New York Public Library Digitizes 137 Years of New York City Directories
New York Public Library is digitizing its collection of New York City Directories, 1786 through 1922/3, serving them free through the NYPL Digital Collections portal. The first batch—1849/50 through 1923—have already been scanned, and the 1786–1848/9 directories are right now being scanned. The whole collection will be going online over the coming months. Staff at NYPL are currently teaching computers to read the wobbly typeset, to interpret the strange abbreviations, and the occasionally slightly less than geometric layout of the directories to make the old print text machine readable. The goal is to make the directories text searchable in powerful new ways, in order to build datasets that will inform research in New York City history, genealogy, and beyond. More technical posts on this work will follow.
Why are city directories interesting? I wrote a post about this in 2012, Direct Me NYC 1786: A History of City Directories in the United States and New York City, that described what city directories are and why they are useful research tools. In summary, city directories record historical information that describes New York City and its history: the names and addresses of its residents, the names and addresses of churches, businesses, schools, police stations, courts, and other government offices, as well as the names of individuals associated with those institutions, as far back as 1786. David Franks' 1786 directory, for instance, lists important historical figures. On page 63, under Lawyers, we find best friends Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804) and Aaron Burr (1756–1836), Brockholst Livingston (1757–1823), who served on the Supreme Court (1807–1823), and Richard Varick (1753–1831), Mayor of New York City (1788–1789).
City directories contain much more than lists of names and addresses. They record the price of travel and postage, the kinds of occupations undertaken in the city, the layout of streets, and at what time the sun was predicted to rise and set. Not for nothing were the early directories often referred to as almanacs.
In addition to textual information, city directories feature many images, including maps, illustrations of buildings, and advertisements, occasionally printed on colored or decorative paper. Directories record the city's built and commercial history.
Previously the directories for New York City (i.e. what we now might call Manhattan) were available only in the Library, either on microfilm, or via subscription databases, the original print directories now being too delicate to be regularly served to patrons. One or two could be found on the Internet, but coverage there was patchy. In many instances, the directories were reproduced from microfilm only. The Library has, where possible, scanned the directories, presenting them as hi-res, color surrogates of the original print copies. Now anyone and everyone will be able to access the directories free of charge, online.
Initially the city directories will be browseable, through NYPL Digital Collections, but the Library wants to make the directories work harder, to integrate them with other digital collections: maps, deeds, census records, family histories, prints, photographs, and so on. The directories will eventually be text searchable, enabling researchers to create new datasets. For instance, and I'm speaking theoretically here, researchers might be able to track addresses across directories. Where, for instance, were theaters on Broadway located overtime? Where did people live and work? Can we see in datasets derived from the information in the directories a history of commuting? Where were cemeteries located in New York? What types of business were most prevalent? What were the different types of family names listed in New York City? How many people were listed in the directories? Where did our ancestors live in the city during the years covered? The potential for new knowledge creation is limitless. Expect to hear more on these datasets, and their implications for the Library's NYC Space/Time Directory soon.
Accessing the directories
So what do we have now? Initially the city directories can be accessed and browsed through Digital Collections. Eventually around 175,000 pages of information, featuring the names of millions of New Yorkers, will be online.
Here are some viewing tips.
To browse the directory like a book, click the “View as Book” icon. Tip: it’s the icon to the left of the image that looks like an open book. Click each page to turn to the next, until you find the page you want. You can scoot ahead lots of pages by opening the drop down “Jump to” menu and clicking the page you want, or by dragging the pointer at the bottom of the page, from left to right.
Once you have found the page you want, I recommend clicking the individual page link at the top of the browser, above the corresponding page, to look at that page on its own. I recommend this because this option allows you to use the Scroll Wheel Zoom, to zoom right in on the text.
A closer look
Let’s look at a directory in detail. Doggett’s New York City Directory for 1850-51, cost $2 (a princely sum), and recorded the names and addresses of some 80, 290 New Yorkers living or doing business as far North as 42nd Street. New York City’s population in 1850 was around 696,000.
Next is the Index to the Appendix (the Appendix was later expanded and renamed the City Register, a classified listing made up of business card-style advertisements). This is a useful index for finding the names and addresses of asylums,banks, churches and burial grounds, courts, foreign consuls, hotels, newspapers, police stations, post offices, schools, and more besides. Want to know the price of a stamp? How many people lived in New York in 1840 and 1845? Who the various members of city government were? The names of the railroad companies? Packet steamer destinations? Where to catch a bus? It's all here.
Next is an Alphabetical List of Nurses (might one of these nurses have delivered your ancestor? Or be your ancestor?). Then an almanac, tables showing the times that the sun and moon set and rose (vital information in 1850), followed by Names Too Late For Insertion, Removal, & C, which is just that: genealogists might consult this page if you can’t find a name listed in the main city directory section.
Flipping past some interesting advertisements, we find the City Directory itself. Following a key to the abbreviations used in the directory (al. for alleyway, n.r. for North River, ct. for court, etc), we see listed the names, occupations, residential addresses, and business addresses of our New York ancestors. The first few entries offer further clues. Elias E. Aaron, at 214 Tenth, is late a commission merchant, i.e. he is retired: some life news right there. Clarissa Abbot, who lives at 47 Grand Street, is the widow of the late Abijah Abbot. Many women are not listed in the directories until they become widows, and often the name of their deceased husband is included. The 1855 New York State Census lists a Clarissa Abott, 29, widow, living in the First Ward of New York City, with her three children, Mary, 10, Kate, 8, and Frank, 6. Could this be the widow Clarissa listed in the 1850 directory? The dates work.
Business addresses are usually listed first. Some entries even describe how business was done, below, for Timothy Abbott, coal merchant.
Individuals are identified by professional calling (Rev., elsewhere Dr.), and all manner of occupations are represented, some common today, many forgotten: cooper, druggist, carman, tailor, drygoods, musician, inspector, saddler, milliner, carpenter, importer, steamboats, weaver, tinsmith, sugarmaker, and more besides.
Dipping into the directory, one finds all sorts of characters from mid-19th century New York City history. For instance...
James Harper (1795-1865), and his brothers Fletcher (1806-1877), John, and Joseph launched Harper’s, the second oldest monthly magazine printed in the U.S., in June 1850. They ran their publishing business, Harpers & Brothers, at 82 Cliff Street, and would go on to publish Harper’s Weekly in 1857, and Harper’s Bazar (later Harper’s Bazaar) in 1867.
154 Nassau Street is the business address of Horace Greeley (1811–1872), proprietor of the New York Daily Tribune, a newspaper he founded in 1841. The Tribune’s weekly edition, featuring Greeley’s editorials, was nationally popular. Greeley was a Whig, then a progressive Republican, and later a Liberal Republican. He campaigned against political corruption, and for the abolition of slavery. During his time with the Tribune, he included among a number of illustrious employees editor Whitelaw Reid (1837–1912), the newspaper’s owner after Greeley’s death, who went on to become U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom (1905-1912). He also employed two European correspondents, Messrs. Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). The Tribune Building was conveniently located on the same block as Tammany Hall, a source of much political news.
Also on Nassau is the New York Evening Post: Bryant William C. & Co. publishers, 18 Nassau h. Roslyn, L.I. The New York Post is, of course, still with us, the oldest daily newspaper in the United States. On the same street, 108 is home to George Wilkes’s National Police Gazette. Don’t let the title fool you. This was a scandal rag, full of lurid stories about criminal careers, seduction, murder, and rape, replete with graphic (by 19th c. standards) illustrations. It sold 40,000 copies per issue.
Caleb Smith Woodhull (1792-1866) could likely be found at one of three addresses: 5 City Hall, in his capacity as 70th Mayor of New York City, from 1849 to 1851, at his law office, 59 Fulton Street, or at home, 24 Beekman Street.
Waiting in the political wings is one William M. Tweed, 26 years old and in the business of brush making, at 240 & 357 Pearl Street, home being 31 Rutgers. Tweed had the previous year helped found the Americus Fire Company No.6, known as ‘The Big Six,’ with himself as its head. Fire companies at this time were a way into politics, and Tweed came to the notice of the Democrats. In 1852 he was voted in as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for New York's 5th district.
Herman Melville (1819-1891) lived at 103 Av. 4 (Fourth Avenue), with his wife Elizabeth (Shaw), whom he had married in 1847. During his years in New York Melville wrote his first novels, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, Omoo (1847), Mardi, Redburn (both 1849), and White Jacket (1850). Melville’s U.S. publishers were the previously mentioned Harpers & Brothers.
Photographer Matthew Brady isn’t yet described as a photographer, but as a daguerreotypist, plying his business at 205 Broadway, Brady’s National Gallery of Daguerreotypes. He lived at the American Hotel, 229 Broadway. Frenchman Louis Daguerre developed his photographic process in 1839, and Brady came to hear of it from none other than Samuel F.B. Morse. Shortly after, the young photographer opened his first studio, in 1844.
The aforementioned Samuel F.B. Morse was a 19th century Renaissance man. A talented painter he produced portraits of John Adams and James Monroe, among many others. He was also an inventor, contributing to the development of telegraph, and was a co-inventor of Morse Code. He also ran for Mayor of New York City, but was unsuccessful. In 1850 he lived at 142 Nassau, with his second wife, Sarah Elizabeth Griswold.
In 1838 two steamships, the Sirius and the Great Western steamed into New York harbor, the first such vessels to cross the Atlantic, from Europe to the U.S. In the next few decades English and German steamship companies, often with the assistance of government money back home, came to dominate Trans-Atlantic steamship travel. With the exception of companies like Edward Knight Collins’ United States Mail Steamship Company (1848-1854), located at 74 South Street, U.S. shipping companies during the middle of the century focused on overseas trade and serving markets at home. The 1848 California Goldrush was good for New York, and men like Vanderbilt, August Belmont (1813-1890), Prosper M. Whitmore (1798-1876), Royal Phelps (1809-1884), and John A. Dix (1798-1879) made fortunes opening up trade routes to California, via the treacherous Cape of Good Hope, or across Panama and Nicaragua. Between 1851 and 1854 $175 million in gold from California wound up in New York City.
The next section, the Street Directory, describes the streets and cross streets of New York City. This information is useful to anyone researching real estate and house histories, and, from 1870 on, searching the U.S. Federal Census for Manhattan by address. The Street Directory helps researchers locate historical buildings, and addresses. Street names and numbers have a habit of changing over time. If you find a record that says your ancestor lived at 35 East 14th Street in 1850, it does not necessarily go that they lived at the site of the current 35 East 14th Street. Historical street directories help us pinpoint a place in time, especially useful when there is no property map to go by.
The 1850-1851 directory finishes with pages of advertisements for, among other things, Webster’s Dictionary, “Reduced to $6” (a hefty $188 today), and Barnum’s American Museum, on Broadway, opposite The Astor House. Phineas Taylor "P. T." Barnum’s American Museum was open from 1841 to 1865, when it burned down. Prior to that the building had been home to Scudder’s Museum, which occupied the lot, from 1830. Burrows and Wallace, writing in Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, describe Barnum’s American Musuem…
Barnum stocked his American Museum [...] with jugglers and ventriloquists, curiosities and freaks, automata and living statuary, gypsies and giants, dwarfs and dioramas, Punch and Judy shows, models of Niagara Falls, and real live American Indians.[...] And, of course, [Barnum] featured blackface dancers, Ethiopian melodists, and the new minstrel show. (p.644)
Other features included were the 2’1" Charles Stratton, better known as Major Tom Thumb, and the Fejee Mermaid, an object purporting to be a mermaid, but actually a hideous model combined of the skeletons of a monkey and a fish. No-one said the past was pretty.
So there you have it. An exciting new collection, and a free digital gateway into researching New York City history, and genealogy. I hope that this post has described to you why this digitization project is great news, and how the directories connect to a wealth of other materials in the Library's collections: maps, photographs, newspapers, books, microfilm, and more besides. As we move forward, as the directories are turned into datasets, researchers will be able to build new tools with the (free) data that the Library makies available.
Libraries and researchers working together to create new knowledge.