Infotainment

A New Havener today can pull a small rectangle from their pocket and find the latest local info. A New Havener 150 years ago could pull a large rectangle from their bookshelf and find even more.

Benham’s New Haven City Directory and Annual Advertiser, compiled and published yearly by John H. Benham out of his print shop at Church and Chapel, was and is a goldmine of perspective. The 1874 edition’s 434 pages, which you can peruse or download via archive.org, brim with entries identifying more than 2,000 businesses ranging from sole proprietors to large industrial concerns; a directory naming tens of thousands of heads of household and, as applicable, their professions; a narrative summary of notable city developments; a municipal summary including a detailed audit of government spending (something taxpayers today can’t even find on a city webpage titled “Annual City Budgets & Audits”); guides to public and private resources spanning education, recreation and health; a directory of the city’s 100-plus civic, social and professional “societies,” some with quaintly cool names like the Caledonian Club, the Independent Order of Seven Wise Men, the Order of the Iron Tie and the Odd Fellows’ Library Association; birth, marriage, death and crime statistics; a grand list of citizens with $10,000 or more in taxable assets (with a note that New Haven’s list was more than $10 million grander than that of Hartford, the city’s snooty arch rival at the time); one aged citizen’s memories of early-1800s New Haven; and, of course, advertisements.

The directories, tables and promotions all reveal an enviably entrepreneurial city. The ads alone showcase homegrown ventures selling groceries, furnishings, farm goods, hardware, pies, saddles, drugs, clothing, flowers, jewelry, insurance, banking, lawyering, painting, gun powder, cigars, “hot pressed nuts,” ginger ale, coal, firewood, machining, chimney cleaning, pleasure boats and more, including Benham’s own printing services. Interestingly, the ads extend outside the book, covering its front and back covers and crowding out any room there to advertise the name or function of the publication itself.

Overall, the book describes an energetic populace bounding through a period of welcome change and growth. Compared to the 1873 edition, Benham reports that the erasure of 2,660 “individuals and firms,” whether because the people or businesses had moved or died, was briskly outpaced by the addition of 3,820 others—a huge amount of activity in a city with a population described as “nearly 60,000.” An introductory note touts the many roads being paved for the first time, the “miles” of plumbing infrastructure being extended to areas without any (hence the popularity of public bath houses), the “thousands more feet” of added sewers and the “scores” of new gas lamps opening up more and more of the city to nighttime activity. A flurry of architectural additions and improvements, we learn, were underway or just finished at the time of publication: St. Mary’s Church and Battell Chapel; a new courthouse with police facilities; a new hospital wing and train depot; and waves of mixed-use and residential developments, including, if I’m not mistaken, a prominent, elegant stretch of the row that now faces Yale’s Old Campus on the south side of Chapel Street.

A summary of 5,227 police arrests reported in 1873 provides a glimpse into the moral and legal contours of the day. The top cause of detention, accounting for 2,409 incidents, was public drunkenness. The least common causes on the list, at one arrest apiece, included bigamy, “obscene publication” and “dissuading [a] witness.” “Fast driving,” understandably, was a more popular crime, resulting in 33 arrests, with “lascivious carriage,” no pun intended, following just behind at 29. Three unlucky people were arrested for “throwing snow balls,” while, somehow, only two people were nabbed for “profane swearing,” the same number arrested for perjury, embezzlement and “defrauding [a] saloon.” “Highway robbery” nabbed three alleged offenders, “Sabbath-breaking” five, “seduction” nine. Violent crimes included cruelty to animals (12 arrests), dog fighting (13), attempted rape (3) and assault and battery (772). Curiously, homicide doesn’t make the list, though the humorously ungrammatical entry “insane,” accounting for 27 arrests, does.

Flipping through a 150-year-old review of city life is bound to yield such anachronistic treasures. My favorite example, however, is tucked along with a tonal shift into the end of the publisher’s introductory note. Attempting to sound deeply offended yet entirely unthreatened, Benham warns his readers and clients against using an upstart competing directory business, walking a rhetorical tightrope from which I dare not cut a single seething thread:

A few words, personally, to my friends and patrons of New Haven, with whom I have had dealings and been associated during more than a quarter of a century past. It is known that persons hailing from some indefinite locality out of the State, have, regardless of the rights of others, and pursuing, to say the least, a questionable course, not sanctioned by any legitimate code of ethics, attempted to usurp my business, and oust an old citizen. It is simply an attempt to appropriate the good will, the patronage, and the old established business of another. These make-shift, transient interlopers, impudent and bare-faced, without the honor of a boot black, crowd in here to appropriate to themselves what I have labored long years to establish, and without cause or excuse. Let the people judge between me and them. Some of their nefarious schemes have been brought to light in this city, and the citizens of Providence, R.I., or of Cambridge, Mass., can throw further light in the same direction. I have, perhaps noticed these individuals more than they are entitled to, but I will say to them that an honorable course, if they can understand the term “honor,” is the best.

To the citizens of New Haven I would say, that I purpose to continue in “the even tenor of my way,” and to publish a reliable City Directory in the future, as I have done in the past twenty-nine years, with general acceptance, and until such time as the public by the withdrawal of patronage shall ask me to step aside and give place to strangers.

For the many kind words and assurances of support, which I have received from my fellow-citizens, I return my warmest thanks.

Was it fair of Benham, whose publication thrived on the existence of many competing businesses, to treat his own competition as ipso facto evil? Likely not. Nonetheless, we “fellow-citizens” of today who enjoy an occasional romp through New Haven history do owe the annual, manual publisher of tens of thousands of facts, figures and contemporaneous local updates our own warmest thanks, for both the info and the entertainment.

Written by Dan Mims. Image features the front cover of the 1874 edition of Benham’s New Haven City Directory and Annual Advertiser.

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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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