City Directories

Ron Davidson
Nov 11, 2013

If you want to discover the story of Sandusky, a good place to start would be in the city directories. You will find the names and addresses of people and businesses in Sandusky, of course, but within all that data, if you look hard enough, you will find stories of the people and the community. Who lived here, and where in town did they live? What kind of work did they do? What were some of the more popular businesses of the various eras? How important were social clubs and other popular organizations? Who ran things in town? Some of these answers are easy to find; others might be found “between the lines.”

The first Sandusky City Directory appeared in 1855, nearly forty years after the city was founded. It took some time for the city to “mature” enough for a city directory, apparently. And, judging from comments in the 1855 and 1867 directories, the idea of a Sandusky city directory was not universally welcome. The publisher in 1867 noted that some felt a directory would be useless, because “I can find anybody without it!” Perhaps it was so for that critic, but it sure helps us find people today – of course, they are all dead now, but they are still important in many ways.

The very earliest city directories were packed with useful information, and even included historical introductions of the area. The 1855 directory opens with “Historical Sketches of Sandusky” – twenty pages of history, beginning with the Erie people in 1655 and ending in Sandusky 200 years later. The 1867 directory copies that idea with an even longer historical essay, and the 1873 edition writes about important “firsts” in Sandusky, such as the first building, the first tavern, the first hatter (J.C. Hurd, around 1823), etc. But even more interesting and useful for us today are the listings and the advertisements in this and other directories. Each household (at least in theory) is listed in the directory under the name of the head of household; spouses and children were not listed in the earliest directories. And, of course, there was a business directory in each volume. The 1873 directory, for example, lists four billiard rooms, eight cigar makers, and fifteen meat markets, among other businesses. So, not only do you know who was in Sandusky at a particular time, but you can also see what types of businesses were popular then. My favorite example: the 1888-89 city directory lists 181 saloons in Sandusky; there were 73 groceries.

Many city directories, particularly the earlier ones, also present us with a good picture of social and cultural life in the city. Churches and social organizations (both “secret societies” and “miscellaneous”) were often listed in their own sections of the book. The 1904-05 directory lists a number of groups, including the Druids, the Knights of Pythias, the Fish Handlers’ Union Local No. 10095, and the Sunyendeand Club. Several German groups still operated in town, including the Bavarian Benevolent Society, the Plattdeutsche Verein, the Prussian Unterstuetzungs Verein, and the Sandusky Saengerbund. By the time of the 1923-24 city directory, there were only two openly German groups listed. I will let you figure out why.

Although the city directories are loaded with useful and important information about residents, businesses, government, churches, social organizations, and many other things, perhaps the most notable, or at least recognizable, thing about city directories, is the number of advertisements (which of course pay the bills). The 1855 directory had some of the earliest advertisements for professional photographers, or “Daguerreian Artists,” as they were identified then; J.M. Frisbie’s ad took an entire page. By the twentieth century, virtually no potentially blank space in a city directory was left uncovered by advertisements. It would be interesting to know how much it cost Emil Brengartner, Embalmer and Funeral Director, to advertise on the outer margin of every even-numbered page in the 1923-24 directory. Other businesses took the odd-numbered pages and the top and bottom margins.

The Sandusky Library has an almost-complete set (several years are missing) of Sandusky city directories, from 1885 to the present. Although you might say, as someone did in 1855, “I can find anybody without it!” it is still an important resource for today and for the future generations who will study the way we lived.