Human Municipal Documents by Robert Cortes Holliday

Story type: Essay

A literary adventurer not long since found himself, by one of the exigencies incident to his precarious career, turning over in the process of cataloguing a kind of literature in which up to that time he had been very little read, a public collection of published municipal documents. This gentleman had had a notion for a good many years that municipal documents were entirely for very serious people engaged in some useful undertakings. He had never conceived of them as works of humour and objects of art. But his disinclination to this department of pure literature was dissolved, as most prejudices may be, by acquaintance with the subject.

Municipal documents are human documents. They are the autobiographies of communities. The personalities of Topeka, Kansas, of Limoges, France, and of Heidelberg, Germany, rise before the impressionable student of municipal documents like the figures of personal autobiography, like Benvenuto Cellini, Marie Bashkirtsev, Benjamin Franklin, Miss Mary Maclane, Mr. George Moore.

A very touching quality in municipal documents is their naivete–that unavoidable and unconscious self-revelation which is much of the great charm and value of all autobiographies. By the way, do statisticians really understand municipal documents, or do they think them valuable simply because they are full of statements of fact?

Our literary gentleman, at all events, found his task very engaging, though as a cataloguer he was much perplexed by the extraordinary informality, in one respect, of formal public papers, a curious provinciality, as he could but take it to be, of municipalities. A very common neglect, he found, in such publications is to make any mention anywhere of the relation to geography of the community chronicling its history.

He would read, for instance, that the pamphlet in his hand was the “Auditor’s Report of Receipts and Expenditures for the Financial Year Ending February 10, 1875, for the Town of Andover.” Where, he asked, with absolute certainty, was the town of Andover here referred to? He examined the printer’s imprint, which was explicit–personally: “Printed by Warren F. Draper, 1875.” There was something very friendly about this. Printers of public documents seem to be an amiable, neighbourly lot: “Printed at the Enterprise Office,” one mentions casually in a large, warm-hearted fashion. Another imprint reads, “Auburn, Printed by Charles Ferris, Daily Advertiser Office, 1848,” Mr. Ferris, in his lifetime, was evidently a very pleasant man, but a little careless of what to him, no doubt, were inessential details. He was thoughtless of the dark ignorance in places remote from Auburn of the Daily Advertiser. Another prominent Auburnian of the same craft, one W. S. Morse, it may be learned from some of the products of his press, flourished in 1886. But, the puzzled cataloguer inquires, was Mr. Morse successor to Mr. Ferris, or was he official printer to the Government of Auburn, Maine, far from the scene of Mr. Ferris’s public services, possibly in Auburn, New York? To these picayune points the breezy gentlemen make no reference.

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The worker with public documents turns from the title pages to search the documents themselves. Are these the “Proceedings of the Board of Chosen Freeholders” of the City of Albany, Missouri, or of Albany, New Hampshire? (A cataloguer has a faint impression that there is an Albany, too, somewhere in the State of New York.) Is this a “Copy of Warrant for Annual Town Meeting” of Lancaster, Massachusetts, or New Hampshire, or Pennsylvania? Impossible, he thinks, that there should be no internal evidence.

He reads on and on. He notes the intimate nature of an Article 19: “To see if the town will accept a gift from Hannah E. Bigelow, with conditions.” He peruses “Selectman’s Accounts” of expenditures, how there was “Paid on account of Grammar School” such or such an amount; he learns the cost of “Hay Scales,” the expenses of “Fire Dep’t, Cemetery, Street Lamps.” He peers behind the official scenes at Decoration Day: monies paid out of the public treasury for “Brass Band, Address ($20.00), flowers, flags, tuning piano.” He goes over appropriations for “Repairs at Almshouse.” He sits with the “Trustees of Memorial Hall,” and informs himself concerning conditions at the “Lunatic Hospital.” He follows with feeling municipal accessions, “purchase of a Road-scraper, which we find a very useful machine, and probably money judiciously expended.” But more and more amazed at the circumstance as he continues he is left totally in the dark as to where he is all the while.

Sometimes the mention, made necessary in connection with plans for some public improvement, of a well-known river, say, revealed the town’s location. Occasionally the comparative antiquity of the civilisation supplied inspiration for a good guess as to its situation–that it was the town of that name in New England rather than the one in Oklahoma. Multiplied clues of identity, again, built up a case: “Official Ballot” (ran the title) “for Precinct W. Attleburough, Tuesday. Nov. 3, 1896.” The name “Wm. M. Olin” was given as that of the “Secretary of the Commonwealth.” Of the first page that was all. In heaven’s name! exclaimed the cataloguer, what commonwealth? A study of the list of candidates on this ballot, giving their places of residence, however, fortified one’s natural supposition–“of Worcester, of Lynn, of Haverhill, of Amherst, of Pittsfield” (ah!), “of Boston.” It is a reasonable surmise that this Ballot pertains to the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

It is not here stated that the name of its native State is never discovered in the whole of any American municipal document. Often, in some indirect allusion, somewhere in the text it may be found. Frequently, too, it is true, the State seal is printed upon the title page or cover of the volume. And in instances the name of the State stands out clearly enough upon the page of title. But in case after case, in the occupation giving rise to this paper, the only expedient was recourse to a file of city directories, collating names of streets in these with those mentioned in the documents.

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Another curious idiosyncrasy of one branch of public document–which informs the labour of cataloguing them with something of the alluring fascination of putting together jig-saw picture puzzles (“spoke,” in the words of Artemas Ward, “sarcastic”) is the extraordinary variety of names that can be found by municipalities to entitle the Mayor’s annual eloquence. This versatile character may deliver himself of an Annual Address, Message, Communication, Statement, or of “Remarks.”

A cataloguer was surprised to discover, in “An Act to Incorporate and Vest Certain Powers in the Freeholders and Inhabitants of the village of Brooklyn, in the County of Kings,” the prophetic enlightenment of the Inhabitants of that village in the year 1816. The voice of Andrew Carnegie, Colonel Roosevelt, and Prof. Brander Matthews speaks in the following passage: “That the section of the town of Brooklyn, commonly known as ‘The Fire District,’ and contained within the following bounds, viz.: Beginning at the public landing south of Pierpont’s distillery, formerly the property of Philip Livingston, deceased, on the East River, thence running along the public road leading from said landing to its intersection with Redhook lane, thence along Redhook lane to where it intersects Jamaica turnpike road, thence a North East course to the head of the Wallabaght mill-pond, thence thro the centre of said mill pond to the East river, and thence down the East river to the place of beginning, shall continue to be known and distinguished by the Name of the Village of Brooklyn.” “Thro” certainly is phonetic spelling.

It was the sterling character of these villagers that then laid the foundation for the better half of a mighty city to come. The “act” concludes: “And then and there proceed to elect Five discreet freeholders, resident within said village, to be trustees thereof.” So witness is borne to this vernacular quality of discretion in the twilight of Brooklyn history.

The aesthetic consideration of municipal documents has not received much attention. The format of a municipal document, however, is in itself a delightful essay in unconscious self-characterisation. Those of the United States express a plain democratic people. They have, in fact, all the commonness of the job printer. “Printed at the Journal Office,” is, indeed, their physical character.

The municipal documents of Great Britain are usually bound, in good English book-cloth, that peculiar fabric to which the connoisseur of books is so sensitive, and which, for some inexplicable reason, it is, apparently, impossible to manufacture in this country; or in neat boards, with cloth backs. Or if in paper it is of an interesting colour and texture. A noble heraldic device, the coat of arms of the city or borough, is stamped in gold above, or below, the title. This is repeated upon the title-page, the typography of which is not without distinction. The paper has more refinement than that used in such American publications. The effect, in fine, is of something aristocratic. The “Mayoral Minutes” of Kensington is rather a handsome quarto volume.

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An added touch of distinction is given these British volumes by the presentation card, tipped in after the front cover. A really exquisite little thing is this one: it bears, placed with great nicety, its coat of arms above, delicately reduced in size; across the middle, in beautiful sensitive type, it reads: “With the City Accountant’s Compliments”; in the lower left corner, in two lines, “Guildhall, Gloucester.”

The municipal documents of Germany are very German. Verwaltungsbericht is one of those extraordinary words which are so long that when you look at one end of the word you cannot see the other end. These volumes sometimes might possibly be mistaken, by a foreigner, for “gift books.” Often they are bound, in pronounced German taste, in several strong colours in a striking combination. Buttressing the decorative German letters, on cover and title page, appears some one of various conventionalisations of the German eagle, made very black, and wearing a crown and carrying a sceptre. In “Verwaltungsbericht des Magistrats der Koniglichen Haupt- und Residenzstadt Hanover, 1906-7,” the frontispiece, the armorial bearings, “Wappen der Koniglichen” and so forth is a powerfully coloured lithograph, a very ornate affair, of lions (of egg-yolk yellow), armour, and leaves and castles. These German publications are filled with excellent photographs of public places and buildings, and extensive unfolding coloured maps and diagrams. A gentleman with a taste for art viewed with much admiration a handsome plate of “des Dresdener Wassenwerks.” They contain, too, these volumes, multitudes of pictures of distinguished citizens, often photogravures from official paintings; these gentlemen sometimes appear decorated with massive orders, or again decorated simply with very German expressions of countenance. The “Chronik der Haupt- und Reisdenzstadt Stuttgart, 1902,” somewhat suggests bound volumes of “Jugend,” with its heavy pen and ink head and tail pieces, of women marketing, of a bride and groom kneeling at the altar, and one, an excellent little drawing of a horse mounting with a heavily laden wagon a rise of ground, the driver beside him, and a street lamp behind protruding from below (remember this is a municipal document).

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A quaint little duodecimo is the “Jaarbockie voor de Stad Delft,” with little headpieces pictorially representing the seasons and a curiously wood-cut astrologer introducing “den Almanak.” A rather square-toed kind of a little volume, neatly bound in grey boards, and very nicely printed, having altogether an effect of housewifely cleanliness, is the “Verslag van den Toestand der Gemeente Haarlem over het jaar 1894. Door Burgemeester en Wethouders Uitgebracht aan den Gemeenteraad; imprint Gedrukt bij Gebr Nobels, te Haarlem.”

The language of Great Britain’s municipal documents is lofty: “The Royal Burrough of Kensington, Minute of His Worship the Mayor (Sir H. Seymour King, K.C.I.E., M.P.) for the year ending November, 1901.” (Here is imprinted the design of a quartered shield containing a crown, a Papal hat, and two crosses, and, beneath, the motto: “Quid Nobis Ardui.”) “Printed” (continues the reading) “by order of the Council, 30th, October, 1901. Jas. Truscott and Son, Printer, Suffolk Lane, E.C.” And in the following there is something of the rumble of the history of England:


Presented from the

Court of Common Council

to the


On his Majesty’s Accession to the Throne,
And on various other Occasions, and his Answers,
Resolutions of the Court,
Granting the Freedom of the City to several
Noble Personages; with their Answers,
Instructions at different Times to the
Representatives of the City in Parliament.
Petitions to Parliament for different Purposes,
Resolutions of the Court,
On the Memorial of the Livery, to request
the Lord Mayor to call a Common Hall;
For returning Thanks to Lord Chatham,
And his Answer;
For erecting a Statue in Guildhall,
William Beckford, Esq.; late Lord Mayor,
Agreed to between the 23d October, 1760, and the
13th. October, 1770
Printed by Henry Fenwick, Printer to the Honorable
City of London.”

Henry Fenwick, Esq., takes himself with dignity.

But to turn from the pomp of state, to peep for a moment at the intimate life of the people of England a couple of centuries ago, few things could be better than “The Constable’s Accounts of the Manor of Manchester,” from which a few items of “Disbursements” are cited;

"Pd. Expences apprehending two Felons.... -/1/-
"Pd. Expences maintaining them two Nights
in the Dungeon ...................... -/2/-
"To Ann Duncan very ill to take her over into
Ireland ............................. -/4/-
"To Straw for the Dungeon ............... -/4/-
"To Belman sundry public Cries .......... -/7/6
"To three pair of Stockings and dying for the
Beedle .............................. -/9/-
"To Wine drinking Royal healths the Prince's
birthday at his full age ............ 3/16/6
"To a distressed Sailor to Leverpoole ... -/1/-
"Pd. Boonfire on King's Coronation Day .. -/6/6
"Gave Nancy Mackeen a Stroller .......... -/-/6
"Pd. Musicians at rejoicing for good news
from Germany, and on birth of the Prince
of Wales ............................ 2/7/-
"Pd. for a Cat with nine Tails .......... -/3/-
"To a lame Stranger ..................... -/1/-
"Pd. lighting Lamps last Dark ........... -/2/6
"Several Fortune Tellers Indicted, etc... -/12/-
"Pd. Lawyer Nagave advising Roger Blomely's
Case bringing Actions agt. the Constable
for putting him in the Dungeon for being
drunk on Sunday in time of divine
Service .............................. l/l/-"

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It is interesting to note in this connection that on August 16, 1762, was “Pd.” one “Barnard Shaw maintenance of Rioters and Evidence, 1-11-6.”

A circumstance of considerable human interest, too, and one possibly little known, is the great aversion to the sight of bears held by the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight, at least in the year 1891. A copy of the “Bye-Laws” of the “Administrative County of the Isle of Wight,” issued that year, contains, following articles relating to “Regulating the Sale of Coal” and “Spitting,” this:

“As to Bears.

“1. No bear shall be taken along or allowed to be upon any highway, unless such bear shall be securely confined in a vehicle closed so as to completely hide such bear from view.

“2. Any person who shall offend against this Bye-law shall be liable to a fine not exceeding in any case five pounds.”

“Atti del Municipale! Atti del Consiglio Comunale di Siena. Bollettino Degli atti Pubblicati Dalla Giunta Municipale di Roma.” It is fitting that quartos of such titles as these, containing addresses beginning Signori Consiglieri and Onorevoli Signori, should look something like Italian opera, and be bound in vellum, title and date stamped in gold on bright red and purple labels, with sides of mottled purple boards, and imprints such as “Bologna. Regia Tipografia Fratelli Merlani,” and of typography the best. And on genuine paper, far from the woodpulp of American municipal graft contracts.

Once, indeed, municipal documents were august pages. Some of the early Italian and German are on paper that will last as long as the law. And in these times the title pages of municipal documents were Piranesiesque: massive architectural scroll work framing stone tablets, hung with garlands of fruit and grain, and decorated with carved lions, human heads, and histrionic masks. And initial letters throughout to correspond.

Now who but France would bind her municipal documents in heavily tooled, full levant morocco, with grained silk inside covers?

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