Record Books

N ew Haven opened the book on college yearbooks in America. The still-going Yale Banner has in the past pointed to its first yearbook-style edition in 1842, “a listing of college enrollment statistics and societal membership,” as the earliest in America. But other sources, including the textbook Scholastic Journalism by C. Dow Tate and Sherri A. Taylor, claim the first college yearbook, titled “Profiles of Part of the Class Graduated at Yale College,” was published in 1806.

Either way, New Haven’s right there, and in the 1860s, the city would follow suit, publishing the first of about 90 municipal “year books.” This too contained statistics—tables and tables and pages and pages of them, collecting in one place the various reports summarizing the activities and interests of city government. It was a reference manual by the government for the government, meant to help the city’s managers make informed decisions.

Sort of like modern yearbooks, it even contained superlatives as well as affirmations of a shared past and uncertain 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 recommended 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 will follow the good example set them by the Winchester Avenue Company,” by allowing police officers to ride their trolleys 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 or perhaps especially 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, toward 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 that year. The next year there were more photos in the back, among them 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, their grassy West Rock pitch scattered with orbs like oversized bocce balls. There was also, naturally, another portrait of the mayor.

By 1936, you get the sense that its makers had more fully embraced the possibility that the annual book could be a public-facing, even political document. A drawing of the city’s skyline from across a river, probably the Quinnipiac, graces the cover, and photography appears even before the table of contents, showing the mayor outside a building, perhaps City Hall, during some kind of ceremony. (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 marketable title: “This is New Haven.” Thin and staple-bound, it eschews wonk and detail for light, broad overviews of municipal goings-on. A fine public purpose that once justified tomes and great collective administrative effort was now being met with something closer to a brochure.

Given that trajectory, perhaps it’s no shock that—as far as I could dig up, anyway—the 1952 edition was the last one the city produced. For New Haven, the years of the city year book had come to a close.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. Image features four of many city year books in the local history room at Ives Main Library. This updated story was originally published on September 18, 2018.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories.

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