Archives, British Columbia history, Canada history, Chinese Canadian history, Historical research, women's history

On the Idiosyncrasies of directories

I was using old Vancouver directories this morning as part of my research and am always impressed with what an amazing resource they are.

Directories are like a phone book or criss-cross where you can look up an address and see who lives there, or look up a name and find out their location.

They still have a limited distribution today, but before the internet these annual publications were essential to daily life and daily business.

As with so many historical resources, there is a vast difference in what information they provide and the way they’re arranged

Directories give you names of individuals, their addresses, and also, often, the occupation of the head of the household (usually a man).

But you can also get an idea of  the numbers and occupations of  widows or other single women listed as seamstresses, nurses, stenographers, or those running rooming houses.



There’s also often a section of a directory that is organized by street address. So you can look up a street and get an idea its character, its people, and the kind of work they do.

Today I wanted one of the characters in the historical novel set in Vancouver that I’m writing to walk along Hastings and Alexander Streets around 1903 and compare it with the same stretch when he arrived in the city in 1886.  I wanted to add some authentic detail about what businesses he would pass and how many houses were still there on these streets, where there are now mostly pawnshops, bars, and social service agencies.

All of this gives an idea of the kinds of noise, smell, and activity on this one street at this one time.

Other street listings might show it was a theatre and entertainment district with cafes and bars, or an area with a number of public institutions – art galleries, courthouses, schools, colleges. Or that it was mostly residential, mostly warehouses, or mostly factories.

Of course there are some limitations to directories.

For example, people of races other than white were often listed simply as Hindoo (sic), Chinese, or Japanese, though occasionally also by name. From this you can surmise the character of the neighbourhood itself, as well as the attitude of those collecting and publishing the directories.

Women too have limited listings and usually only included women who were single or widowed.

To flesh out a story or find other interesting tidbits within directories, be sure to look at the table of contents for each year.

In some years there is no street index – or it is in a different volume. At other times you’ll find government office listings, separate Chinese sections, or year-in-review reports, and more. In the 1903 directory I found a listing of incorporated companies in BC where I found the Imperial Automatic Voting Machine Company.

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