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.
Types of directories
The essence of a directory is names and addresses. Beyond that, they may differ, 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:
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.
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.
Clues in 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 in the sheet on the last page of this workbook. You’ll be creating a timeline for their lives and sorting out clues you can use to:
directories) to identify previous and subsequent owners of your ancestor’s house.
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
1873-1874 New Bedford, Mass. City Directory
Citation for this record: Greenough, Jones & Co., Directory of the Inhabitants, Institutions, Manufacturing Establishments, Business Societies, Business Firms, Etc., in the City of New Bedford (Mass.) for 1873-1874 (Boston: Greenough, Jones & Co, 1873), images online, Internet Archive (http://archive.org: accessed 24 July 2014).
1. The first pages of a city directory usually include a list of abbreviations used in the volume.
2. Businesses, such as the Achusnet Co-Operative Assoc., may be named among the alphabetical listings of individuals, or in a separate section.
3. In this directory, a person’s place and address of employment is followed by the address of residence. Different directories used different formats.
4. Trace a photographer’s work dates in city directories. Stephen F. Adams had a studio at Purchase Street, but boarded at a different address.
5. People of the same surname living at the same address is a relationship clue. These men named Zenas Adams (with different middle initials) may be father and son.
1890-1891 Baltimore Business Directory
1. Businesses in this directory are arranged by category. Directories also may list businesses alphabetically, or both ways.
2. The headings are alphabetical markers for easy browsing, similar to a dictionary.
3. Watch for redirections to other directory sections for similar businesses.
4. A “see advt” after a business listing is a clue to look for an advertisement. Lists of advertisers with page numbers may appear in the front or back of an issue.
Citation for this record: R.L. Polk & Co’s Baltimore City Business Directory 1890-1891 (Baltimore: Nichols, Killam and Maffitt, 1890). Images online, Internet Archive (http://archive.org : accessed 24 July 2014).
• Ancestry Wiki: Directories
• Ancestry.com: City & Area Directories
• City Directories of the United States
• Cyndislist.com: Directories
• Effective Use of City Directories
• FamilySearch Wiki: US Directories
• Fold3.com: City Directories
• Google Books
• Internet Archive
• Library of Congress: 1997 Inventory of Criss-Cross Directories
• Library of Congress: Telephone and City Directories
• Online Directories Site
• USGenWeb: Old Occupations Explained
• 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)
Family History Library
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Library of Congress
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Put it Into Practice
a. a primary source
b. a secondary source
c. reliable for details about a person’s early life
d. rely on information supplied to an enumerator
e. b and d
a. city directories
b. business directories
c. house directories
d. all of the above
Exercise A: Go to the 1858 McElroy’s Directory for Philadelphia on Internet Archive. Find the surname Longstreth and answer the following:
1. Which two brothers were involved in Longstreth & Brother?
2. Where did their family live?
3. Who lived at the address given for the business?
4. What type of business was it?
5. Write a citation for this record.
Exercise B: Pick an ancestor whose directory listing you want to find. Using Internet Archive, the Online Directories Site and OldTelephoneBooks.com, search for directories for the towns in which your ancestor lived.
1. house directory 2. f 3. e 4. d Exercise A: .1 Charles and D.M. 2. Charles: 12 N 3rd, D.M.: 208 Arch 3 Charles 4 Paper hanging 5 McElroy’s Philadelphia City Directory for 1858 (Philadelphia: Edward C. and John Biddle, 1858), p. 402, entry for “Longstreth & Brother”; images online, Internet Archive (http://archive.org, accessed ).
• 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 has the largest collection of US directories.
• Borrowing through interlibrary loan
• Top public libraries
• 10 sources for work records
• Exploring City Directories Family Tree University course
• City genealogy research guides