How to Use City Directories In Your Genealogy Research
Are city directories a part of your genealogy toolbox?
It was bound to happen.
You exhausted the more traditional genealogy records (census records, vital records, deeds….) for your ancestor and you still need more information.
At a recent conference you attended, someone recommended you search for your ancestor(s) in the city directories.
What is the city directory and why would you use one in your genealogy research?
When I first heard of using city directories in my genealogy research, I immediately thought of phone books. Yes, phone books are directories, but relatively new in the evolution of city directories.
City directories have been around for a long time with the first ones in the U.S. were published within a couple of years after the American Revolution. Directories were initially created by craftsmen and salesmen to contact the local residents and potential customers.
Directories evolved and were often created yearly which allows the genealogy researcher to track an ancestor year by year as opposed to the census records tracking individuals decade by decade. Tracking an ancestor year by year can help you determine when he/she migrated out of an area or if their economic situation improved based on a change of neighborhoods.
The directories also included different types of information from the census records.
Types of Information Found In City Directories
Based on date and location, the type of information in a city directory will vary. Below are examples of types of information potentially found in a city directory.
- Wives names may be listed in parentheses
- Marital status (If widowed, the name of the husband)
- Officers and Leadership of Organizations
- Lunatic Asylum
- Educational Institutions
- Secret and Benevolent Societies
- Area maps
- Addresses and locations of schools and places of worship.
I think you are starting to see just how valuable city directories can be in your research, so let’s take a closer look.
The 1837 Salem, MA directory tells just what it has to offer on its title page: Name of the inhabitants; Occupation, Businesses and Residences; City officers, etc; Street & Wharves and (my favorite) “Other useful information”.
“Other Useful Information” can include maps…..
Newspapers….. A listing of the local newspapers can potentially be found and especially useful to the genealogy researcher. In this example from the The Salem Directory, 5 newspapers were in existence and provide 5 potential sources to conduct newspaper research into your ancestors.
And Local Societies…… Notice the Female Auxiliary Moral Society in the example below. Yes, city directories can be a source for those elusive female ancestors!
Now let’s take a look at following an individual through city census records and see what we can learn about him and his family. In this example, we are following Israel Lisson through the Rochester, New York city directories. In this exert from the 1896 Rochester, NY directory, Israel Lisson is listed, so we as researchers can place him in time (1896) and place (Rochester, NY). Israel’s occupation is listed as a pedler [peddler] and he lives at 38 Nassau. We can literally place him on the map in 1896.
Coming forward a few years, in 1915 Israel Lisson in still in the Rochester directory.
This time we see Israel is still a pedler [peddler] and is living at 81 Chatham. Again, he is placed in time and place. Notice the other Lisson family members listed. From other genealogy records we know all but Barnet are Israel’s adult children. [I’m still trying to figure out how Barnet Lisson is related to family!]
This final directory example (below) I am sharing with you is from the 1930 Rochester directory. By this time, Israel is dead, but note his widow Dora is listed. This directory entry can be used to narrow down a death date.
On another note, notice the other Lisson family members listed. The married males’ wives are listed in parentheses. Directories can be a source for finding an ancestor’s spouse!
5 Steps to Analyze That City Directory
Now it’s your turn. You have found the city directory for where your ancestors lived. How do you get the most out of that valuable resource?
- Make note of the location(s) included in the directory. Sometimes smaller rural communities may be included in the next larger town’s directory.
2. Examine the Table of Contents. What types of information and lists are included? Included information will vary greatly over time and locations.
3. Learn the abbreviations used in the directory.
4. Start searching for your ancestor(s). As with any record, check multiple spellings for the name. I usually start with the general population listing, then move on to the societies, businesses or other organization lists.
5. Check the “Additions” or “Late Entries”. Usually found at the beginning or the end of the directory are those late additions that just made it in time for publication. Don’t miss out on finding your ancestor there.
Where To Find City Directories
Now that I have convinced you of the value of researching city directories, let’s find them! As with other records, what is available will vary by state and time period. Check out these sources.
- Google books – Here is an example of an Ann Arbor, MI directory. – Find many FREE online directories.
- The New York Public Library – Free online directories
- Internet Archives – A great resource!
- Hathi Trust Digital Library – Another great resource!
- University Collections – Talk with a reference librarian!
- State and local archives – Check the online and on-site collections.
- Big Databases – Ancestry.com ($), FindMyPast ($) and MyHeritage ($)
- United States Online Historical Directories – Free listing of U.S. directories by state and county. Includes links to both free and paid subscription sites.
- Don’s List – Find a variety of directories both for the US and other countries.
Your Action Item For the Week
Explore what city directories exist for the locations where your ancestors lived. Start searching!
My ancestors rarely lived in cities. I need to find out if there were farm or county directories created for their areas, mainly Surry, Bladen and Cumberland Counties in NC.
Sheila, that is a common problem. There are some NC town directories online: http://www.digitalnc.org/collections/city-directories/ . I would also recommend contacting the local libraries and historical/genealogical societies in those counties. The local librarians may be aware of some of the even smaller directories if they exist.
Miriam J Robbins
Many city directories also contained sections for the rural and outlying areas in the back of the book. Check the directories for the larger nearby cities to find your country folk.
Excellent tip, Miriam! Thanks!
Miriam J Robbins
Great blog post, Lisa, once again! Thank you for including my Online Historic Directories site as a resource. I would like to invite you and your readers to join the Historic City Directories Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/HistoricalCityDirectories/. You will be prompted to answer a question when requesting to join, to deter spammers. Simply reply, “Lisa Lisson’s blog” or “Are You My Cousin?”
Thank you Miriam! I’m headed over to join now. 🙂
Carlyn Van Mil
Hello ! I just tried your Facebook page about HistoricalCity Directories and I was denied access before I got the question. Any suggestions ? CAVM.
I’ll check into and follow up!
City Directories have been a godsend for me as the ancestors I am trying to find lived in Philadelphia. I am curious if there is any means of tracking people via just their address – ex. 17 Reed Street, Philadelphia. I have used Fulton NY’s historical newspapers as well as Genealogy Bank, but I wondered if there are any others? Thank you for the great tips you are always giving us!
A lot of the directories have a listing of the people that died the previous year. You can narrow down the death date using these.
Some even have listing by street showing occupants of the home or what the address was used for. A lot of shop owners would live above their shops.
More great information to find in directories! I have not seen a listing of individuals who died the previous year. I’ll be adding that to the resources for finding an ancestor’s death date post, too. Thanks!
Carol Anne Kuse
I found out in the first city directory published after my great grandfather immigrated that he came to Kansas from New York City. It is still the only place outside of immigration records that I have seen that piece of information.
Carol, that’s a great find!
I’ve found information on the page where the person used to be listed that that they have removed to another city or town. Also found death of spouse. This information was here, where i could not find it anywhere else. I love using city directories for my research.
What a great find! I’m constantly amazed at the type of information that can be found in the pages of those directories.
I’ve heard my dad say that he spent some time in Detroit, so I looked through those city directories for the years I guessed might have been appropriate (1920’s). I found a George Pxxx in one, but the surname spelling wasn’t exactly right, and he’s listed as a laborer. I guess maybe he’d have had to take just any kind of a job if he was there just temporarily, but I thought he’d said he drove a taxi cab. How sure can I be that that listing is him? It’s the only one I found close to the spelling of his name, & only for that one year. Thanks for all your wonderful info & help!
That’s a tough one. Check and see if taxi drivers for that time period produced any records such as licenses or listings. That might help with the name. Additionally, research other traditional records for the name spelled as listed in the directory. If you establish that man as an individual, then you can rule him out. If you cannot establish he is another man, you have supporting evidence it’s your guy, but you still will not be able to confirm it 100%.
In addition to genealogy city directories may help you get necessary information for claiming unclaimed property. My state requires proof of address and if you have nothing else a city directory might work, especially if name is exactly the same or listing of spouse is shown and they are heir, even if deceased.
City libraries are good location to find city directories as they are great resources for many questions about places, people and times.
That’s another excellent use for those directories. Thank you for sharing that.