City directories have been published in the United States since the 1700s. They provided a way for people to connect with one another, and find businesses and organizations in their area. Today, you can use them to learn about your ancestors and their neighborhoods. They even can help you construct family relationships.
Directories usually came out every year or two. The format and contents vary by location, time period and publisher. Most directories list people by surname; some are arranged by address or have a “cross listing” by street in the back. Residents may be listed separately from businesses and organizations, or combined, as in this 1913 directory from Rome, Ga. In some places, primarily in the South before 1960, African-Americans were listed in a separate section. You’ll also see businesses’ ads.
When using a city directory, review the table of contents and introductory text to understand the organization, format and abbreviations in the book.
Individual listings often give a person’s occupation in abbreviated form, sometimes with the type of business or employer’s name. A married man’s name may be followed by his wife’s name in parentheses. Other notations may indicate a single woman or a widow. If a widow appears at the same address where the husband lived in the previous year’s directory, you’ve narrowed his date of death.
Searching a chronological run of annual city directories can help you estimate when a family arrived in an area. Use old maps to locate the place of employment, as well as nearby churches and schools the person may have attended. Look for directories in print and on microfilm in public libraries and archives. Directories are also available online at Ancestry.com, Fold3 and elsewhere. The Online Historical Directories Site has links to city directories on free and subscription websites, organized by place.
1. “Miss” might follow the name of a single woman. Widows may be noted with “w” or “wid,” and some directories include the name or initials of the deceased spouse. Here, a single Mary Holbrook resides at the same address as Mary J. Holbrook, the widow of G.M. Holbrook, and Geo. R. Holbrook, a laborer (lab). It’s a strong possibility they’re related, perhaps a mother and her children.