Who would have thought reading phone books could be a fun thing to do? But the Might’s City Directories, published until the early 2000s, are more than phone books. They also list people’s jobs, and their employers. And with that information, they reveal a lot about the texture of life. What we did this summer to get SWIHHP started is collect ten-year samples of the directories for a selection of streets, entering the information into databases. Jeff Moon and Alex Cooper, fabulous librarians at Queen’s, helped us set things up right. So far, we’ve got spreadsheets for James Street (you’ve already heard about that), Raglan Road, Montreal Street, and Bagot Street. Nancy Jones, our first data entry volunteer, set a high bar with her diligence and curiosity as she entered the information for Patrick Street. Here she is in the Special Collections Room of the Kingston Public Library main branch on Johnson with the tools of her trade. We love working in this space; it was kind of unofficially our summer office. Besides the directories it has fire maps (about which another post!) and all sorts of other intriguing windows into Kingston’s past. And even a pretty couch to lie down on when necessary.
After we get all the adults accounted for (except boarders — they’re harder to track — an issue we’ve flagged), we move over to the Queen’s Archives and, for the years before 1943, we can find out what kids lived on a given street by looking at the “Children’s Census.” This was a record collected door-to-door for school planning purposes. It lists all the children, with their address, age, guardian’s name, and whether they went to separate or public schools. When we add that in to our records, instantly the neighbourhood comes alive. Besides the invitation to imagine all the friendships and rivalries and dolls and scabbed knees, we also learn the religion of given families. As the official national census remains sealed for privacy reasons after 1921, this municipal document is invaluable. Here is a page that shows some of the kids on York and Raglan in 1929.
Next up, when we have time, will be to check the tax assessment rolls, which will give us information on who owned which building, and often the birthdate of residents or owners, not to mention the value of the property and other information. With all this data, we will start to be able to see trends — of immigration, class, family structure, and so on — and build a foundation for gathering information in other ways such as oral history.
If anybody out there wants to join our data entry team, we are happy to train you. All you need is a laptop with Open Office on it, and a patient and meticulous personality. What you get — for free! — is a kind of X-ray vision into the city as it appears to the naked eye. For example, I happen to know where Gloria Wilson lived in 1958 when she worked at Moonlight Lunch. No, not White Eagle Lunch: Charlie Chew’s place, up Princess. Yeah, the one with the good lemon pie. I may be watching for typos, but I am also writing a novel in my head.
— Laura Murray