of blog posts and accompanying interactive map that traced Brooklyn's Black community through information listed in the 1863 Brooklyn directory.  But that isn't the only story contained in the pages of these tomes.  The size alone of the directories tells a very compelling story of explosive growth in Brooklyn through the 19th century.  In 1858 the listing of Brooklyn residents ran some 425 pages, from Abadie to Zwick.  By 1877, just 19 years later, the residential directory listings ballooned to a heaving 1042 pages. 

The directory publisher, Lain & Company, highlights this very correlation between population growth and directory size in the preface to its 1889 directory, remarking that "Nothing shows the growth of a city better than its Directory, and reference to the number of names contained in each edition is a matter of general interest."  This chart followed:


In addition to charting Brooklyn's impressive growth rate, the directories also document the construction of the borough's street system through the Street and Avenue Directory that is found at the end of every year's listings.  The Municipal Register, which is in earlier volumes referred to as the Appendix, gives a listing of the borough's civil servants, its banks, its churches, its social clubs, its hospitals, its public schools, and all the rest of the infrastructure upon which the city hums along.  The Business Directory arrived in 1869 to neatly categorize and index the various button makers, distillers, gunsmiths, lace repairers, lard refiners, preservers of fruit, and dealers of guano who did business in the borough. 

And then there are the advertisements.


Printed on color-saturated yellow, pink, and blue paper the advertisement pages of the directories stand out for their plethora of fonts and illustrations. Above, a L.J. Hoyt, dentist at 395 Fulton Street (near the intersection of Adams Street and Fulton Mall, on our modern grid), declares his shop the "headquarters in this city for the painless extraction of Teeth with Laughing Gas."  After a visit with the dentist, it was just a short walk (or crawl) down the street to visit Drake's Patent Artificial Limbs at 326 Fulton (at the intersection of today's Cadman Plaza West and Pierrepont Street). 

One could round out a day of dental- and limb-work with a much-deserved rest at the (electric!) Turkish bathhouse at 81 Columbia Heights.

The directories are most obviously useful for people doing genealogical research.  We get several requests every week from people all over the world who are looking for some trace of an ancestor who passed through Brooklyn.  There is something marvelously concrete about seeing one's great-great-great-somebody listed in print and even the few details included in the directory listing -- typically name, occupation and home address -- give form and substance to an otherwise irretrievable past.  One can't help but wonder, how will our children's children's children make that same connection with our lived reality 150 years from now?  With print directories rendered obsolete, will we leave behind enough digital detritus to give our descendants a trail to follow? 

In the coming weeks we will be preparing and uploading more of our digitized city directories on the website, so check back often.  For those who like to let their fingers do the walking the old fashioned way, we also have beautiful new preservation copies of the directories in the Brooklyn Collection. 


4/19/2012 10:55:00 AM #

Thanks for putting these online.  Most helpful.
Btw, the link to the 1875 M - Z file takes us to the 1871 file.
Please do more of these!


4/20/2012 4:13:23 PM #

Thank you! This has now been fixed.