The Essential Bookshelf On Cincinnati History: Ten Books You Need To Dive Into Cincinnati’s Past

If you’re going to study Cincinnati history, you have an abundance of helpful resources. New books appear almost every day. Publishers like Arcadia Publishing and The History Press are difficult to keep up with as they continually add new titles. At a recent talk on Cincinnati history (Donald Crews’ excellent review of the city’s Freemasons) I was not surprised to learn that Cincinnati was the second-most profitable market for Arcadia Publishing after only Chicago.

Authors such as Kevin Grace, Don Heinrich Tolzmann, Betty Ann Smiddy, and Dann Woellert have multiple volumes available and Jeff Suess and Gina Ruffin Moore have published classics. As good as these books are, you’ll find that authors writing about Cincinnati turn to a relatively small collection of books that may be considered the Essential Cincinnati Bookshelf. These are the books I turn to repeatedly in compiling the Cincinnati Curiosities blog.

The Cincinnati Guide
By The Ohio Writers Project
1943, reissued 1988
Known locally as The WPA Guide and more formally as Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors, this book, edited by Harry Graff, is probably the single essential volume for Cincinnati researchers. There are some things the Ohio Writers’ Project missed as they compiled this book, but they are rare. There are some things they got wrong, and those are rarer still. Even now, at 70 years old, the WPA guide retains a utility that grows with each passing year. It is, in short, a treasure to all who love Cincinnati.

Picture of Cincinnati
By Daniel Drake
1815
This book is, in some ways, the direct ancestor of the WPA Guide, except that it was entirely written by Dr. Drake, who covers everything about Cincinnati from geography to politics to antiquities to medicine. He includes appendices on earthquakes, the aurora borealis and the south-west wind which, for some reason, the WPA Guide ignores. Drake is opinionated and cantankerous at times, but that places him among the most readable authors from the 1815 era.

The Complete Works of Charles Cist
By Charles Cist
If there is any guiding spirit for the Cincinnati Curiosities blog, it must be Charles Cist. No one who explores the history of Cincinnati can avoid Charles Cist, because all Cincinnati historians rely heavily upon Cist’s writing about his beloved adopted city. To be honest, most historians of Cincinnati steal shamelessly from Cist. Mea culpa!

Between 1841 and 1859, Cist published four books that are required reading for students of Cincinnati. Thankfully, the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County has posted, available for free download, digitized copies of all of them:

→  Cincinnati in 1841: its early annals and future prospects

→  Sketches and statistics of Cincinnati in 1851

→  Sketches and statistics of Cincinnati in 1859

→  The Cincinnati miscellany, or, Antiquities of the West, and pioneer history and general and local statistics (1845)

Cincinnati: From River City to Highway Metropolis
By David Stradling
2003
Every generation, Cincinnati receives a solid, comprehensive book that outlines an accessible narrative arc of the city’s history. Stradling is an excellent writer and he paints in the broad outlines of the city’s development with the tools of modern historiography. For writers who find themselves lost in the weeds of arcane Cincinnati lore, Stradling provides a cogent 10,000-foot view, enabling the student to place events in context and consequence. In other words, “What was the final outcome?” and “What does it mean?”

Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens
By Wendell P. Dabney
1926, reissued 1970
The necessary antidote to any Cincinnati history written before 1926—and a lot afterwards as well. Dabney gives a voice to the African Americans who contributed to Cincinnati’s growth and culture, telling stories that would have been lost without his research. It is sometimes heart-breaking to read the sincere pride Dabney has in his subjects, knowing that most of Cincinnati just didn’t care. For a good slice of Cincinnati’s history, Dabney gives “the rest of the story.”

Boss Cox’s Cincinnati: Urban Politics in the Progressive Era
By Zane L. Miller
1968, reissued several times since
It is difficult to remember, after decades of Miller’s influence on urban historians, that he was quite a young man when he published this book. It is not a comprehensive history, which has confused some readers, but it demonstrates ably the old saying that “all politics is local.” This is a book for which footnotes are critical, directing the reader off into rich veins of valuable source materials. Miller has other very good books, but this one is essential.

The Serene Cincinnatians
By Alvin F. Harlow
1950
The much quoted line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” often applies to this book: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Harlow takes a gentle, non-critical stroll through Cincinnati legends. Mostly, he is on target and sometimes he doesn’t let the facts stand in the way of a good story—but he consistently spins a great yarn. It is difficult to get more than a few pages into this book without jotting notes on topics for further research. (A similar book is Dick Perry’s 1966 Vas You Ever In Zinzinnati? A Personal Portrait of Cincinnati but I prefer Harlow.)

Lists such as these are proof of the old Roman dictum, “De gustibus non disputandum est.” In trying to keep my list to 10 books, I left off Cauffield’s and Banfield’s The River Book, Dan Hurley’s excellent Cincinnati The Queen City and the encyclopedic Bicentennial Guide to Greater Cincinnati: A Portrait of Two Hundred Years, John Clubbe’s Cincinnati Observed, all of Caroline Williams’ books, the musty Victorian tomes of Goss, Greve, Leonard and Ford, as well as any number of books I have read and enjoyed very much.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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