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.
Ancestry.com (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 Ancestry.com: In a browser type “ancestry.com 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.