The City Directory
A New Orleans Essential Since 1805
“1882 Soard’s New Orleans City Directory” advertisement, Louisiana Research Collection, Howard Tilton Library. Tulane University: The Moresque Building, Camp and Poydras St., the largest cast-iron building in New Orleans, was destroyed in a fire in 1897.
In 1805, Matthew Flourney, residing at #71 Rue de Bourbon, was paid $150 by the New Orleans City Council to produce “A Directory and a Census,” described as “a recapitulation of all the names of persons living in New Orleans.”
This first New Orleans city directory was followed by others up until today. These handy volumes appeared sporadically at first. By the 1830s, they came out almost every year, chronicling the names of residents, where they lived, what work they did, and including advertisements for various businesses, lists of companies and practitioners of marketable skills in all categories. Other information might be included in almanac style: Saints’ Days, a schedule of eclipses, military unit information, city infrastructure (ferries, carlines, levees.)
Unlike the first government-sponsored directory, subsequent ones were regularly done as a business enterprise. Advertising was sold, each copy had to be purchased. This early advertising might provide engravings showing buildings no longer standing today. Some volumes included pictures and biographies of notable businessmen (who probably paid a fee for the privilege.)
The directory editor might include essays describing the city or discuss a favorite subject. John Adams Paxton, New Orleans directory publisher in the 1820s, was a former resident of Philadelphia where he had published directories between 1813 and 1818.
In his 1822 volume, Paxton was frank about his displeasure with New Orleans’s non-functioning water system. Paxton had his own system, featuring a floating pump on a vessel on the river, which he proposed to demonstrate on the Fourth of July, 1822. That event was cancelled twice and Paxton’s pump never operated. The city’s system, designed by architect Benjamin Latrobe, was up and running by 1823, three years after Latrobe’s death.
The 1854 directory had a long essay by Bennet Dowler, M.D. on the yellow fever epidemic of 1853. Dowler believed that native-born residents (Creoles) could be resistant to the disease, with one limitation: “it is the resident city Creole, not the country Creole, that may hope for good health.”
The directory of 1876 praised the thoroughness of its employees: “Our canvassers have worked early and late, visited the busiest portions and haunted the swamps of the city in search of names.” However, there were difficulties: “some suffered mortification in being taken for lightning rod salesmen, newspaper reporters, club solicitors, tax assessors, sheriffs and the like, but all have done their duty.”
City directories are indispensable for genealogy researchers: you can find where your ancestors lived and what work they did. Need to prove your residence in a certain year (say, to collect damages in an environmental lawsuit settlement?) Check a city directory (available at the New Orleans Public Library main branch.) In 1895, the city directory explained how the new street numbering system worked (each block now had a designation in 100s.)
City directories are fun to snoop in. What happened to the madams after Storyville closed in 1917? Lulu White was selling soft drinks at Basin and Bienville and “Countess” Willie Piazza was renting rooms on Basin Street in 1921.
If you were curious, the most complete collection of city directories in America is at the genealogy department of the Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana. In 1961, director Fred Reynolds set up a deal with R.W. Polk – then, as now, the main American city directory publisher – so Polk’s leftover collection went directly to Fort Wayne.
Even in the day of Google and Wikipedia, it’s still nice to look something up in a big fat book. Try it!