A remarkable reference in the days before Internet

Laurel Leader

Billions of dollars are spent annually to protect people’s personal information and guard against identity theft. These concerns, however, are entirely a product of the Internet. Prior to that, personal information was not only available, but offered without a thought. The best example of that is a remarkable reference that was sold to communities across the country―including Laurel―called the Polk City Directory.

R.L. Polk & Co. was established in 1870, coincidentally the same year Laurel became an incorporated town. Ralph Lane Polk started his company in Detroit by compiling and selling town directories in communities along the local railroad. In an interview, Mike Snyder, the general manger for City Directories for the company, said the first directories in the 1800s were important tools for salesmen traveling town-to-town on stagecoaches.

The company was an instant success and it quickly branched out from Detroit to include city directories in the mid-West states and country-wide. The company also expanded into directories for specific trades, such as agriculture, banking and real estate. In 1920, it began compiling motor vehicle records, and within seven years, it covered the entire U.S. and had become the go-to provider of automotive statistics for auto makers and sellers across the country.

One of its best known products was CarFax, which supplied used vehicle reports. R.L. Polk & Co. was acquired by IHS Inc., a London-based information provider, in 2013.

Polk published City Directories for Laurel from 1957 to 1979. Copies of some years can be viewed at the Laurel Historical Society and the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library.

What makes this reference book remarkable is the information it provides on every person and business in Laurel.

In addition to the usual name, address and phone number found in standard phone books, the Polk City Directory stated that it also answered these questions about individuals (remember these books were published in the 1950s and 60s):

“Is he married? What is his wife’s name? Does he own his home? If he doesn’t have a phone, where is the nearest one? Who are his neighbors? What does he do for a living? Where does he work? Is he the ‘head of household’ or a resident?”

A listing from the directory would read like:

Smith Raymond T (Sarah C) waiter Laurel Hotel h2 Gorman av Tel PA 5-1234

This means that Raymond T. Smith is married to Sarah C. Smith. He is a waiter at the Laurel Hotel and he owns his home at 2 Gorman Ave. Their phone number is PA5-1234.

For businesses, the directory answered these questions:

“Just what do they do? Is it a partnership or corporation? Who are the partners (if it is a firm)? Who are the chief officers (if incorporated)? Location of branches.”

It provided details about streets and neighborhoods (“What is the character of the neighborhood?”), community associations (“When are the stated meetings?”), churches (“Who are the pastors?”), and schools (“Who are the principals?”). In the 1968 edition, the title page lists the surrounding places included with the town directory: “Avalon Manor, Bond Mill Park, Briarwood, Fox Rest South, Fox Rest Woods, Imperial Woods, Laurel Pines, Maryland City, McCahill Estates, Montpelier Park, North Laurel, Oak Crest, Rocky Gorge Estates, Snow Hill Manor, Snowden Oaks, Walker Hill and West Laurel Acres.”

Where did all this information come from?

In the front of the book, a statement reads, “The information in this Directory is gathered by an actual canvass and is compiled in a way to insure accuracy.”

According to Snyder, each community had a salesman who solicited ads from local businesses. The salesmen were also responsible for hiring and supervising local temporary help (called “enumerators”) who actually went door-to-door throughout the entire Laurel community collecting personal data from residents who, for the most part, willingly provided it.

That’s hard enough to imagine compared with today’s secrecy as to personal data, but even more remarkable is that, according to Snyder, local companies provided employee lists to Polk as part of the data collection.

The directory was organized into four cross-reference sections: 1) a “Buyers’ Guide and a complete classified business directory;” 2) the directory of businesses and residents, as described above; 3) a “complete street and avenue guide, including a list of householders and occupants;” and 4) a “numerical telephone directory” where residents could be identified by their phone number. The street and avenue guide (#3) went into such detail that every apartment complex in the area had a listing of the occupant in each apartment.

Collecting all this data by hand had to be a massive, time-consuming and expensive effort. To pay for it, the directories cover every square inch of every page―and the covers―with ads. The front and back hard covers each have eight ads, the spine had an ad and, on the 1968 edition, a rubber stamp, that was used to press an ink ad on the side, top and bottom of the pages that is visible when the book is closed. Inside the book, every page has business ads running across the top and bottom, as well as up and down the outside margins. There are also over 50 pages of full- and half-page ads in the front of the book.

All the ads were bought by local businesses.

The directories are chock-full of ads from bygone Laurel businesses: Equitable Trust Bank, Liquor Fair, Laurel Hotel, Mid-City Chevrolet, Keller’s Laurel News Agency, Cook’s Laurel Hardware, Harvey’s Meat Market, Laurel Pines Country Club, The Hobby House, and many more. There are some ads from businesses still going: Fred Frederick Motors, Laurel Car Wash, Ballenger Buick, Poist Gas Company and Academy Ford.

The 1962 edition sold for $25; the 1968 edition for $35. Copies were provided for free to local libraries and the Chamber of Commerce.

Polk inserted some ads for itself with clever uses for the directory. “Cashiers! Tellers! Clerks! Do your employers furnish you with the latest edition of the City Directory? You need it at your elbow at all times to protect your company from forgers and bad-check artists. A few questions checked against City Directory information will trip them at once.”

The old City Directories have become a valuable tool for a more current pastime―genealogy. For instance, the street and avenue guide (#3 above) can be used to identify former neighbors of a relative, a possible source of information. And knowing where someone worked in the 1960s can be a valuable lead when trying to track down people.

Current Polk City Directories for communities around the country are still available, although not nearly as many as in its heyday. But the data collected by Polk these days is publicly available and, according to Snyder, there are strict rules about its use.

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