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How to Use Directories in Genealogy Research

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Ever wish you could find out what your family was doing between the decennial US census enumerations? You can. City directories and similar listings provide a regular—usually, annual or biannual—glimpse into the everyday lives of your ancestors, from employment to residences and even what they did with their leisure time. They can put your ancestor in a time and place, making it easier to locate other genealogical records.

This guide will direct you to the directories likely to name your kin, and help you mine these listings for every possible ancestral clue. Here’s how to find and read old city directories.

Types of Directories

The essence of a directory is names and addresses. Beyond that, the different kinds of directories may differ in what details they hold, with their focus on various populations, listings by house number or name, additional details about individuals, and other supplemental content. The basic types of directories of interest to genealogists are:

City directories

Similar to phone books, city directories list residents of a particular locale (despite the name, they also covered small towns and rural areas). Two prominent publishers of these books, which usually came out annually or biannually for a given area, were R.L. Polk & Co. and Williams. US directories by surname begin with a Baltimore broadside, “The Following Lists of Families, and Other Persons Residing in the Town of Baltimore, was taken in the Year 1752” (though it actually was printed years later). The first city directories as we know them were issued in Philadelphia in 1785, by two competing companies. Many cities followed suit after that. 

City directories were originally intended for businessmen to find customers, so the earliest ones may name only property owners, employed individuals (which excludes most women) or socially prominent citizens. Later directories usually list heads of households with their spouses and adult children. Information given varies with the time and place, but generally includes a person’s name, address, occupation and sometimes, employer.

You’ll also often see the person’s marital status and whether he or she owns the residence, rents or boards. These details are usually indicated by abbreviations such as bds (boards), rms (rooms), wid (widow) and stu (student), and shortened occupation titles such as hrnsmkr (harness maker). You also might see names abbreviated, such as Chas (Charles) or Wm (William). We provide a list of common abbreviations below, and you can look in the front or back of a directory for a key to other abbreviations it uses.

By the mid-19th century, directories often included supplemental local information, such as local government details; maps; guides to street name changes and renumberings; lists of churches, clubs and organizations; categorized lists of businesses; and “criss-cross directories” with lists of residents by the street name and house number. You might even find a list of deaths with the age of the deceased, births in that year, and where former residents moved. 

House directories

These handy volumes contain information similar to city directories, but they’re arranged by street and house number instead of surname—a criss-cross directory, but in its own volume. These give you a picture of each household, letting you see generations that resided together or lived near each other. You’ll get a feel for an ancestral neighborhood, from who lived there to nearby churches and businesses. Beware of street numbering changes, which can make it appear your ancestor moved when he didn’t. Double-check addresses using city directories. 

Unfortunately, the availability of separate house directories is limited, mostly to larger cities and towns. Be sure to check the backs of city directories for criss-cross listings.

Business directories

While city and house directories may contain business information within general listings or in a separate section, business directories list only businesses. For a given area, they’re usually organized in alphabetical order, but sometimes arranged by type of business, such as jewelry manufacturing or auto dealers.

Two caveats for researching in business directories: These aren’t available for all locations or time periods, and they may not be all-inclusive. Not all companies participated in the publication.

Trade directories

You also might find a directory of businesses in a single category that covers the entire county, such as Seeger and Guernsey’s Cyclopaedia of the Manufactures and Products of the United States (several editions of which are available free through Google Books) or Farley’s Reference Directory of Booksellers, Stationers, and Printers in the US and Canada (published since 1886; with various editions available on Internet Archive). Professional directories, which usually cover the whole country, list prominent professionals and tradespeople such as railway workers, doctors or lawyers. 

Telephone directories

You can view the first phone book, dated 21 February 1878 (two years after Alexander Graham Bell made his first successful telephone call), online at Old Telephone Books. It’s a single sheet of 50 business subscribers—with no addresses or phone numbers—to the New Haven, Conn., telephone exchange. As the number of people with phone service increased, telephone directories began to resemble their contemporary descendents.

Naturally, for your ancestor to appear in a telephone directory, he had to own a telephone. Most cities had both city directories and telephone directories until phone service became ubiquitous. Phone directories replaced city directories for the most part in the mid-20th century.    

How to Find Directories

All major cities had city directories by the mid-19th century. Rural communities might be covered in directories for nearby cities, and/or in directories titled by region. The introduction of house and business directories varies with the place; you might find these combined with a city directory.

If you’re not sure whether a directory exists for the community you’re interested in, you could ask at the local library or check the state listings in the online microforms catalog from Gale (a company that headed up a project to microfiche US directories).

Directories are relatively easy to find on microfilm, and even better, they’re increasingly available online. Here’s how to find the ones you need:

Libraries

The main branch of the library where your ancestors lived is a great starting point for city, business and house directories from that place, whether on paper or microfilm. Large municipal and county libraries may have directories for nearby cities, other major cities in the state, and “feeder” regions—common places of origin for settlers of that area. Also look for local directories at historical societies, state archives and libraries, and university libraries. Some libraries have old phone books, but they were printed on poor quality paper and usually tossed when the next year’s edition was printed.

Directory collections at large genealogical libraries may cover cities across the United States. If you live near Washington, DC, you can use the country’s largest city directory collection at the Library of Congress.

Don’t live near a library whose directory collection covers your ancestral hometown? You may be able to borrow directories on microfilm or microfiche via interlibrary loan. Ask your reference librarian for help making the request; it’ll cost roughly $5 to $10 per borrowed item, and you’ll need to use it in your library.  

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City also has directories on microfilm and microfiche. Search the online catalog by place, then look under the directories heading to see what’s available. (Note: The Family History Library no longer rents microfilm, so focus on collections that have been digitized or are available at your local Family History Center.)

City directories online

City and other directories are becoming increasingly easy to find online. A great starting point is Online Historical Directories, where genealogist Miriam Robbins categorizes links to online directories (both free and fee-based) by country, state and county. Websites with large collections of directories include subscription-based Ancestry.com, MyHeritage and Fold3, and the free Google Books and Internet Archive.

Because Ancestry.com has many databases that include city directories (“U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989,” being the largest), hit them all at once by searching the City and Area Directories collection. Searching the Professional and Organizational categories will help you find people in business and professional directories.

Google Books and Internet Archive include various city and other types of directories among the historical tomes they digitize. Try searching for an ancestor’s name, the word directory, and his business or the city where he lived. 

If you’re lucky, your ancestor’s local library will have digitized city directories—look for a link to genealogy databases or digital resources. The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, for example, has digitized directories from 1819 to 1941 in its free Digital Library. There, you can click the link for each directory to download it as a PDF file. Then you can use the free Adobe Reader software to search the document for a last name, or scroll the pages to find your family.

Scrolling the alphabetical listings is a good idea no matter where you find your digital directory. The print quality often isn’t great in these books—which, after all, were meant to be used only until the next edition came out. Optical character recognition (OCR) indexing can make it difficult to search for names on pages where the OCR software couldn’t “read” the text. When your name search doesn’t find someone who should be there, browse the pages.

The web has mostly replaced telephone directories, but online versions such as WhitePages.com contain the same data—the name of the account holder, address and telephone number.    

12 Ways to Use City Directories

Working backward a year at a time, check directories for each year your ancestor lived. Keep track of each mention of him or her, the details of the listing and the source of the information. With details from directories, you’ll be able to:

1. Find more records

Directories are full of clues to direct you to additional records. When a woman suddenly appears as a widow, you’ve narrowed the window for her husband’s death. The employer or occupation could direct you to occupational records, or at least let you learn more about the work the person did. A notation that the person owned his home will send you to research deed records for the county. The first date an immigrant ancestor appears in a directory could be a useful clue when looking for naturalization records.

If you’re looking for church, synagogue or school records, start with churches of your ancestor’s religion that were near his residence. Finally, the address, occupation and other details can help you identify the right person in other genealogical records.

2. Fill in blanks

In areas and times where decennial US census records are missing—including virtually the entire enumeration for 1890—city directories can serve as a substitute source. Once you have a good idea of the place your ancestor lived during the census, check city directories for those areas. Unsure where the person lived? Try searching large databases of directories, such as Ancestry.com’s.

3. Browse the census

If your problem isn’t missing census records but instead an ancestor missing from the US census, find his address in the city directory published nearest to that census. Then use the address to determine your ancestor’s census enumeration district and browse records for that district.

4. Track movements

A sudden appearance or disappearance tells you a person moved in or out, or died (although it could take new residents a couple of years to be listed in a directory). If a young woman goes missing from her parents’ household, try looking for her in marriage records. Creating a timeline of a person’s appearances in city directories and other records can help you track confusing migrations, separate same-named individuals and solve other research brick walls.

5. Establish family groups

Same-surnamed individuals listed at the same address are likely related—just don’t assume it’s always a parent-child or a sibling relationship: A cousin or daughter-in-law may have moved in. Also consider that folks with the same last name who work for the same employer or live next door could be relatives.  

6. Map the neighborhood

Use cross directories or house directories in combination with an old map to get a picture of your ancestor’s street and who the neighbors were. In city or business directories, look up your ancestor’s employer, church, school, social clubs and other organizations he patronized. You can use Google Earth to plot the residences and other places you discover, creating a visual reference for your research.  

7. Date mystery photos

Do you have an old photo with a photographer’s imprint? These imprints usually provide the studio name and address, so you can look it up in consecutive city or business directories. Once you know what years the studio operated, you’ll have a date range for your photo.

8. Research house history

Look up an ancestral address in house directories (or the criss-cross listings in city directories) to identify previous and subsequent owners of your ancestor’s house.

9. Trace businesses

If your ancestor was a business owner, directories can help you determine the type of business and the years it operated (perhaps pointing you to records such as permits, licenses and manufacturing censuses). You might even find an old advertisement for his company.    

10. Learn about street name changes

Many urban areas have changed street names and renumbered addresses over the years, as Chicago did in 1909 and 1911, and Cincinnati did in 1897 and 1918. You’ll usually find the changes explained in city or house directories published soon after the change took effect.

11. Find local newspapers

If you’re ready to dive into newspaper research, city directories may list newspapers published in a place that year.

12. Locate living relatives

Use recent directories such as telephone books and online address listings to find other descendants of your ancestors—a path to family information and photos that didn’t travel down your line.

If you can’t find directories for a particular area, try substituting tax records, which were usually also recorded annually. They probably won’t contain all the information in a directory, but you can find them for consecutive years to estimate when an ancestor lived in a certain town.

Using directories with other sources can help you solve brick walls. Looking for information on my mysterious great-grandfather Harry Mansfield Wilson, I turned to directories to track his movements between 1889 and 1910. Every time he moved apartments, his new address appeared in a city directory. In his last listing, a date of death led me to vital records.  

Common Abbreviations in City Directories

b or bds: boards, boarder
bkpr: bookkeeper
• c or cor: corner
carp: carpenter
ch: church
clk: clerk  
col or col’d: colored
dom: domestic (often used for a housewife)
fcty: factory
gro: grocer
h: house, householder
lab: laborer
mdse: merchandise
mer: merchant
mkr: maker
nec: northeast corner
nwc: northwest corner
phys: physician
prop: proprietor
r: rents, rooms, resides
res: resides
sch: school
off: office
own: owns, owner
sec: southeast corner
swc: southwest corner
t: tenant
wid: widow
wkr, wks: worker, works 

Resources for Finding and Using Directories

Websites

Books and Publications

  • Bibliography of American Directories Through 1860 by Dorothea Spear (American Antiquarian Society)
  • City Directories of the United States (Research Publications)
  • City Directories of the United States, 1860–1901: Guide to the Microfilm Collection (Research Publications)
  • Guide to American Business Directories by Marjorie V. Davis (Public Affairs Press)  

Directories Fast Facts

• Coverage: The earliest city directory, dating from 1595, covers London and the surrounding area. A Philadelphia directory for 1785 is the earliest in the United States. Directories were published for most US urban areas by the mid 1800s.  

• Location: Printed copies for the local area are available in many public libraries, which may have microfilm copies available through interlibrary loan. The Library of Congress and MyHeritage have the largest collections of US directories. 

• Key details: Look for names of employed and/or adult individuals, address, employer, whether a homeowner or renter, sometimes whether a widow; sometimes, businesses and local information.  

• Search terms: Enter name of city plus city directory, house directory or telephone book; or name of trade plus trade directory.  

• How to find in the FamilySearch catalog: Run a place search for the county or town, then look under the directories heading.   

• Alternate and substitute records: tax lists, state and federal censuses, voter registrations    

A version of this article appeared in the December 2014 Family Tree Magazine.

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