Thursday, September 8, 2016

City Directories - Troves of Neat Stuff

Let’s say you’re writing a historical novel about the Great Diamond Hoax of 1872. One of your protagonists is a mining engineer called Philip Arnold. A Kentuckian by birth and death, Mr. Arnold spend most of the intervening years prospecting for gold and silver in the Far West. His discovery of diamonds in Wyoming caused a worldwide sensation, and made him a rich man—after selling his stake in his diamond mine to some of the nation’s savviest investors. Alas for them, it was all a ruse. Mr. Arnold, and his cousin, John Slack, had salted a remote plateau with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds they had purchased in London. When the hoax was unmasked, the pair hightailed it out of the city. It’s quite an amazing tale.

You’re a stickler for detail, so when you write about Arnold’s life in 1870s San Francisco it would be great, really great, if you knew where he lived. Specifically, the house in which he lived. You’d think the chances of finding his address after 147 years would be slim to nada. Well, would it surprise you that it’s actually quite simple?
I can tell you for a fact that in 1869 Philip Arnold dwelled in a house at 733 Folsom Street—an upscale neighborhood then. Within two years he had moved to 431 Turk Street—altogether more modest digs. And in 1872 he resided at 224 O’Farrell Street, near Union Square. By the next year he had disappeared back to Kentucky, never to return to California. 

How do I know this? By reviewing the relevant volumes of Langley’s San Francisco City Directory.
City Directories are a rich source of details about life and lives in municipalities across the United States. The earliest edition published in San Francisco was in 1850. But in New York there were at least three separate city directories published in the year 1786.

What is a City Directory?

In its most basic form, it is an alphabetical listing of a city’s residents’ names, with addresses and occupations. Before telephones (and telephone books), these thick volumes served as a way to find people. The directories were really designed for use by commercial enterprises—more so than by the citizenry—and were especially suited for compiling mailing lists.

Over the years more data were added. Some directories began to show the names of wives and children. One popular feature became Reverse Lookup—a block-by-block listing of streets and street numbers, with residents’ names attached. That let you look up an address to get the name of the resident. Or if you knew the name and address you could identify someone’s next-door neighbors. You never know when that might come in handy.

The 1982 Polk's City Directory shows that 733 Folsom is now the Moscone Center

Later, there was a another kind of reverse lookup, using phone numbers. These were listed sequentially by prefix.
Even the earliest directories had advertising sections. The 1850 San Francisco Directory has an ad for “Dr May’s Dysentery and Diarrhea Syrup.” Yum. And “P. Naylor” offered “Sheet iron, tin plate, copper tinman’s tools, &c. &c.” In the 20th century the directory publishers sold space on virtually every page in their books. It was not unusual for two or three ads to appear on a single residential listing page, or for the covers and spines to be festooned with a dozen ads, almost covering the title.

There were also Classified Advertising sections that listed—for a fee—companies by specialty.

Most of the City Directories were recompiled every year. Teams of enumerators would fan out across the towns, going door-to-door canvassing residents—much like census-takers. There were a number of companies that published directories. The first one in San Francisco was put out by Charles P. Kimball, in 1850. In 1858 the book became Langley’s City Directory, and the Langley name stayed in the title until 1951, when it was changed to Polk’s. By that time R.L. Polk & Co. was publishing nearly 1000 different directories. They also published Social Registers and Society Bluebooks for the larger cities. In 1921 the company branched out into providing information for the automotive industry, and in 1999 bought CARFAX, which supplies vehicle history reports. Today Polk is a part of IHS, a British-based information services company. Polk has been out of the city directory business now for a couple of decades.

It’s not too difficult to find digitized City Directories on the internet. There are scads of them (yes, “scads” is a technical term) on the Internet Archive (free). But boy are they hard to find since the non-profit digital library revamped their user interface a couple of years ago. Type “san francisco city directory” into the search box and click Enter, and up comes a page full of listings by year. But there’s a better way to find books for this city. In your browser type the same search. Up comes a page of stuff. But at the top is a listing for the San Francisco Public Library’s City Directories Collection. This opens a page of all the books in the SFPL, listed by year, with annotations of missing volumes. It’s a clean, easy way to see what’s what. Click on a year and— guess what?— the relevant page from the Internet Archive opens. Yea!

If you have the time and patience, the Internet Archive is probably the best source for U.S. city directories.
There are other paths to these really useful resources. Google digitized a lot of them, and you can go to the Online HistoricalDirectories Website  (free) to find a bunch of them, listed by state, then county or municipality. (paid) also has a bunch of directories, but I’ve found it really difficult to access the images of the original pages, rather than a database. Here is one way to navigate city directories in  In a browser type “ city directories” and click enter. The first hit that comes up should be “U.S. City Directories, 1922-1995.” Click on that. On the right side of the next page is a “Browse this collection” box. Type in the state, city or county, and year. Then hit enter. This should bring up the book you’re looking for—if they have it.

Hathi Trust  has a few. Many local and state historical societies have digitized directories. The Library of Congress probably has the best collection in the country. That’s the good news. The bad news is that few are online and the rest are microfilms that do not circulate through Interlibrary Loan. You have to go to D.C. to view them. 

Well, so much for City Directories. I gotta get back to finding out more about my friend Philip Arnold. See ya next time.

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog.
Disclaimer: The descriptions of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The New Yorker Archive Stinks

That's a bold statement. "The New Yorker Archive Stinks." Sadly, to this researcher, it's true. For ninety years The New Yorker has brought us some of America's best magazine writing, from folks like: Roald Dahl, Roger Angell, James Thurber, Ken Auletta, Rachel Caron, E.B. White, A.J. Liebling, Pauline Kael, J.D. Salinger, Calvin Trillin, and a string of illustrious "Johns" (Updike, Cheever, Hersey, Lahr, McPhee, O'Hara).

So why am I saying the archive stinks? Because its search function is a rudimentary folly of little use to serious researchers. To wit: you can enter only a single search line, like a single name. You cannot use dates. You cannot use additional terms on that line. I'll show you what I mean.

Let's do a search for one of my favorite authors, Roger Angell, whose take on the machinations of baseball are legendary. My mission: to find the first story he ever published in the magazine.

So I type his name into the search bar. The function defaults to This Issue, and you can see that Angell had no pieces in the December 28, 1963 edition.

I have to now click the red Complete Archive box to see all entries for Mr. Angell.

Ah! Even though Results show 0 of 0, if you look in the red Complete Archive box you'll see that there are actually 828 hits. That's a lot. What next? I'll click the red box again and see what happens.

 Yikers! Eighty-three pages of hits. Hi-Yikers. Are they listed by date published? No such luck. Sorted by "Relevance", whatever that is supposed to mean.

Let's try narrowing the search. I enter "Roger Angell, baseball." Not a single hit. "Roger Angell, Yankees." Still nothing. That stinks.

So if I really want to read Roger's first piece I'm going to have to start ploughing through those 69 dozen listings until I reach it. Not fun. All right, here goes.

Gee, on page 9 there is a 1961 article. But I know he started writing in the Forties, so on I plough. Ah. One from 1949 on page 11. Ooh. Page 12, 1946. Ha! On web page 71 there is one from October 1944. Eureka? I'd better keep going, just in case. All done. Scanned all 83 pages of Roger Angell hits and it appears that October 7, 1944 is the winner - the first piece of his published in The New Yorker. This effort took over 20 minutes. And, alas, it turns out to be wrong.

A quick check on Wikipedia tells me that his first New Yorker story actually appeared in March 1944. Huh? It's true. I checked March 1944 in the archive. There, on page 53 of the March 18, 1944 issue is a story called "Three Ladies in the Morning," by Cpl. Roger Angell.

 Once upon a time, before The New Yorker "improved" its Archive a couple of years ago, a researcher could search by title, author, and within a date range. That's the kind of digital archive that we most often encounter. For reasons known but to Harold Ross, the new iteration of access to the past is clunky to the point of being nearly useless (unless you're willing to devote gobs of precious time to conduct searches of The New Yorker).

So what do we want from The New Yorker Archive? Mainly an Advanced Search function that includes title, author, subject, and date range. It cannot be done now, but the ability to search the cartoons (by artist, date, and subject) for which the magazine is famous would be a nice bonus feature.

I've complained to the magazine about the current iteration of search several times. Last week I sent an email to their customer service folks (turns out they're based in Australia) and all they basically did was thank me for contacting them. Maybe if enough people write in asking The New Yorker to rejig its search function to make Finding Stuff a whole lot more useful, they'll actually do it. Give it a shot. Try going here to lodge your appeal:

 Wish us luck.

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog.
Disclaimer: The description of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

On The Road To Persia

Curiosity is a curious thing. When I write historical articles I like have a really good sense of the place where the action happens. Thank goodness there are numerous tools to help me satisfy this curiosity. One of the best is good 'ol Google Earth.

While working on a piece about U.S. efforts to supply Russia with arms and materiel during World War II, through the so-called "Persian Corridor"  I came across a photograph of Army convoys traversing a switchback in the Zagros Mountains on the way from ports on the Persian Gulf to Tehran, Iran's capital.


My curiosity piqued, I wondered where this place is - or was. The caption says the switchback was twenty-five miles north of Andimeshk, an army division point for both the road and rail routes.

Opening Google Earth, I flew off to Iran to look for the town in question. It turns out to be nearly due north of the Persian Gulf ports, about a third of the way to Tehran. Using the Path Tool, I followed the highway for 25 miles.

If the caption was right, the switchback should be somewhere near the end of the red line. Time to zoom in and follow the road with the cursor.

I drove and drove and drove, kilometer after kilometer. And found nothing. So I started further south, about 15 miles from town. Realizing that 70 years have passed since the switchback was used, and that the road's right-of-way could have changed dramatically, I slowed down to about an inch a minute.

Hold on. What's that? But it's only 20 miles from Andimeshk. Still, could this be my quarry?

It's a little hard to see, but at the Highway 37 marker a road diverges to the left, goes a couple hundred meters, makes a sharp turn to the right, goes several hundred meters more, makes another sharp turn to the left . . . and so on until it reaches the top. I compared the Google Earth image to the photo of the switchback, and everything lined up. Hooray!

As you can see, the new highway just makes a beeline over the same topography. As you can also see, this place was where the U.S. Army drove its heavily laden trucks back and forth across that same hill to get to their destination.

Happy Trails!

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog. 

Disclaimer: The description of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Word Frequency In The New York Times

The New York Times has introduced a new feature that lets you check how many times a specific word or phrase has been used in the paper since a way back in 1851. Go here to check it out:

It brings up a graph showing the frequency of your query. I was curious about The Times's use of the word "fraught", which seemed to be in a great many articles of late. So I typed "fraught" into the search and the output looked thus:

The results surprised me a bit. The year 2011 has the most uses by far, and will likely continue to outpace 2014.

Now, if I wanted to know which articles "fraught" appeared in I can click on the red dot there on the upper right. That brings up a list (with links) of 609 stories in which the word was used.

Useful and fun. Try it yourself. 'Til next time . . .

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog. 

Disclaimer: The description of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Naval Academy Yearbooks

What did Samuel David Dealey do when he was a student at the U.S. Naval Academy in the late 1920's? Not much, it turns out. I know this because there is a digital collection of Annapolis yearbooks available online. Here is the link to the Nimitz Library Digital Collection. The actual yearbooks are hosted over on the Internet Archive.

The best way to access the yearbooks is through the Nimitz link. All issues from the first one, in 1894, through 1970 are available.

So what about our fellow, Sam Dealey? I wanted to find out more about this guy for an article I was writing for a military history magazine. Sam went on to be one of the ace submariner skippers of World War II, and one of the most decorated serviceman in American history. What was he like at Annapolis?

He graduated in 1930, and each graduate was given a write-up by his friends that sort of encapsulated how they viewed him and his personality.

Go the the landing page (link above) and then look for Browse All in the upper left. A list with all the yearbooks loads. Scroll down to 1930 and click on that. When the 1930 page opens click on the link next to the cover photo. This opens the book in the Internet Archive. Type Samuel Dealey (or whoever or whatever) into the search box and click Go and wait. In Sam's case, six bookmarks popup - only one of which is relevant to our project, his class listing on page 198.

Over there on the left is our guy. The listing includes his nicknames (only "Sam" stuck) and the activities he was involved in during his four years at the Academy. This information helped give me a broader picture of who Sam Dealey was. It was worth the effort.

The Nimitz Library has a wide range of archival collections available to researchers, and more and more are being digitized. I'd like to thank Dr. Jennifer Bryan, Head of Special Collections for helping me find this stuff.

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog. 

Disclaimer: The description of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Using Photoshop to Improve PDF Image Files

Ever had a scan of a document that you can’t read because it’s either too light or too dark? I get that all the time in my research of military sources. It’s a real pain.

But wait! There may be a solution (or semi-solution, anyway). Photoshop to the rescue!

For a long time I’d wondered if a PDF can be opened in Photoshop with an eye on improving the image quality. Recently I had the opportunity to try it on some files of WWII submarine war patrol reports, and it worked pretty well.

Little background: When a U.S. submarine went out on a combat patrol in WWII the captain was responsible for turning in a detailed, day-by-day account of the voyage (which was often 6-8 weeks long). If he attacked an enemy ship he had to note all sorts of details, including the serial numbers of the torpedoes and how good the food was. A typical patrol report ran 40-60 pages. By the end of the war there were nearly 1600 of these on file. In the 1970’s the Navy began to microfilm this pile of paper, and they didn’t always do a very good job, resulting in page images that were dark or light and hence, sometimes nearly unreadable. Now all the microfilmed reports are available on line at:
The PDF file I was working with, the five patrols made by USS Harder (SS257), was 325 pages long. That’s a big file, in terms of page quantity. And I only needed to improve four or five of those pages.

Here’s the technique:

Open the PDF in Photoshop. Up comes a window showing a thumbnail image of each page, with page numbers below the image.

Choose the pages you want to fix by clicking on the thumbnail. You can open as many as you want; just hold down the shift key and click. Click OK and the pages will load. The file bar will string each of the image names in descending order.

Click on the page you want to fix and it will open in the Photoshop window.
The screen shot shows a page that is almost too light to read legibly

How to fix (or at least improve - the easiest way is to go to IMAGE>ADJUSTMENTS>LEVELS. 

A window with three sliders will open. Black level is on the left, White on the right, Gray in the center. Make sure the “Preview” box is checked. Now, slide the sliders around and watch the changes to the document. Fiddle until you can’t get a better result. Click OK.
Image too dark? Same technique.

Caveat: you can almost always improve a page image, but it’s rare that you’ll be able make it look like it just came off the typewriter.

You can now crop the image, if you need to.

Then save the file under a different name (you can’t save a manipulated page back into your original PDF).

Here is the improved version:

Typically, I print these guys out because I like having hardcopy to read from when I’m writing my article (in this case for World War II magazine). But you can just as well read them off the screen.

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog. 
Disclaimer: The descriptions of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Finding The Value Of The 1872 Dollar Today

At some point in your research/writing activities it’s quite likely you found yourself needing to know how money has appreciated over the past century or more. Here’s one example I was tangling with recently:

Away back in 1872 a pair of Kentucky cousins managed to swindle $600,000 from some of the smartest, wiliest financial men of New York and San Francisco. The pair got off scot-free. And  virtually none of the loot was ever recovered.

So how much is $600,000 worth today?

To find out all I have to do is go to a really useful website called MeasuringWorth. It was founded by a pair of professors back in 2006 with the mission of making reliable data available to the public about value comparison over time.

To try out one of their calculators, from the home page click Relative Values– US $ from the left-hand column.

This brings up a page that will “Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount – 1774 to Present.”

In the window on the right all you have to do is fill in your parameters. In my case, the Initial Year is 1872 and the Initial Amount is $600,000. Because of the way the calculator is set up, set the Desired Year for last year or the year before.

Now click CALCULATE.  

The answer is not exactly simple or clear cut. MeasuringWorth gives you nine different values.

At the top of the page it says “In 2012 the relative value of $600,000 from 1872 ranges from $10,400,000 to $1,170,000,000.” That’s quite a range!

Below that is a box that says “A simple Purchasing Power Calculator would say the relative value is $11.6 million.”

What’s the best number to choose?

Reading through the definitions of the various value categories is helpful. But for folks like me, who are not well grounded in economics, it’s seriously confusing.

It’s easy enough to pick the $1.17 billion number—a sensational eye-opener worthy of Bernie Madoff. But I think a conservative value is more realistic and better serves my purpose. So for my book about the Kentucky cousins’ $600,000 swindle I chose $11.6 million, because it relates most closely to the “real price” and the “historic standard of living value.” And by anybody’s standard (except maybe the “Top 1%’s”) eleven million dollars is a lot of money. also calculates other currencies, including the British pound sterling, the Australian pound and dollar, and China and Japan.

There is also a conversion calculator from dollars to pounds. How much was one British pound worth in dollars in 1890? Answer: $4.86. 

The Internet is full of sites offering these sorts of data conversions and analysis. And that’s what Finding Stuff is all about.

Happy New Year!

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog. 

Disclaimer: The description of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.