Just What Is in a City Directory?

Recently, I spent a lot of time delving into the early history of the city of Passaic, New Jersey while gathering information for a future topic. I was born and raised in Passaic, living there until I was eleven, but my roots go back to my grandparents, whose immigrant parents settled there well before 1900.

If you haven’t ever really sat down and read a city directory for a place of interest, then as a family historian, you are passing up a monumental opportunity to get a snapshot stuck in time  which will give you a sense of what daily life was like at any given period in time.

Several subscription sites offered digital images of some city directories, but locating directories not already found on line can be time consuming. The Resource Toolbox on my home page has some links to free search engines that will help find repositories of U.S. city directories, so check it out. Just scroll down as the categories are in ABC order.

So exactly what is in a city directory aside from the obvious answer of names and addresses? Let’s take a look.

Passaic had already experience tremendous growth by 1910, from its 1880 population of 6,500 to almost 55,000 by the 1910 census, mostly due to huge numbers of immigrants arriving from Europe ready to take up jobs in the numerous mills and factories located in the city.

The cover already told me something about the fast-growing city – only three previous editions had been published, but the years are not given. My guess would be between 1900-1910.

1910 Cover, Passaic City Directory

I also learned that, unlike the later phone books, city directories were meant to be money makers. This book cost $5.00, which was out of the affordable range of my immigrant family. $5.00 was the equivalent of about 2 1/2 days’ pay. With mouths to feed, having to pay for creature comforts and already knowing how to find all of their friends (who, by the way, mostly lived in the same neighborhoods), my great grandparents had no spare change for such frivolous purchase.

Inside the front cover is an index to the advertisements. My grandparents owned and operated a butcher shop in the 1930’s. If I find a later edition of the directory, it would be worth a look to see if they placed an ad.

Next comes the Table of Contents:

1910 Table of Contents

There are several interesting categories in the Contents: separate listings for Passaic and some parts of Garfield and Clifton, where friends and relatives live, information on churches and SECRET Societies. Information is also provided on the Fire Department and Hospitals, Labor Organizations (labor unions were coming into their own), Public Schools and the Shade Tree Commission!

The next page contains population statistics from the 1905 state census of New Jersey. I already knew that NJ took several state censuses, but if I hadn’t been aware of that, I would now have a new census to hunt down.

1905 State Census Population Summary

Passaic was made up of four wards. My family lived in Ward 1, in the area referred to as the Lower East Side of Passaic. With 15,464 residents, it was the largest ward in the city, but that is not a surprise as most of the factories and mills were located in that ward. The large immigrant population were mill hands.

The Appendix included the Board of Chosen (Elected?) Freeholders, whose director I recognized – Dow H. Drukker, owner of the Passaic City Herald newspaper, later the Passaic Herald News, which we received daily delivered to our house.

What I really loved on the page, though, is the phone number for the Carroll Drug Co. They were located at 285 Main Avenue and could be called by telephone at number “16.”!

Another page lists the principals of all the public schools.

My elementary school, Roosevelt #10, had been built in 1908 and is in the list. Lauson B. Skidmore was the principal and likely was the first principal of the new school as he is also listed as principal of #5 school, nearby.

Roosevelt School #10 - 1908
#10 School, Built 1908 Before the 3rd Floor was
added in 1917

Of even more interest to me, though, is School #2 and principal Eva T. Seabrook. In the 1950’s, the city of Passaic sold it to St. Michael’s Church and it became St. Michael’s School. In this era, it was the school which my grandfather attended and I have the proof:

George Sabo’s School Attendance Certificate

He faithfully attended School #2 for twenty-six weeks and the certificate is signed by. . . E.T. Seabrook, Principal. Until now, I had no idea if the principal was a man or woman.

The 1910 census gives further details about Miss Seabrook. She was 35 years old, born in Pennsylvania, lived at home with her parents and brother in the 4th Ward and, common for the day, was unmarried. She also may have gone by the name “Eva,” but, according to the census, her actual name was “Eveline.” She was enumerated as a teacher, rather than the school principal. In those days, it is possible that she taught class all day in addition to be a school administrator.

Pages 16 and 17 include a list of the various fire stations and locations of fire alarm boxes. It is good to know that there was one at the corner of my block at Central Avenue and Summer Street, but a bit disconcerting that the one closest to my school – #10 – was a very long two blocks away at the corner of Harrison Street and Lexington Avenue.

Charitable and religious organizations included Passaic Day Nursery, which cared for a child for a nickel a day – but ONLY while the parents were at work, the Passaic Diet Kitchen Assn., which pasteurized milk for the poor and the Passaic Home and Orphan Assn.

There is a multitude of other factual information to be found, from ministers of the churches of many denominations, secret societies that I guess weren’t too secret since their addresses and meeting times were published, along with chapter/lodge numbers and presiding officers. Like the secret societies, labor organizations included Local numbers, meeting dates and times and officials in charge.

Next up in the book is the street directory, which helpfully names the cross street where the street of interest originates and also the cross street of the point where the street of interest ends.

There are ads galore on almost every page of the directory and, finally, we come to actual names and residences.

Right there on page 346 is my great grandfather, Stephen Kucharik, who had changed his name – socially, at least – to Stephen Sabo.

11th From Bottom, Just Above “See also Szabo” is
Sabo, Stephen, Mill Hand

My great grandparents, Stephen and Mary Sabo, were living with their children in a house (rented) at 2 Second Street, which today is called Market Street. A quick look on Google Earth shows that the house has probably been torn down.

If you haven’t ever seriously looked through a city directory, I hope I have shown you some of what you are missing. Use the link at the beginning of this post for free resources to locate city directories in places where your family lived.

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