Introduction to the Treasure: Polk's Seattle City Directories 1937-1996


18 of the 38 volumes acquired as they appear in their new home.

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.


Polk's origin

Polk via accordingtopolk.com

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.


Detroit and Milwaukee Railway depot, 1860. Image: Detroid Public Library
Scripps, 1870. Cranbook Archives

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.

Polk directories, close up.

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.