It's hard to remember, probably because none of us were alive, but there was a time before comprehensive phone books. A time when people were still figuring out how best to keep track of the names, addresses, professions, and activities of everyone who lived in the newly-formed United States. The first census didn't take place until 1790, but people like Captain James Macpherson had already begun compiling the country's first city directory in Philadelphia in the early 1780s. And in 1786, New York City got its first such directory: The New-York Directory.
It was the work of an Irish-born accountant and attorney named David Franks, who is believed to have arrived in NYC in the mid-1780s. Despite the incredible historical value of the document, Franks didn't necessarily do a great job with his directory, which had barely one-third of NYC residents included, and had inconsistent arrangements of names.
At the time, most of the city's nearly 24,000 inhabitants lived in a tangled knot of streets below Delancey, many of which retain the same names and basic formations, according to Charles Cuykendall Carter, an assistant curator at the NYPL.
"Manhattan above Delancey Street was still mostly undeveloped—spotted with farmland—which in part explains the usefulness of the almanac that makes up the first section of The New-York Directory," said Carter. "Most of the book is occupied by an alphabetical listing of 832 residents, nearly all merchants and tradesmen, which doesn’t come close to achieving the title-page’s promise that it gives the 'names of all the Citizens,' but helps us imagine the late 18th century New York City storefronts occupied by pewterers, farriers, chandlers, etc."
The directory includes different sections broken up by professions, and in the section with lawyers, the names are alphabetized by first name; in a remarkable coincidence, it lists Alexander Hamilton (of 57 Wall Street) just below his rival and future killer, Aaron Burr (of 10 Little-Queen [now Cedar] Street). The rest of the directory lists names associated with various kinds of New York City organizations, including the faculty of Columbia College, and members of The Society of Peruke Makers. (Peruke is what powdered wigs were called then.)
Things didn't go so well for Franks. According to the NYPL, he published a second directory in 1787, and then his career apparently faltered. By January 1788, he was described in the New-York Journal as an "insolvent debtor," and his estate was put up for auction to pay off creditors. He then essentially disappears: he isn't listed in the 1789 New York City Directory, which was published by other people, nor does he appear in that 1790 census, or other historical records of the time.
But subsequent editions of directory, which evolved first into 45 editions of the The American Almanack, New-York Register, and City Directory, and then nine editions of Doggett's New-York City Directory and other assorted titles, all were able to build upon what Franks started.
As part of our month-long Dear NYC series, we're looking at New York City gems hidden away at the New York Public Library. The NYPL’s four research centers offer the public access to over 55 million items, including rare books, manuscripts, letters, diaries, photographs, prints, maps, ephemera, and more. Integral to these robust collections is the Library’s extensive material related to New York City, and as NY works to come together, cope, heal and recover from the 2020 pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the many issues that divide us, it is important to look at that history and remember: New York is resilient. New York is strong. New York has seen its share of hard times. And, as always, with Patience and Fortitude (the names given to the Library’s beloved lions in 1933 by Mayor LaGuardia for the virtues New Yorkers needed to get through the Great Depression) we will get through it, together.