Specific to the United States, the Social Register is a directory of names and addresses of prominent American families who form the social elite. Inclusion in the Social Register has historically been limited to members of polite society, or those with "old money", within the Social Register cities of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, Providence, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., as well as ones for "Southern Cities". In European countries, similar directories for the perceived upper-class, such as Burke's Peerage & Landed Gentry in the United Kingdom, have been published for hundreds of years.
In the United States, one of the earliest social registers was the Cleveland Social Directory, later known as the Cleveland Blue Book. Its first publication appeared in 1880 and was described by its publisher as a "Ladies Visiting List and Shopping Guide" for Cleveland society. The original New York Social Register first was published in 1886 by Louis Keller, a German-American of wide social acquaintance, who combined the "visiting lists" of a number of fashionable ladies to compile the families included. Initially, it consisted largely of the descendants of Dutch or English settlers, the "Knickerbocker" merchant class who had built New York City from the time it was a Dutch colony through the British colonial period and the American Revolution.
In the enormously expanded wealthy society of the Gilded Age, the American institution of a Social Register filled a newly perceived void, one that was being served in the United Kingdom by Who's Who, which, since 1849, had identified public figures in Parliament and the professions as well as aristocrats and gentry, and by Burke's Peerage, which had appeared for the first time in 1826 to identify the members of the peerage of the United Kingdom and the baronets. Burke's Peerage was extended beyond the peerage in 1833, when the first of the companion series of volumes that became known as Burke's Landed Gentry, was published. Family backgrounds of those of purely celebrity status were not added to Burke's until the 1930s, when the family had lost editorial control.
By 1918, the above mentioned New York Social Register had spawned eighteen such annual volumes, representing twenty-six cities, such as Dayton, Ohio. This reduced to 12 after 1927 as most of the editions west of St Louis discontinued. There was no single all-encompassing Social Register; until the cities were condensed in one large volume in 1977; local indices were compiled and published annually. Smaller areas within the scope of the New York Social Register have entities that publish "blue books" or "Social Lists" such as for Morris County, which often includes members of the New York register in their listings due to multiple residences. The Morris Social Directory, published annually since the late 1800s, lists the notable residents of the county, especially of the Morristown area which attracted many social register families from Manhattan to build "country residences" (christened with names) on self-sustaining estates with farms that were maintained year-round, but visited as retreats or for specific "seasons" of social activities.
One's entry in a Social Register was not guaranteed to be permanent. People were removed from the ranks for various scandals or pecadillos, or simply for pursuing "undesirable" careers such as the theatre. One example concerns an actress, Jane Wyatt, who is a descendant of the prominent Van Rensselaer family. Wyatt was thought to have been removed from inclusion because of her profession, but was in fact still listed until her death in October 2006 at the age of 96. Jane Wyatt's article states she was restored to the register after her marriage. Charles Black was dropped from the Social Register in 1950 for marrying ex-child star Shirley Temple.
A successor publication, The Social Register, is released annually as a single national directory, published in winter and summer editions from New York by Forbes magazine. Those aspiring to be listed must be sponsored by at least five individuals currently appearing in its pages. Those sponsored are reviewed by an advisory committee that makes the final decision regarding inclusion. Approximately five percent of suggested names are added each year. The committee also arrives at additions on its own and sends the potential listees "blanks"—forms to fill in information.
In addition to winter and summer addresses and the household members, a Social Register lists the educational backgrounds, maiden names, club affiliations of listed persons, and the names given to estates or grand residences. The Summer edition lists names of yachts, specifications, and country of registration. Juniors may be listed with their parents beginning at birth (a recent change from the age of thirteen). The Social Register Observer is a separate publication that lists "Dilatory Domiciles" Births, Deaths, Marriages, and any address/telephone changes, to include listed members articles, party photos, and recent published books by those listed. The "Observer" is issued each year with the Summer edition.
Despite the yearly updates, The Social Register continues to name its sections in the same fashion as its former editions. The arcane title "Dilatory Domiciles" refers to house listings in the summer register that were submitted too late for inclusion in the main (winter) edition. The section called "Married Maidens" refers to a cross-listing of married and maiden names. In the past few years the Social Register has moved to include email addresses and cell phone numbers. The quixotic typography that was almost a trademark of the Social Register has given way to a more mundane typesetting standard.
Members of the so-called café society were not necessarily listed in the early Social Register. This has changed recently. Bobby Short, the "king" of café society, was listed for many years until his death. The opera singer Jessye Norman was listed; many celebrities or their families were listed such as Chevy Chase, Glenn Close, Stockard Channing, Harry Hamlin, James Spader, Julia Child, and Fox News' Brit Hume, Tucker Carlson, and Alexandra (A.B.) Stoddard.
In the peak times of social exclusivity, the first half of the 20th century, localities of all sizes published social directories, typically called "Blue Books". Many competed with the directories of the Social Register Association. A few competing social registers continue publication, notably the Southwest Blue Book (subtitled The Original Society Directory of Southern California), which Lenora King Berry founded in 1903 and which she and her descendants have published annually, ever since. Established in 1917, the Los Angeles Blue Book (subtitled The Society Register of Southern California) also continues as an annual publication. It included a substantial number of Roman Catholics from onset, in part because Spanish land-grant families constituted the city's first elite society. While it ultimately has met the international quality of the city's present prominent members, it continues generally to avoid listing persons in the entertainment field. The Denver Social Register and Record was first published in 1908 as Who's Who in Denver Society from materials that had been collected since 1904 by Mrs. Crawford Hill. It was distinguished from the unmodified listings of "Social Register cities" by its inclusion of chapters on subjects such as "Worth Over a Million," "Pioneers in the Social Field," "Types of Denver Beauty," and "Eligible Men." The Denver book ceased publication in 2012. Washington D.C. has the Washington Blue Book and "The Social List of Washington" better known as the "Green Book" and it is also published annually. In Texas, "Social Directories" for Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth came late to the practice (1930s) but continued publication into the 21st century.
In March 2006, the Social Register web site was launched. It is intended for the use of listed persons only, although the site is also available to the public to answer any questions regarding the Social Register. The Social Register Observer may be viewed on the site also.
Canadian register developed
In the case of Canada, proximity to the United States and increasing cultural distance from the United Kingdom led to the inclusion of some Canadians in American social registers. Later, uniquely Canadian volumes were created, including a series with nationwide coverage, The Social Register of Canada, first published in 1958.
Some European precursors
In continental Europe, the precursors of Burke's were the genealogical almanacs, many of which were maintained more or less informally across Europe, deriving their information from court gazettes and published genealogies. In 1763, the first edition of the Almanach de Gotha appeared, which detailed the ancestry of all of the reigning European dynasties and superseded all others as the standard work of reference.
- The Philadelphia volume included Wilmington, Delaware.
- examples may be found in Page 2 of the 1925 Social Register of St. Louis, Missouri
- The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, "Cleveland Blue Book"
- According to the current publisher, Forbes, at ForbesInc.com.
- Social Register online
- A reference to the social register for Morris County, New Jersey in historical records maintained by a group focused on a historic home that has now been turned into a country club, reads, "...After James's death his youngest son, George Wetmore Colles 2nd, inherited The Evergreens. George (1836-1911) was a lawyer; his wife, an author. They kept homes in both New York and Morristown. The 1902 Morris Social Directory lists Mrs. Julia Keese (Nelson) Colles and children Miss Gertrude, Miss Julia, and Mr. George Jr. as residing at 20 High Street.
- Alleman, Richard (2005-02-01). Hollywood: The Movie Lover's Guide: The Ultimate Insider Tour to Movie L.A.. Broadway. p. 335. ISBN 978-0-7679-1635-6.
- How do you get listed in the Social Register?, The Straight Dope
- Gloria Berry Duthie & Deborah Duthie McKenna, editors, Southwest Blue Book 2008: Original Society Directory of Southern California, Founded in 1903 by Lenora King Berry; Newport Beach, California: Gloria Berry Duthie & Deborah Duthie McKenna, 2007; page 3.
- "Blue Book centennial a history of prominence", Rocky Mountain News 26 December 2005
- Stephen Birmingham, Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York notes the exceptions to exclusion of Jews
- Cleveland Amory, Who Killed Society?
- Stephen Richard Higley, Privilege, Power, and Place: The Geography of the American Upper Class Based on the geographical locations of listed persons in the 1988 Social Register
- The Social Register of Canada, volume I (1958), and subsequent volumes 2 (1959), and 3 (1961), The Social Register of Canada Association. Montreal, Canada
- The Power Elite
- Social Register Online
- St. Louis, Missouri Social Register 1924
- Green with Envy, Social List of Washington, D.C., Green Book
- Green Is Good, Too, Social List of Washington, Green Book
- The Straight Dope: How do you get listed in the Social Register?
- "The Denver Social Register and Record celebrates publication with the annual Champagne Reception & Tea," The Denver Post 12 December 2002
- "Blue Book centennial a history of prominence", Rocky Mountain News 26 December 2005