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The Placenames of Portsmouth

Questions This Way

The history of a town is written into its streets and parks and rivers and schools. Now Portsmouth residents can trace the story of the street they live on. More than 450 are included here. This revolutionary reference book is manna for historians and mind candy for those who just love Portsmouth.




Just when you thought there were no new publishing ideas, along comes Nancy Grossman. Her new book, Placenames of Portsmouth, is the most valuable and original and – dare I say -- "entertaining" reference volume to come along in decades.

Placenames of PortsmouthDo not let the textbook title fool you. Nancy is onto something here in a big way. On the surface this is a research guide listing the derivation of 466 street names in Portsmouth, NH. If it were simply that, this book would be enormously valuable. It is much more.

Nancy has included over 200 illustrations. Look up Thornton Street, and you get a picture of NH Declaration Signer Matthew Thornton. Look up Goodwin Park and you’ll find a detailed blurb on Civil War Governor Ichabod Goodwin, his picture, a shot of the monument in the park, and a picture of his mansion that was moved from its original location across from the park to its current site at Strawbery Banke Museum.

We are hardly aware that our roads are the signposts of history. Every town does it. Some street names refer to the earliest days of colonization or incorporate early Native American words. Others honor local heroes, dead politicians, war heroes, artists, events, geography. Some names show the city’s sense of humor. Some expose its total lack of imagination. In my neighborhood, a shipbuilder’s community, all the streets are named for ships built on the Piscataqua River. In another the streets are named for trees, or birds or Presidents.

David Bros photo of Congress Street

Grossman has managed to cluster the neighborhoods into readable chapters that track the evolution of expanding Portsmouth through the centuries. But that is not all. The structure, as in Richard Candee’s equally valuable architectural guide Building Portsmouth, transforms a directory into an historic walking tour of the entire town. You’ll need a copy for your desk and one for the glove compartment of your car, backpack and bike rack. No, I don’t own stock in this burgeoning company – not yet.

And there is still more. Accomplished desktop publishers, Nancy and her husband John have broken down the dull design walls that dominate the reference book industry. Each page is artfully designed and highly readable, despite a dizzying collection of captions, sidebars and subsections. This book works, in many ways, like software. It can be read front-to-back, inside-out, or alphabetically using a superb and lovingly crafted index. As a bonus, Placenames of Portsmouth includes a listing of town mayors, a short history of the city and a great bibliography of books and maps.

Admiral David FarragutStreet names change and roads move, break up or disappear. This book is aware of that. I quickly looked up Buck Street, King Street, Pitt Street and Paved Road, figuring I could catch the author unaware. No such luck. Because this is an "anecdotal" history, Nancy has captured the legends and stories behind the shifting names.

If you’re thinking that every town in America could use a book like this, you’re still two steps behind Nancy Grossman. She is already planning a series of town placename directories and soliciting authors for future books. Whether other authors can match her writing skill and dogged researching ability remains to be seen. To help them, Nancy is producing an instruction manual based on her two years of preparation.

Self-published authors who try to second-guess the buying public often end up with little more than a small business loan and a garage full of copies. The Grossmans, however, have gone digital. That means they can reprint their book in smaller affordable press runs, and when they please, update the content. I’ve seen more and more ODP (on-demand printing) books, but most are not up to the level of traditional publishing due to weak bindings and muddy photos. Somehow Placenames Press has overcome this obstacle as well. This book has a crisp glossy paperback cover, a tight binding, clear dark printing and crisply reproduced images. It is a joy to browse.

I expect my brand new copy of Placenames of Portsmouth to become the most-used and dog-eared Portsmouth reference on my bookshelf. That is ultimately the highest complement a reader can pay.

ALSO by Nancy Grossman

The Placenames of Portsmouth
By Nancy W. Grossman
Placenames Press, 2005
Portsmouth, NH
230 pps
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