The Trials of a City Directory-Writer in 1883

December 30, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

Depot Town-area grocer George Neat's ad touted a variety of sugars and canned goods.

Depot Town-area grocer George Neat's ad touted a variety of sugars and canned goods.

In the days before online people-finding search engines or even the yellow pages, yearly city directories offered information on business and residential addresses. For many years the Detroit-based firm of Polk’s compiled directories for Ypsilanti.

In 1883, however, a different company compiled the city directory—Coldwater-based Wendell Directory Company.

Unlike any of the Polk guides, the Wendell directory was prefaced by a poem about Ypsilanti that offers an outsider’s view of the city the company investigated.

Poets are numerous now-a-days, and so
It’s not surprising we should cut a caper
In noble verse; it don’t cost much you know,
For pens and ink are cheap and so is paper,
And even if we do hunt Webster thro’
What matters it if we can make it do? . . .

Ypsilanti has thriven, and is now a city,
Numbering about six thousand population—
(There should be ten, but is not more’s the pity—
A census always is an aggravation,
Which, instead of giving cities a fair showing,
Seems made on purpose to retard their growing!)

Many small local factories and mills of the day ran on hydropower. Wendell’s poem took note of that, and mentioned in passing the onetime strategy of dust control for the town’s many dirt roads. In later years, Ypsilanti’s dirt roads were treated with oil, in an effort to tamp down the ever-present dust.

Its greatest feature is its water power,
Which is magnificent and very fine.
And one that is as good and rich a dower
As nature could bequeath; it proves a mine
Of untold wealth, a bank that cannot “bust,”
And one effectual for laying dust!

The poet took note that local businesses were full of entrepreneurial vim.

Its merchants are most enterprising men,
And don’t believe in sticking in the mud;
Their maxin’s go ahead, excepting when
Being stationary does them the most good!
Taking them all in all they know their “biz,”
And never call things pop unless they fizz.

Such merchants in 1883 included the Huron Street Hardware store. Their November 10, 1883 ad touted the “Iron Acorn” stove, the “Union Churn,” and the “Bench Wringer” for wringing out freshly-washed clothes: “It makes the Wash Women Smile.”

According to another 1883 ad, the Ypsilanti Bazaar on North Huron offered tin and glassware, photo albums, lamps, ladies’ and gents’ underwear, hoopskirts, corsets, and stationery.

Down at the Depot, George Neat’s variety store sold sugar, tea, coffee, and canned goods that included vegetables, lobster, whitefish, trout, and mackerel.

Cleary’s school of penmanship downtown on Michigan Avenue offered “Superior Advantages to Gentlemen and Ladies who are desirous of acquiring a rapid, graceful style of writing, either for business advantages or for successfully teaching Spencerian and Ornamental Penmanship.”

On the present-day Water Street site, the onetime Parsons Brothers lumberyard advertised lumber, flooring, moldings, fencing, and “Scroll Sawing neatly done with our new Deflecting Scroll Saw.”

An 1883 ad for the Opera House invited patrons to see a spiritualist.

An 1883 ad for the Opera House invited patrons to see a spiritualist.

And the Opera House on Michigan Avenue advertised an evening with a spiritualist. “An evening in the Spirit World,” said the November 17 ad. “Prof. Chas. N. Stein will give a Religious Illustrated Lecture, assisted by the Empress of Mediums, Mrs. Martha E. Steen, Presenting the whole of Modern Spiritualism in open light. Is it true or false? Come and see.” Admission was 25 and 35 cents [$5.70 and $8 today].

Getting around to these and other places, however, wasn’t always easy for a directory-man trying to catalogue the city. Some of the outlying streets weren’t labeled with street signs, a condition that must have been frustrating to anyone attempting to collect addresses.

For instance, there are streets within the city
Unnamed, or if they are the name’s unknown,
Especially in the suburbs food for pity
In this particular. We all must own
There’s much occasion for a man to swear,
When hunting for a street which isn’t there!

Equally vexing to the directory-man was the somewhat haphazard house numbering system. Some years later downtown residence and business numbers were overhauled and renumbered in a more systematic fashion. In 1883, however, a random element made things difficult.

Again the numbers on the houses are
A little mixed, and no one can be sure
But what is “sixty” is a “forty-four,”
In fact it may be less, or may be more;
It isn’t nice to hunt for “nine” you see
And have ’em say, “why, this is fifty-three!”

Of course not, consequently we suggest
A revision of the system, all throughout it,
The cost is trifling, and it’s the best
To have a thing correct, when one’s about it,
And then, how nice, to feel securely sure,
That number forty-eight ain’t twenty-four.

As the directory man tramped through town, perplexed by absent street signs and mixed-up house numbers, his quest wasn’t made easier by the somewhat rough sidewalks.

There also are some sidewalks here and there
That somehow like to have you “take a seat,”
The trouble is, it looks so awful queer,
That no one cares to do it in the street;
Its not “in style,” and people have a passion
For doing nothing but what’s “in the fashion.”

And so we think (we’re very fond of talking)
Another kind of walk would better please,
One that confines its usefulness for walking,
And not for sitting down, as some of these!
Still, we can truly say there’s very few Bad sidewalks in the city, but one or two.

After the information had been laboriously collected and returned to Coldwater for printing and binding, the directory man in his poem bade farewell to Ypsilanti.

Just so. And now our book being ended,
There’s nothing left to do but bid good-bye,
With thanks to those who have our work befriended,
We take our leave with a regretful sigh,
And in the words of foreign lore—Au Revoir,
Because we hope again to meet your eye.

Have an old-time story to share? Contact Laura at [email protected]


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