On March 5, 2021 Capitol Hill Historical Society became the proud owner of a municipal treasure, otherwise known as Polk's Seattle City Directories volumes 1937 through 1996 (with a few gaps). And if you're wondering how.... it all started with a Facebook post.
On January 21 Michelle Meeker, board president of WARM (Washington Adoption Reunion Movement) posted to her Facebook page that WARM was looking to dispense with its vast collection of Polk City Directories. Then someone else shared it on the Seattle Vintage Facebook group, where I saw it and was lucky enough to be (quite possibly) the first to respond. (Scroll past the image for more)
What followed was a long email exchange, first with one of their long-time volunteers, Mickey LeClair and later with Michelle in which I made the case for why Capitol Hill Historical Society should get the Seattle directories. Before I get to that though, let's look at the collection and the history behind them to see why they're so important.
R.L. Polk & Company was founded in Detroit, Michigan in 1870 by its namesake, Ralph Lane Polk, when he was only 21 years old. America According to Polk says Polk got his start in door-to-door sales in his hometown of Trenton, New Jersey after serving as a drummer boy in the Union Army during the Civil War. According to another source Polk met a directory enumerator while selling patent medicine in Ohio and fascinated, left his job to sell directories for the enumerator's unnamed publisher in Cincinnati, Ohio. He worked there for a few years, learned the business, and then moved to Detroit to start his own directory publishing company.
His first publication was a directory of towns located along the Detroit and Milwaukee Railroad. It included populations and the names of 17,500 residents and 600 professionals.
With funding from James E. Scripps, owner of Detroit News, he expanded out of Michigan starting with a directory of Evansville, Indiana in 1872 and continued to expand from there into other cities and other data sets.
Later directories included information and statistics on medicine, agriculture, grain, real estate, clubs and secret societies, government offices and organizations, schools, hospitals, military and the automotive industry.
With the construction and completion of transcontinental railroads after the Civil War, the United States rapidly expanded westward and having followed the railroads since its founding, R.L. Polk & Company expanded with it.
At the company's height, it was publishing 80% of the nation's directories on a nearly annual basis. The sum of all this data is unfathomable and makes R.L. Polk & Company the internet search giant of its time. With Federal Censi occurring only once every decade, these directories are an indispensable asset for reconstructing the lives of our ancestors and understanding the broader economic trends of their times. For more history on R.L. Polk & Company visit America According to Polk or this history provided by Company-Histories.com.
Polk in Seattle
Now lets look a little closer at Polk in Seattle. While known copies of Seattle City directories published by other companies date back to 1870, the first to bear Polk's name in Seattle was published in 1887. This 629 page directory covered Seattle and several other cities throughout Puget sound and opened with a brief description and history of the region and its "principal cities starting with Seattle followed by Tacoma and others.
This may be a little surprising considering Tacoma had already secured a transcontinental rail connection at the time while Seattle didn't get its connection until 1893. However, Polk selected Seattle to be first given its recent growth at that time, higher population, and it's earlier founding (about 20 years before Tacoma), but not without emphasizing Tacoma's promise to potentially dominate the region with its intercontinental rail connection.
Following the city descriptions come the bulk of the publication: residential and business directories. And in subsequent years, Seattle (and Tacoma) started getting its only Polk directory. The 1889 volume for instance includes a wealth of additional information on government officials, fire department, schools, banks, churches, hospitals, libraries, military, newspapers, post offices, secret and benevolent societies, railroads, parks, public buildings, and so on. Hereafter, the directories more or less follow this format until 1938, which brings us to the collection we recently acquired.
What we chose and why it matters
Our newly acquired collection starts at 1937. There are multiple reasons for this.
While Ancestry.com's digital collection of Seattle directories runs through 1960 all of their issues from 1936 onward are incomplete. For instance, 1936 ends at the letter L and has no business directory. So wait, why didn't we also get 1936? Well it just so happens that WARM's long-time volunteer Mickey LeClair specifically requested that volume. Perhaps she was born that year. So we settled with 1937.
The other reason for choosing this start point was the change that occurred starting in 1938. Look at the image above, do you see how the 1938 directory is nearly 50% larger than 1937? That's not due to a population increase. It's due to the inclusion of the pink pages better known as the "reverse directory" in which you can look up any address to see who lived there and often see what their occupation was.
None of Ancestry's digital scans include the reverse directories leaving home-researchers at the mercy of Optical Character Recognition paired with an incomplete residential directory and non-existent business directory. Making it impossible to prepare complete occupant histories of a given building during a time when the only publicly accessible and complete collection of physical copies (at Seattle Public Library) remain off-limits to the public during the pandemic.
To reveal just a little bit of the power of these volumes, let's see this reverse directory in action using my own address: 416 Summit Ave E.
First, the reverse directory reveals the building's original name: the Pettit Apartments. (It is now the Oriana Apartments) Following is an alphabetical list of residents headed by the building's manager.
I can then look these names up in the regular alphabetical residential directory, which revealed the following:
We see that Marjorie Blacklidge, a social worker and Douglas Blacklidge a UW student were living in my apartment in 1938. Searching for "416 Summit" on Ancestry for the year 1938 does not tell us this (see below).
Thus revealing the power our recently acquired physical volumes still possess several decades into the digital age. This is not to say that digital is inferior--far from it in fact. Instead, digital and analogue continue to work hand in hand to the present day. For example let's take our research one step further. Knowing that Blacklidge was a UW student we can easily find his 1938 yearbook photo by searching for it online at the University of Washington digital collections.
Making the case
One might say, I made WARM an offer they couldn't refuse.
First, the directories will be incredibly useful in the immediate term for our survey of Mid-Century Modern Apartment buildings on Capitol Hill.
Second, we strategically targeted volumes 1936 to 1996 for the reasons described above to emphasize that this was more a matter of utility than simply a desire to collect.
The third and most important selling point was a long term commitment to public access. Knowing the immense value this collection still has to researchers (especially now), I couldn't bear the thought of it being divided up among private collectors never to see the light of day or only to be taken to eBay and sold to the highest bidder. This is completely antithetical to their very purpose.
As a tool for public benefit in the possession of WARM, these directories have helped to reunite thousands of families throughout the Pacific Northwest since the organization's founding in 1976.
Our plans for the collection
Given their use up to this point, it is only fitting that these directories continue to benefit the public so long as Capitol Hill Historical Society possesses them. Therefore, we are pleased to announce that for the duration of the pandemic we will be accepting public research requests for a minimum donation of $5 per single look-up. If we receive a high volume of requests, the board will discuss using a portion of the funds to compensate the research work. For those who have larger, more complex requests we ask that you please reach out to us first to describe your project so we can come up with a reasonable quote for the time it requires Otherwise, requests will be fulfilled in the order in which they are received and completed as time permits.
While fulfilling these requests, CHHS will seek a new home for the directories after the pandemic ends. The goal is to make them more accessible to the public, ideally free of cost. We will also look into the feasibility of getting these directories scanned and made available online for even greater public access in the future. If you are a non-profit who is interested in collaborating on these opportunities, do not hesitate to reach out to us.
Send all inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
Finally, if for any reason we are not able to uphold our commitment, we will donate the directories to a non-profit better equipped to do so.
And with that, many thanks to the Washington Adoption Reunion Movement for choosing us to carry on such a significant portion of their Polk Directory collection. Major props to them for making such good use of them for all these years as well. I can only imagine that if Polk could look down on us, he would be ecstatic to see that the directories he helped create remained so valuable a tool nearly a hundred years after his death. And Capitol Hill Historical Society is proud to be able to carry on a small part of his 151 year legacy.
Accompanying the new inclusion of the reverse directory in the 1938 edition, is a commemorative honor roll of business and professional concerns in Seattle followed by a brief time line history of Seattle. Here is a preview. Hopefully we can make this fully available as well!