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About People: The Boston city directories

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Personal Paths: Finding Stories in Historical Documents

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Every city directory entry is part of a story, reflections of change can be noted, and histories can be traced. Combined with the images, maps, and geospatial layers included with this project, the directories offer the ability to contextualize in time and place a single history or the history of millions. Often these histories cross without connections, other times they converge and overlap.

A Widow's Decline
Nelllie Aarestrup is just one of the more than one million people, businesses, schools, societies, laborers, marble polishers, physicians, hotels, and churches recorded in the directories offered as part of Boston Streets. We "meet" Nellie first in her absence as only her husband Alf, a marriner, is listed in the 1870 directory, however by 1872 Capt. Aarestrup has passed away, and Nellie is listed for the first time in the directories offered as part of the Boston Streets collection. In 1872, Nellie is a widow, which we see is considered to be her "occupation," and not a honorary title, as indicated by the organization and typography used by directory compilers. A few short years later, we see that Nellie has gone through another "life change," which one may assume was not for the better. In the 1875 directory she no longer owns her home, but boards at a different address (indicators of home ownership, residence and boarding are used in the directories), and has a profession of "cigars," perhaps rolling them in her boarding rooms. Gone are the listing of her previous state of widowhood or her husband's name and homestead.

Another story tells us something about where people lived and what they did. In 1845 numerous clerks were employed in the city's financial and business center. They seldom lived near these places and had to commute from various places around the city. Mapping the clerks in 1845, shows a large concentration (darker symbols) of clerks working downtown, while living in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Changing Neighborhoods
Still other stories are about the constants of place and the changing people who inhabit those places. In 1845, Robert Frazer, a tailor, lived at 23 Prince Street and worked around the corner on Hanover Street. Fifty years later, in 1905, after an influx of Italian immigrants turned what was by now known as the North End into a "Little Italy" 23 Prince street is now home to Michele Fabrizio. Fabrizio coincidentally is a tailor as well. Twenty years later, 23 Prince Street remains a part of a vibrant Italian neighborhood and is now home to Gaetano Marotto and Antonio Giovino both listed as laborers. You can find Prince Street on the map and see a list of the people who lived there over time and the jobs they held using Cowpaths.

Murder of the Century
Other, more famous stories also weave their way through the directories. In one of the most sensational crimes of the era, the wealthy Dr. George Parkman was murdered in 1849 on the grounds of the Harvard Medical College, now the Massachusetts General Hospital. Parkman was killed by a friend and colleague, John Webster over a debt. In 1845, the Parkmans are listed as living on Beacon Hill in the family home at 33 Beacon Street. The 1855 directory mutely lists his widow, Mrs. George F. Parkman, and their son, George F. Parkman, Jr still living the family home.

Cowpaths shows us not only the location of the home and who lived there in 1855, but also that there are photographs from approximately the same era, one of them taken by Josiah Hawes.

Pioneering Photographers
Josiah Hawes and his partner, Albert Southworth were the most celebrated of the early photographers in America. They set up shop in Boston in 1843, just three years after the first daguerreotype was exhibited in the United States. At first specializing in portraits, Hawes also begain to photograph urban scenes after Southworth headed to California to seek gold in 1849, You can map some of Hawes' photos in Cowpaths. Hawes lived in the city until his death in 1901 and can be found in each of the directories from 1845 through 1885.

These are just some of the millions stories you can find in the records of the city.