Before Google maps, smart watches, and telephone books were created to help people navigate the city, there were city directories. The New York City directories listed the names and addresses of residents, churches, businesses, police stations, organizations, etc. and ran from approximately 1786 to 1934.
There were multiple printers of city directories, but for this post, we will focus on Longworth’s. David, and later his son Thomas, Longworth printed Longworth’s American Almanack, New-York Register, and City Directory from around 1797 to 1842.
The Longworth directories contained a unique section called the Runner’s Vade Mecum. Vade mecum is Latin, meaning, “go with me.” The term has been used in many manuals and guidebooks. Merriam-Webster traces its use back to 1629.
In Longworth’s New York City directories, the Runner’s Vade Mecum was a section in the back of the directory that informed the reader how blocks were numbered on each individual street. In other words, they recorded the cross streets. They did this by listing the house numbers at the end of each street corner. The 1829/30 directory itself describes the Runner’s Vade Mecum as “an extended list of all the streets, lanes, alleys, and slips, in the city, showing their commencement, progress, and termination, with the numbers of the houses at each corner.” The Runner’s Vade Mecum even designates whether the numbers are on the right or left side of the street.
The Runner’s Vade Mecum was not printed every year. Longworth published it every other year, or every couple of years, due to the fact that changes were not significant every single year. Occasionally, printing costs also played a role in the inclusion of this section. In the 1829/1830 city directory, it reads that:
The Runner’s Vade Mecum, comprising an extended list of all the streets in the city, their rise, progress, and termination, with the numbers at each corner, which as inserted in the last publication– the great utility and convenience of which was apparent to all who inspected the same, and which obtained for the Editor the sincere thanks of many intelligent individuals, is not republished this year.”
Even when not published, sometimes the editor would include a note that could contain valuable geographical information. For example, sometimes street names were included in the directory due to popularity, not an official decree. The Runner’s Vade Mecum in the 1829/30 edition reads, “‘Leroy-place–one gentleman refused to buy the book last year because the Editor would not adopt this term–it has been adopted this year, just enough to enable him to sell a book. ‘Smiths-court,’ ‘Armstrongs-court,’ ‘Granite-row,’ ‘Cornhill-row,’ ‘Essex-row,’ ‘Leroy-place,’ ‘Marble-buildings,’ ‘Upper Arcade,’ and such terms were also included.”
Let us now take a look at an example of how the Runners Vade can be used today. In 1835 a man named Alfred Duncombe owned a brush manufacturing business. The Manhattan directory lists the business’s address as 337 Pearl Street. What was the cross street for 337 Pearl Street in 1835? Is it the same today?
The 1835 Runner’s Vade Mecum lists that on Pearl Street the block that intersects with Peck-Slip ends with 312, the block that intersects with Dover ends with 342, and the block that intersects with Franklin Square ends with 352. So, when Duncombe’s business was at 337 Pearl Street, the cross street was Dover. Today, this number is in the same place at the intersection of Pearl and Dover and is right next to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Manhattan numbering could be very irregular and confusing, even back then. The Runner’s Vade Mecum is an attempt to shed light on the organizational schemata of a city still finding its identity, for those in the past, future, and present. As Thomas Longworth remarks in his directory from 1829, Manhattan is “an intermingling variety and a regular state of beautiful confusion.”
This post is by Gina Modero, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections