Directories and the Legibility of Urban Spaces, 1760–1830

It seems like the logical conclusion to a friendly and fruitful relationship that my monograph on town directories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, entitled Die Stadt lesen: Englische ‘Directories’ als Wissens- und Orientierungsmedien, 1760–1830, has recently been published in the GHIL’s series with De Gruyter Oldenbourg. By far the largest part of my archival research—with most sources relevant to my Ph.D. held by English archives—was made possible by two GHIL scholarships, which also allowed me to discuss my ongoing work with colleagues at the Institute.

Between 1760 and 1830, town directories became a popular medium for the representation of English urban landscapes. Their main feature was a list of local tradespeople and ‘notable’ inhabitants along with their occupations and places of residence. Often, descriptions of the town, its history, and other information on transport links, amenities, and sights were added, thus combining classic elements of the guidebook with the directory. To be sure, such volumes were not an exclusively English phenomenon, but formed part of a wider European trend during that period. Nevertheless, singling out the English variety for further investigation proved a valuable starting point for a better understanding of the development, forms, and functions of this genre. Studying this in more detail is of interest not just because directories (and their counterparts in other European and American territories) were a significant product on the book market, but also because historians have used them as sources for more than a century. However, the reasons for their production, purchase, use, and, at times, collection and preservation have so far only been sketchily researched. In light of recent approaches in the humanities towards considering spaces and spatial formations not as fixed ‘containers’, but as socially and culturally constructed,1 it seemed even more pressing and promising to look afresh at a medium that is quintessentially a verbal cartography of urban life.

These observations first made me wonder why directories became so successful and what exactly they contributed to economic and cultural life as well as to spatial orientation at a time of rapid urbanization. In my book, I begin by retracing the origins and development of directories within the wider European history of such publications, identifying the peculiarities of the English volumes in terms of content and style, as well as the conditions under which they were produced and received. Directories dealt primarily with the upper and middle ranks of society for whom they were designed, especially urban tradespeople, professional men, and travellers, and catered for their interests and demands by supplying information, orientation, and entertainment.

In the next section of my book, I look at directories specifically as knowledge repositories. I analyse more closely what information editors deemed relevant and how they collected or produced, compiled, structured, and presented it. The vast amounts of data available could be arranged by various criteria and each pattern allowed for different modes of seeking and finding information. The overall success of directories and the traces of individual use left within these books demonstrate that such reference works were indeed used in conducting day-to-day business. Not everyone, however, welcomed the publication of personal information on a grand scale. This was one reason for the often rather sketchy coverage of the local trading population; another was that the sheer fluctuation and fluidity of urban life meant that no directory, however ambitiously produced, could ever document it exactly.

Creating a broadly accurate snapshot of a town and its residents, however, was not the only challenge editors faced. Often, their most difficult task was to describe with precision but brevity where a given person could be found and contacted. At a time when addresses were hardly standardized and street signage was rare, this required much creativity and skill. In fact, some editors went further than just finding the right words and campaigned for the introduction of house numbers and street signs in their towns. These measures would significantly help in formulating concise and accurate addresses, and in applying them to wayfinding. Indeed, the findings I present in this chapter demonstrate that directories very likely played an important role in changing both verbal and physical practices of addressing and wayfinding.

This contribution to spatial orientation, however, was not limited to the lists of inhabitants. Many directories included descriptions of the town—its history, sights, and institutions. Apart from being conscious selections, these tended not to be purely factual, but evaluated places and structures in the light of certain ideals, such as economic growth, Enlightenment culture, polite sociability, and modern architecture. Thus they created a verbal and affective map of the town, designed to attract visitors and to provide orientation within the cultural, social, and economic fabric of urban space. For residents, they could also help to boost confidence and assertiveness within a climate of interurban competition.

Taken together, the multiple functions that directories fulfilled for contemporary users rendered urban space more legible and navigable by naming, cataloguing, ordering, describing, and deciphering a town’s individual parts and overall structures, and charging them with meaning. Exploring this in more detail offers fascinating insights into the complex relationship between urban media and urban experiences, along with the as yet rarely studied history of orientation practices.

The featured image shows a depiction printed in Bisset’s Magnificent Guide, or Grand Copperplate Directory, for the Town of Birmingham (1808). Artwork in the public domain.

Cite this blog post
Cristina Sasse (2022, February 17). Directories and the Legibility of Urban Spaces, 1760–1830. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from

  1. For an introduction and overview see Susanne Rau, Räume: Konzepte, Wahrnehmungen, Nutzungen (Frankfurt am Main, 2017); Jörg Döring and Tristan Thielmann (eds.), Spatial Turn: Das Raumparadigma in den Kultur- und Sozialwissenschaften (Bielefeld, 2008); Michel Pauly and Martin Scheutz (eds.), Cities and their Spaces: Concepts and their Use in Europe (Cologne, 2014). []

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Cristina Sasse

She completed her Ph.D. at Justus-Liebig-Universitaet Giessen, where she was also a teaching and research assistant at the chair of early modern history.

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