Directory Assistance

Directory Assistance

Book 'em! Discover how city directories can help you track down your ancestors' addresses and break through your research brick walls.

Anyone who’s dabbled in family history knows that census records are a genealogical gold mine: They give a snapshot of the whole family on a particular day in history every 10 years. But those 10 years in between censuses can be a longtime in a family’s history — longer still if your ancestors moved, were missed in a census or lived during that 20-year-gap left by the loss of the 1890 census to fire. If only you could find an annual accounting of your ancestors …

You can — if your ancestors lived in a place with a city directory. These valuable books contain an alphabetical list of a city’s inhabitants, similar to today’s telephone directories, but beginning even before Alexander Graham Bell made his first call. Some city directories date to the 1700s; most American cities began publishing directories annually or every other year in the mid- to late 1800s. City directories list the names of adults, including adult children living with parents. Some also tell residents’ occupations, their employers’ names, their home addresses and their spouses’ names.

You never know what facts you might find in these annual accounts of who’s who in a city. Although it’s uncommon, I’ve seen directories that list a death date for someone in the household. Another rare but valuable find is a city directory that lists not only the living, but also everyone who died in the past year, as in the 1889-1890 city directory for Columbus, Ohio. More commonly, you’ll find a wife listed as a widow the year following her husband’s death: “Kernochan, Abby L. (wid. Edw.),” for example. If a family moved, some communities’ directories may even tell where they relocated.

This snippet from our City Directories: Key to Your Family’s Past video class gives you a look at a Philadelphia city directory from 1852:
 

A helpful feature in certain city directories is the householder’s index, or criss-cross directory. You’ll sometimes find this in the back of the directory, or it may be a totally separate volume. Instead of an alphabetical listing by individuals’ names, the householder’s index gives you alphabetical-numerical listings of streets followed by house numbers and inhabitants. Just like the census, the householder’s index is a wonderful way to discover the names of your ancestors’ neighbors, which can be useful for tracking their migrations, as well as uncovering other relatives living nearby.

A helpful feature in certain city directories is the householder’s index, or criss-cross directory. You’ll sometimes find this in the back of the directory, or it may be a totally separate volume. Instead of an alphabetical listing by individuals’ names, the householder’s index gives you alphabetical-numerical listings of streets followed by house numbers and inhabitants, just like the census, the householder’s index is a wonderful way to discover the names of your ancestors’ neighbors, which can be useful for tracking their migrations, as well as uncovering other relatives living nearby.

But each city directory is different, and that’s what makes them sometimes frustrating to use. Contents and availability vary from city to city and from one time period to another. You may find several small cities combined within one directory. Most directories were issued annually, others sporadically.
 

Census and immigration clues

Besides confirming that your ancestor was in a particular place for a certain year, you can use city directories to help you find elusive ancestors’ census records. Some censuses haven’t been indexed, or the only finding aids are enumeration-district descriptions and maps — for those years, knowing your ancestor’s street address is crucial to finding that person in the census. If the city is small, you could look for the family by street address rather than by name. Censuses began listing streets in the form’s left margin in 1880; the house number appears with the visitation numbers (dwelling and family). Be sure to check city directories for the year before, the year of and the year after the census to see if your ancestor moved during this time. Keep in mind that information you find in, say, a 1910 city directory was compiled the previous year, 1909 — before the 1910 census enumerator came calling.

If you’re trying to pinpoint when an immigrant ancestor arrived in America, it might help to trace the immigrant backward in city directories to determine an approximate year of arrival. Be aware, though, that immigrants might not appear in the city directories for several years after their arrival, or they may show up only sporadically. Historical demographers have noted that most urban immigrant families had a high mobility rate: After coming to America, they moved about every 10 years — whether going across the nation, across town or across the street. City directories can help you track this movement.

Directory details

Let’s look at examples of how you can use city directories in your family history research. For instance, in the alphabetical list of names from the 1936 Colorado Springs city directory, the listing for Alex A. Mootafis reads:

MOOTAFIS, Alex A (Edna; Carl’s Barbecue) 11528 N. Tejon

So we know that Alex and his wife, Edna, were householders at 528 N. Tejon. While the directory gives no occupation for Alex, it tells us that Edna worked at Carl’s Barbecue.

If we want to know who their neighbors were, we can flip to the back of the book to the criss-cross directory of households and look up the Mootafis’ address. The streets are arranged alphabetically in this section. Finding North Tejon, then scanning down the numbers to 528, we see that the Mootafises resided at the corner of Tejon and East Williamette Avenue. They were neighbors to the Pick sisters (dressmakers) at 527 N. Tejon. Across the street on North Tejon was Mrs. Lizzie Jackson, living at number 601. Using a city map in conjunction with the householder’s directory, we can determine where all of Alex and Edna’s neighbors lived — and possibly even find clues to family connections that we could confirm through additional sources.

Female ancestors are often more difficult to trace than men because their surnames changed when they married. Here, too, city directories can help: To take another example, I was looking for a woman in the late 1940s whose maiden name was Mary McFarland. After combing a 1943 city directory, I found a Mary McFarland, a nurse, living at 53 Main St. The next year, however, she wasn’t listed. For a clue as to whether she’d moved or perhaps married, I turned to the 1944 householder’s index for Main Street, number 53, to see who occupied that household then. The inhabitant’s name was Joe Thayer, and he had a wife named Mary. With both names at hand, I could then turn to marriage records to confirm that Mary Thayer was the former Mary McFarland. And sure enough, she was.

City directories can even help you determine what church your ancestors attended. Let’s say you have a marriage record for an ancestral couple, and it gives you the name of the minister, Frank A. Kerns, but offers no indication of religious denomination. You can look for Frank Kerns in the city directory under the alphabetical listings and learn that he was the pastor for the Central Christian Church. Then look in the alphabetical listings under Central Christian Church to find its address. Now you can check for church records, if the church still exists.

Abbreviated ancestors

One tricky part of using city directories is figuring out the abbreviations they used for occupations and addresses. Some are pretty obvious — for example, I bet you can figure out this one:

CASEY, Charles D., bkpr Austin City Water & Light Department, 11504 W. 13th

The bkpr means Charles was a bookkeeper. But how about this one?

HODGE, Clarence D. (Vera F) solr Colo Spgs Sightseeing Co., hi639 W. Cucharras

To find out what a solr is, you can turn to the list of abbreviations that’s almost always at the beginning of the directory. As it turns out, Clarence was a solicitor. You may have to do some additional research to discover old-time occupations.

But it’s not just occupations that get shortened. Consider this cryptic listing:

CUNNINGHAM, Wm., driver, h n.e.c. 8th & Central

The n.e.c. here means northeast corner. The most common abbreviations before an address are h for householder or home; r for resides, rooms or rents; and bds for boards.

Faults in the facts

Keep in mind that city directories, like any other source you consult in your family history quest, aren’t always 100 percent accurate. Like census data, the information in a city directory had to be compiled by someone who went door to door, asking inhabitants who the head of the household was, what their occupations were and what other adults were living in that household. If your great-great-grandfather or grandmother wasn’t home that day to supply the information, the city directory representative might have checked with a neighbor or merely left them out of the directory.

Here’s a good example of how the information you find in a city directory can be misleading or wrong: According to the 1910 census for Austin, Texas, Dominick Casey, age 61, born in Ireland, was separated from his wife, Josephine. Yet in the 1893-1894 Austin city directory, Josephine was listed as the “widow” of Dominick. We can guess whom the city directory compiler interviewed!

And as with all published material, typographical errors occur. So you should always check spelling variations of the surname you’re seeking. Try transposing some of the letters. For example, if you were searching for Carmack, you should also look under Cormack, Karmack and Cramack. You’ll want to try variations of prefixes, as well. So when I’m looking for DeBartolo, I also check DiBartolo and D’Bartolo. Sometimes, the directory will give you a reminder to check other spellings. In the Casey example, the directory helpfully suggests that you “see also Cayce.”

The directory also might have a section called “Too Late For Inclusion” or a similar heading. These are people who were missed or weren’t home when the directory representative initially visited, but were interviewed on a subsequent try. Although the other listings were already typeset, the directory publisher may have included this addendum.

The fine print

While you may notice that the listing for your ancestor is the same year after year, don’t overlook a single year — you never know if that’s the one year the directory will give you new or different information. In the 1791 Philadelphia city directory, for example, Rebecca Powell is listed as a widow. Following her year by year, we can see how she supported herself: By 1794, she was a “layer out the dead” (a woman who prepared corpses for funerals and burials), but the next year, she appears as a “mantura maker” (dressmaker). By 1801, she was laying out the dead again. Yet in 1803, she gave her occupation as a “tayloress.” Evidently, she supported herself at both trades, because her directory listings through the mid-1820s keep switching between laying out the dead and being a seamstress.

If your ancestors disappear from the directory for a year or two, don’t assume they died or moved. It’s common for people to vanish from directories for a year or more, only to show up again several editions later in the very place they were the last time you found them. Once your ancestor disappears for five or more years, then you can pursue the possibilities of death or relocation. Similarly, don’t give up too quickly if your ancestor fails to appear where he or she is supposed to be: Take the example of Cornelius Casey, who was supposedly in Austin, Texas, from the 1880s forward. Even though the census taker found him in Austin in 1900, Casey wasn’t listed in the Austin directories until 1909.

Extended families

As a couple’s children became adults, they would get their own listing, even if they were still living with Mom and Dad and attending school. But they won’t necessarily be listed together, unless their names just happen to be alphabetically adjacent; with common surnames, you might find several unrelated Joneses or Smiths interspersed with members of your family. You need to look at the address to pick out the possible offspring.

So, for example, here’s a listing for the Caseys in the 1909-1910 Austin, Texas, directory. Assuming our old friend Cornelius is the father, can you pick out his adult children?

CASEY, Charles D., bkpr, Miss J.F. Theis, I1504 W. 13th

CASEY, Charles C, pressman, Morgan Prtg. Co., h820 W. 11th

CASEY, Cornelius, teamster, Texas School for the Deaf, r911 S. Congress Ave., S. Austin

CASEY, Dominick, plasterer, bds. 106 W. 14th

CASEY, Emma (wid James), wks Bosche’s Troy Laundry, r82oW. 11th 3

CASEY, Frank D., teamster, h911 S. Congress Ave., S. Austin

CASEY, Ida M. Miss, h911 S. Congress Ave., S. Austin

CASEY, Josephine (Mrs. D), r504 W. 13th

CASEY, Liston A., student U. of T., h710 W. 22d

Because of the identical addresses, Cornelius’ probable children would be Frank D. and Ida M., but they could also be Cornelius’ siblings. You would need to look at other records to confirm relationships now that you have these clues.

Notice no wife is listed for any of the Casey men here. Does this mean that all of these men are single or widowed? Not necessarily. You would need to compare these with other listings in the same book. This directory might not publish wives’ names at all. And typically, directories don’t name widowers’ wives in parentheses the way they do for widows’ husbands, as in the listing for Emma Casey. The important thing is not to jump to conclusions — stick with what the directory tells you, then confirm your suspicions or hypotheses in other sources.

Just a few years later, in 1914, more people show up in the Casey household, but either the family moved from 911 S. Congress Ave. or the house numbers changed:

CASEY, Charles, farmer, bds 1903 S. Congress Ave., S. Austin

CASEY, Cornelius, farmer, res 1903 S. Congress Ave., S. Austin

CASEY, Frank, lab [orer], bds 1903 S. Congress Ave., S. Austin

CASEY, James, farmer, bds 1903 S. Congress Ave., S. Austin

CASEY, Wm, dairyman, bds 1903 S. Congress Ave., S. Austin

Once again, more research in other sources will be needed to determine the relationships of Charles, Frank, James and William to Cornelius, but they are likely his sons. Notice that Ida Casey is missing. She’s now listed as:

CASEY, Idella Miss, waiter State School for the Blind, bds same

So she no longer lives at home; she boards at the State School for the Blind, where she works as a waitress.

History lessons

City directories are more than just names. Unlike the census, most directories give you great historical information about the city in which your ancestors lived. Look for a separate section or volume that covers the business directory. Here, you’ll find listings for bankers, morticians, blacksmiths, cabinetmakers, doctors and dentists, printers, milliners and photographers, to name a few. If your ancestor was in business, be sure to look for a display advertisement in this part of the directory. An ad for the old family business would make a nice illustration should you decide to write your family history or to put up a family Web site. (Note that directories published prior to 1923 are now in the public domain, and you can freely use advertisements from them as illustrations without copyright permission.)

Did your ancestors belong to a club or organization? Many city directories list not only the chapters of clubs and organizations in the city, but sometimes the officers, as well. If Great-great-grandpa was a high muckety-muck in the Elks or the chamber of commerce, you may come across his name.

You’ll also find listings for libraries, churches, hospitals, newspapers and schools, as well as city government information — just as you would find in today’s telephone books. Some city directories include contemporary maps showing the major thoroughfares. These maps can help you to learn about the neighborhood as it was when your ancestors lived there: what churches and schools they might have attended, what funeral homes they might have patronized and so on.

Directions to the directories

Sounds great, you say, but where do you find these wonderful resources? The surest and most obvious place to look for city directories is of course the local library for the area the directory covers. If you don’t live nearby, however, these are reference books that likely won’t circulate through interlibrary loan unless they’re on microfilm. You can also utilize major city directory collections at many large research repositories, including the Library of Congress in Washington, DC; the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City; the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Ind.; the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston; the Newberry Library in Chicago; and the Sutro Library in San Francisco.

Unless you live near one of those libraries, your best bet is to learn which directories you can borrow from the FHL, which has an extensive collection on microfilm that you can view at your local Family History Center. To find out whether the FHL’s directory holdings include the time period and locality of your interest, check the FHL catalog online at <www.familysearch.org>. You can do a massive search by looking under United States, Directories, or narrow your search to the state, county, then city, and look for the subheading of directories. You can also find a state-by-state guide to the FHL’s collection of city directories in The Family Tree Guide Book (Betterway Books).

Even if your ancestor was a “country mouse,” you may be able to find him or her in a city directory. Some areas published rural directories, or the city directory might have a section listing rural routes and households. Search for rural directories as you would a city directory.

If the FHL has no directories for your area and time period of interest, all is not lost. You can write to the local library that would have the directories you want, and ask the staff to check the directories for you. Some librarians may be willing to conduct a five- to 10-year search in their directories. If the directories have been microfilmed, you may be able to borrow them through interlibrary loan. So remember to ask that in your letter requesting assistance. And you may be able to connect with a helpful fellow researcher in the area through message boards such as GenForum <genforum.genealogy.com> and Ancestry-Roots Web <boards.ancestry.com>, or on a local mailing list for your ancestral homeland (see <lists.rootsweb.com>). If all else fails, you might have to hire a researcher in the area to conduct a more thorough search, especially if you have several names and a broad time span to be checked.

If you’re eager to own an actual city directory that lists your ancestors, check auction sites such as eBay <www.ebay.com>. And find out when local libraries have their book sales; some libraries will purge extra copies of directories, or they may decide to get rid of them after they’ve been microfilmed. Also check Primary Source Microfilm’s Web site <wwww.galegroup.com/psm> — but be forewarned that the microfilmed directories there can be expensive to purchase.

Once you locate applicable directories, researching them might provide more information than you ever realized — you could discover another genealogical gold mine.

City Directories: Find it on the Web

City Directories of the USA

<www.uscitydirectories.com>: This Web site attempts to identify all printed, microfilmed and online directories for the entire United States, as well as the repositories where they’re held.

Cyndi’s List — City Directories

<www.cyndislist.com/citydir.htm>: Here, you’ll find links to articles on using city directories, repositories that hold them and actual directories online.

Old City Directories Preserved on CD

<www.oldcitydirectory.com>: Purchase CD-ROMs containing scanned pages from city directories.

  • Online Historical Directories:
    Links to online city and other historical directories, categorized by place. (This site links to directories on both free and subscription websites.)
  • Google Books and Internet Archive:
    Search for old directories at these digitized book sites by typing in the city name and directory.
  • Ancestry.com and Fold3
    These subscription genealogy websites have large collections of city directories.
  • Primary Source Microfilm

    <www.galegroup.com/psm>: You can order microfilmed copies of city directories from this site.
     
    From the August 2003 Family Tree Magazine

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