J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Bostonians from A to Z

The Boston Athenaeum has done a service to local historians by digitizing its collection of town directories, which includes publications from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.

John Norman published the first such directory in 1789 under the formal title of The Boston Directory. Containing, A List of the Merchants, Mechanics, Traders, and others of the Town of Boston; in Order to enable Strangers to find the Residence of any Person.

The booklet included a map of Boston and at the back listed the town’s public appointees, lawyers, doctors, and firefighters. The Massachusetts Bank was something new, founded in 1784, and the directory named its president and board. The directory did not have a list of selectmen or other elected officials, probably because their tenure was limited, nor of militia officers, though such lists had been a staple in pre-war almanacs.

Most of the small book was a listing of Boston inhabitants, starting with “ADAMS Samuel, Hon.”—i.e., the governor. Individuals and firms were listed almost alphabetically—i.e., all the people with surnames starting with A appeared in one section, but not in alphabetical order. The town hadn’t yet instituted street numbers as part of all addresses, so strangers looking for an individual usually still had to make their way to a particular street and ask around. Page 56, the last, is headed “OMISSIONS,” and includes people not sorted into the right sections such as “Gill Moses, Hon”—i.e., the lieutenant governor.

Though Norman proposed to publish a new edition annually, he doesn’t seem to have found enough demand since he never did another. John West issued one in 1796, choosing a biennial schedule. West’s directory was more comprehensive, or more businesspeople had come to town.

Both those early volumes were reprinted by the city of Boston as part of its turn-of-the-last-century publication of early town records, and those volumes have been on Google Books for a while. In addition, in the mid-1800s a genealogist named John Haven Dexter kept notes in a copy of the 1789 directory on what he’d learned about different individuals; the New England Historic Genealogical Society has transcribed and published that source. The Athenaeum’s choice to share page images of those and the many larger directories that followed provides a useful resource for historians and genealogists.

Among the folks I’ve looked up in those early Boston directories:


Charles Bahne said...

This is a tremendous research opportunity for all historians, and I thank the Athenaeum and its benefactor, Scott Guthery, for putting these resources online.

From what I can tell, the Athenaeum is digitizing the directories in chronological order, and so far it has completed the process up to 1864. Their online catalogue says that an 1805 edition was published, but I can't find that one online.

It appears there is no digitized text yet available; and to prepare one would be a lengthy process requiring lots of manual corrections to OCR-generated data.

For whatever reason I am unable to get the Athenaeum's online page viewer to work -- all I get is a gray area on my screen -- but I can download PDF copies of the directories to my own hard drive, and I can open and read them just like any PDF. The page images are much clearer and sharper than the ones on Google Books.

The sample that I downloaded was for 1848, and I note that "people of color" are listed separately in the back of the book.

Speaking of Google Books, I believe that some of the later editions of the Boston Directory are available through them. Also, a few years ago I purchased a modern facsimile of the 1789 Directory for just a few dollars in one of the local stores.

J. L. Bell said...

I also ended up downloading a P.D.F. file (with searchable transcription) after wrestling with the online interface. So many platforms in use these days, and programmers like to try out the latest bells and whistles.

J. L. Bell said...

The Boston Public Library’s copy of the 1789 directory is also digitized. That copy includes an additional page of “Omissions and Errors” starting with musician William Billings.