What directories direct us to

If you get into genealogy, you soon find yourself looking into old city directories, and when you see old directories, what strikes you, as a resident of the early 21st century, is how much information they give away. They don’t just show names and addresses, but spouses, children, and — if the resident died or moved away since the last edition — they’re liable to tell you so, and where to find them next. This is a bizarre amount of public information to give to a random thumber-through, by our standards. We are much more comfortable giving this information to large, unaccountable corporations to look after.

I’ve recently found Clark’s Boston Blue Book: the Élite Private Address, Carriage and Club Directory, Ladies’ Visiting List and Shopping Guide. This directory, printed between the 1870s and the 1920s, gives away information just by its index. Those included were listed by street number — and by their club membership.

Clark’s, swank as it is, has some useful information as well. At the back of the 1879 edition is a listing of the street corners where you could find fire-alarm boxes for the city of Boston and environs. In a time before the widespread ownership of phones or centralization of emergency services, knowing how to get help was as important as knowing when to get it. Some of us today remember learning, as children, how important it was to have separate numbers for the police, fire and ambulance right next to the phone. Now we don’t have to remember any of that; three digits will do.

This is a fascinating source. I’ve seen several amazing topics and I’ll be back to it.