The original New York Social Register was first published in 1886 by Louis Keller, a German-American of wide social acquaintance, who combined the "visiting lists" of a number of fashionable ladies. It initially consisted largely of the descendants of English or Dutch settlers, the "Knickerbocker" merchant class who had built New York City. By 1918, there were eighteen such annual volumes, representing twenty-six cities, such as Toledo, Ohio. There was no single all-encompassing Social Register; instead, local indices were compiled and published annually. 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. The Summer Social Register of 1952, listing all cities, covers New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati & Dayton, Baltimore, Buffalo.
In the enormously expanded 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 and identified 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 interest were not added to Burke's until the 1930s, when the family had lost editorial control.
One's entry in the Social Register was not guaranteed to be permanent. Persons were removed from the ranks for various scandals or pecadillos, or for simply pursuing "undesirable" careers such as the theatre, such as in the case of the actress Jane Wyatt, who was a descendant of the prominent Van Rensselaer family.
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 has the final decision; about 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. The President and Vice President of the United States (and thus, by extension, their wives the First and Second Ladies) always are included.
In addition to winter and summer addresses, the Social Register lists the educational backgrounds, maiden names, and club affiliations of listed persons. Juniors can be listed with their parents beginning at birth (a recent change from the age of 13). It is sometimes called, humorously, a "stud book."
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" actually refers to house listings in the summer register that came too late for the main (winter) edition. The section called "Married Maidens" refers to a cross-listing of married and maiden names. 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 since changed. Bobby Short, the "king" of café society, was listed for many years until his death.
A few independent 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. The Blue Book has included a substantial number of Roman Catholics from onset, in part because Spanish land-grant families created the city's elite society, but it continues to avoid generally 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
There is also the District of Columbia Green Book. It is published annually.
In March 2006, the Social Register Web site was launched. It is intended for the use of listed persons only.