The Pittsburgh City Directory of 1815: Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Pittsburgh City Directory of 1815: Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know

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'Pittsburgh in 1817, from a sketch made by Mrs. E. C. Gibson, wife of James Gibson of the Philadelphia bar, while on their wedding tour.'

City directories: an historical resource. City directories came before telephone books. They listed the residents of a city, along with its businesses, streets, organisations, and institutions. They served as handy guides for travellers, and factbooks for those with a need to know. For those of us living downstream in the future, they provide insightful glimpses into social and cultural history. They can also make us scratch our heads in bemusement.

Did you know, for instance, that in 1815, it was necessary for US tradespeople to know how to convert currency? Not just foreign currency: currency from other states. This, people, is one of the many fascinating things we can learn from the 1815 city directory for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is titled The Pittsburgh Directory for 1815: containing the names, professions, and residence of the heads of families and persons in business in the borough of Pittsburgh; with an appendix containing a variety of useful information. So pretend you're interested in life at the Forks of the Ohio and join us for an examination of this short document.

Pittsburgh in 1815: A Brief Overview

In 1815, the year after the War of 1812 officially ended (this will be sort of important later), Pittsburgh was:

  • 'situated on a point of land formed by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, in lat. 40° 35' N. long. 80° 38' W. about 300 miles W. by N. from Philadelphia, 250 from Washington City, and 1,100 (by land) from New Orleans.' As far as we know, it still is, if the tectonic plates haven't shifted too much.

  • growing in population. '[A] calculation founded on what is believed to be correct data makes an estimate of upwards of 9,000.' That's compared to Philadelphia, on the other side of the state, with 111,2101. That represented rapid growth: in 1800, the population was just '2,400 souls'. According to the directory, 'This great increase of population is to be attributed to the late war with Great Britain, which converted a great portion of the capital of the seaboard into manufactures, much of which was concentrated in this place.' It's an ill wind that blows no one any good, and the War of 1812 was good for Pittsburgh.

  • literate. 'Three weekly newspapers are published in the borough, besides two periodical literary works...'

  • equipped with permanent structures. 'The public buildings, (in additition [sic] to the churches, hereafter enumerated) are a Court house, Prothonotary's [chief court clerk's], Register's, Sheriff's and Commissioner's offices, a Jail, three incorporated Banks, a Dramatic Theatre, a Masonic Hall, three Market Houses, (one in the Diamond and two in Second street) an Academy, etc.'

In short, Pittsburgh in 1815 was an up-and-coming place.

Notables

The Pittsburgh City Directory for 1815 listed heads of household in alphabetical order, along with their professions, and locations, such as 'Jail alley and market', or 'opposite round church'. They were a colourful bunch, these Pittsburghers, who included:

  • Ebenezer Beatty, chandler, east side of Liberty between Virgin Alley and 6th. Chandlers provided supplies for ships. Pittsburgh was a hub of river traffic, and boasted four steamboats built there, named New Orleans, Vesuvius, Aetna, and Buffalo. Who thought it was a cool idea to name steamboats after volcanoes is not clear.

  • Mary Corpse, a 'tayloress', east side Penn between Hand and Irwin.

  • John Davidson, whose 'liquor store' was north side Second between Market and Wood. Whiskey was a major product in Pittsburgh and a cause of the Whiskey Rebellion, the 1794 clash between President George Washington and the local farmers (Washington won). There were four breweries in Pittsburgh, too, making 10,000 barrels of beer, ale, and porter annually. That was enough for a barrel for every man, woman, and child in the borough, with more to spare.

  • Ephraim Frisbee, shipwright, east side of Penn between Hay and Marbury. Lots of work for a shipwright, with all that river traffic.

  • Mary Irwin, widow, corner of Third and Liberty. Mary Pattison Irwin was a pioneer businesswoman in Pittsburgh. She was born in Ireland and came to America with her husband, a Revolutionary War hero. She operated a ropewalk for producing the hemp rope needed in quantity for boat and ship traffic. Rope-making was an important industry: 'There are three large and extensive Rope Walks, which make all kinds of ropes, twine and cordage. The principal part of the cordage for Perry's Fleet was made here. Two cables weighed each, about 4,000 lbs. and were 4½ inches in diameter.' Admiral Perry was the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie. Many place-names around Pittsburgh attest to his popularity.

Useful Information

The City Directory really delivers on the 'useful information' front. For instance, we learn that James Madison was President of the United States (we knew that), and that his salary was a whopping $25,000 per annum. John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, got $4,000, and associate justices like Bushrod Washington got $3,500. All the major offices, national and state, are listed, with salaries. We can find out who the sheriffs and prothonotaries were. This is cool stuff.

Here are some other titbits:

  • We have the days and hours for all the various mail deliveries, such as 'The Beaver Mail arrives on Monday evening, and closes same day at sun-set.' That means your mail from Beaver, Pennsylvania, arrived on Monday, and if you had mail for Beaver, you should bring it before evening. 12 cents would get your mail 40 miles or less; over 500 miles went up to 37½ cents for one sheet. Rates went up accordingly. 'But pamphlets are not to be received or conveyed by post on the main line, or any cross road, where the Mail is large.' They had junk mail problems, too.

  • The City Directory contains census figures for the whole United States! The decennial census was a bit of a novelty, having begun in 1790. Thus we learn that as of 1810, Pennsylvania had 809,772 citizens.

  • We have tables of taxes on items and stamp duties. We also find out who the bank officers are in Pittsburgh.

  • We find out that Robert Bruce2 was the president of the Pittsburgh Bible Society. A $50 contribution would make you a life member of this useful organisation. There was also a Humane Society – for helping poor humans.

  • We learn of the Pittsburgh Chemical and Physiological Society. 'This Society was formed in 1813, by a number of scientific gentlemen resident in Pittsburgh, and has since rapidly increased. There are at present belonging to the Society, a Library, Chemical and Philosophical apparatus, and a valuable cabinet of mineralogy. Their meetings are held every two weeks, in a room appropriated for that purpose in the Court house.' Those must have been interesting meetings. There was also a subscription library company, two volunteer fire companies, and three Masonic Lodges.

  • Eight churches are listed in Pittsburgh at this time. Four of them are various flavours of Presbyterian, not surprising as the most common surnames in the directory are Scots. There is a First Presbyterian and a Second Presbyterian. The aforementioned Robert Bruce, Reverend, is the pastor of the Seceders, while Reverend John Black leads the Covenanters. Non-Presbyterians could choose from Episcopalian, Methodist, German Lutheran, or Catholic.

  • There is a list of streets in Pittsburgh. The list is short.

  • There is a list of 'manufactories'. The intent reader may wish to learn more about butt-hinges, anvils and anchors, and air foundries3.

  • The directory explains to war widows and orphans how to apply for their pensions, and lays out the process for claiming land bounties given for military service.

  • Did you think US currency always looked like the stuff in your wallet, Americans? Think again. The directory not only lists the gold and silver coins current in Pittsburgh in 1815, but tells how to convert coinage from other countries and other states. 'To reduce South Carolina and Georgia into New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Virginia, to the given sum add 2/7 thereof. Into Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, multiply the given sum by 45 and divide by 28. Into New York and North Carolina, from the given sum subtract 1/7 and double the remainder.' Oh, for a digital calculator.

  • Finally, there's a list of roads in the United States, with distances between towns.

Obviously, a city directory was the thing to have when setting out for new frontiers. A handy guidebook for explorers, entrepreneurs and hitchhikers alike. Also useful as a reference for historians and those wishing to write historical novels. We owe a vote of thanks to compiler and land agent James M Riddle, who could be found 'on the south side of 3d, between Market and Wood streets, and nearly opposite the Farmers' and Mechanics' Bank.'

Image courtesy of Gutenberg.org

1Previous to US independence, Philadelphia was the second-largest city in the British Empire.2Not to be confused with Robert the Bruce (1274-1329). Also called Robert I, this Bruce was king of Scotland from 1306 until his death. The Reverend Doctor Robert Bruce (1778–1846), who may or may not have been a relative, was also the first Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh.3'... at which castings of every description, from a cannon to a spider, are extensively and handsomely executed. In connection with the Foundry of Messrs. McClurgs and McKnight, is a mill for boring Cannon.'

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