T he beginning of a new school year has us thinking about old yearbooks.
Turns out New Haven is the birthplace of the college yearbook in America. The still-going Yale Banner points to its first edition in 1842, when it converted from a newspaper to “a listing of college enrollment statistics and societal membership,” as the earliest example in America. Other sources, like Scholastic Journalism by C. Dow Tate and Sherri A. Taylor, claim Yale published the first college yearbook in 1806.
Either way, New Haven’s right there, and some 20 years after the first Banner, kicking off a tradition that would continue for another 90, New Haven began publishing annual “City Year Books” in the 1860s. They too contained statistics—tables and tables and pages and pages of them. The point of each book was to collect in one place the various reports summarizing the activities of city government. It was a document by the government for the government, a deep “state of the union” assessment meant to help mayors and alders do their thing.
There were no “Most Likely to Succeed” or “Most Spirited” awards handed out for those year books, nor were there nostalgic yet forward-looking personal messages scrawled inside the front and back covers. But there were superlatives of a different nature, with plenty of notes about the past and expressions of hope for the future.
In the 1864 edition, the Chief Engineer of the fire department, Chas. W. Allen, proudly reported that “there have been but three false alarms in the past year” out of 13 alarms total, and put in a request for the installation of 30 additional fire hydrants throughout the city. He also warned of “disastrous Fires” should the city fail to update its “Fire Limits,” or fire code, relating to new construction. Noting that the standards hadn’t been altered in 49 years and that the population had increased fivefold in the interim, he believed “every thoughtful citizen” (emphasis his) should realize that an update was needed.
In the 1899 edition, police superintendent James Wrinn reported that “this City is quite clear of almost all forms of gambling,” and that the remainder “is conducted so adroitly… on account of the vigilance displayed by the police,” that it had become “very difficult to catch [gamblers] in the act.” He also expressed the hope that “the managers of the Fair Haven and Westville Railroad Company [sic] will follow the good example set them by the Winchester Avenue Company,” by allowing police officers to ride their lines free of charge.
In the 1934 year book, mayor John W. Murphy reported to the city’s Board of Alders “the accomplishment of finishing the year with a surplus” of $113,286.36, which “required a daily struggle throughout the year to collect taxes and resist pleas frequently made for additional spending.” Among a long list of recommendations, he expressed support for “increased recreational facilities for our people,” casting them as “necessary” given the “increase of leisure time at the disposal of the working people,” even in the depths of the Great Depression.
In the yearbooks we know today, photography takes primacy. But the first photograph to appear in one of the city’s year books was printed in that 1934 edition, towards the back. It was a black-and-white portrait of Mr. Murphy, preceding his formal address to the Board of Alders, and was the only image to appear in the entire book. The next year the publisher pushed the envelope a little further, with more photos, though still in the back. Among them is an image of a rebuilt “Fire Department Apparatus,” shaped like an open-air flatbed truck with ladders and other firefighting equipment stowed in the rear. There’s also a shot of a “bowling green,” full of leisurely sportsmen wearing white shirts and slacks and orbs like oversized bocce balls scattered around a grassy pitch in West Rock. There was also, naturally, another portrait of the mayor.
By 1936, you get the sense that its makers had fully embraced the notion that the year book could be a public-facing, even political, document, and not just a reference material for the city’s governing class. Representational art—a drawing of the city’s skyline from across a river, probably the Quinnipiac—adorns the cover. Meanwhile, no longer relegated to the back of the book, photography appears even before the table of contents, showing the mayor outside a building, perhaps City Hall, during some kind of ceremonious occasion. (Alas, there’s no caption to tell us exactly what it was.)
By the 1952 edition, photos had made it onto the cover itself, and the book was given a rather non-institutional title: “This is New Haven.” Light, thin and staple-bound, it generally skips detailed accounts, favoring broader, quicker overviews of the city’s municipal goings-on. A fine public purpose that once justified tomes and great collective administrative effort was now being met with something resembling a longish pamphlet.
Given that trajectory, perhaps it’s no shock that—as far as we could dig up, anyway—the 1952 edition was the last one the city ever produced. For New Haven, it seems, the years of the year book had come to a close.
Written and photographed by Dan Mims. Image depicts four of the many city year books housed in the local history room of the main Ives library.