I first discovered the joys of city directories when I was a newspaper reporter. If you needed to find somebody who wasn’t in the phone book, or if you had an address but no name, the city directory was the place to look. Much like telephone books, city directories—once published annually or semi-annually for most towns and cities—listed an area’s residents by last name. Most directories also had sections of residents by street name and house number, plus community information such as city offices, fraternal organizations, schools, churches, businesses
Who lives next door to the house where the brutal murder occurred? If our little town ever had a brutal murder, the city directory would’ve revealed the neighbors who might be pressed for a comment. Our newspaper library had city directories for any place in the area that might qualify as a “city” (many were actually barely towns), as well as for the nearest major metropolises.
But it wasn’t until many years later that I discovered how useful city directories could be for genealogy. Doubly so now that many are online, putting names and addresses both today and yesterday just a few clicks away. Online city directories, in fact, provided my big “break” in the story of my great-great-grandmother. By revealing where someone lived in a given year or series of years, directories unlock census and other genealogical records. You can identify relatives and make connections using the lists of people living in the same household or on the same street. You can learn occupations and employers. You even can narrow down death dates by noting when an ancestor stops being listed. Here’s how you, too, can make ancestral discoveries in city directories.
If you’ve struck out finding the city directory you need online, the web can still help you find an old-fashioned “dead tree” version. Library catalog searches such as WorldCat’s can do the trick, of course, and you’ll get the contact information for the holding library. You then can ask your library’s reference desk to request the directory for you through interlibrary loan. But because not all libraries include microfilmed directories in their online catalogs, it wouldn’t hurt to contact the library in your ancestor’s hometown and inquire about local directories.
There’s also a site devoted especially to cataloging city directories, though so far, it reflects the collections of only about two dozen repositories: City Directories of the United States of America lets you browse by state and then by city, with a chronological list of available directories for each place. The list indicates where you can find each volume among those repositories, including the Family History Library (FHL) and the Library of Congress.
You can borrow microfilmed directories from most libraries through interlibrary loan. To borrow FHL microfilmed directories, head to your nearest FamilySearch Center or check whether online ordering is available in your area at www.familysearch.org/films. For directories at the Library of Congress, your best bet is to visit or hire a local researcher to do a lookup for you.
Pay to play
The subscription sites below are building sizable collections of city directories you can search or browse. Just keep in mind that searching may result in numerous irrelevant results: Because the books are indexed by optical character recognition software, matches can occur on pages containing the first and last names you entered—but not necessarily in the same listing.
- Ancestry.com: My city-directory search started with the subscription site Ancestry.com. You can access the site’s city directories for free if your public library subscribes to Ancestry Library Edition—check the website or ask at the reference desk. The US City Directories collection search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=1540 contains 6.6 million records in a coast-to-coast selection of directories, with images of the original pages.
- Fold3: Ancestry.com acquired the subscription site Fold3 (formerly Footnote.com) in 2010, and recently announced the site’s collections will focus on military records. But the 2.6 million-plus images from city directories will stay on Fold3. The 31-title collection is much skimpier than Ancestry.com’s, typically just one or two places covered per state, but worth a look for directories not duplicated on Ancestry.com. Go to www.fold3.com/category_2 to browse the list or search the entire collection.
- World Vital Records: This subscription site serves up its own impressive assortment of city directories. Go to www.worldvitalrecords.com/cardcatalog.aspx, look under the Record Type dropdown menu and click on Directories to see all 943 databases (not all are specifically city directories, but the biggest are). As its name suggests, World Vital Records includes a wealth of directories beyond the US—nearly half of the total collection—especially from England and Australia. You can search individual databases by clicking on the database title, or search all city directories as part of a sitewide search; there’s no direct way to search just the city directories as a group.
Don’t overlook, however, several additional location-specific city directory collections, which focus on states as well as cities including New York City, Boston, New Orleans, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
Ancestry.com has a separate database for the 1890 Philadelphia directory, for example, whereas its US City Directories collection contains Philadelphia directories for 1881, 1887, 1889, 1891, 1895 and 1950. You also can search a database of New England directories from 1885 to 1895, collected as an 1890 census substitute search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=8852. To see directories associated with places your ancestors lived, go to search.ancestry.com/search, click on a state, scroll down, and click the View all link under the School, Directories and Church Histories heading.
To see all of Ancestry.com’s city directories, go to the card catalog and click on Schools, Directories & Church Histories, then choose “Filter by collection” and click on “City & Area Directories.” The resulting 1,905 databases include some that aren’t actually city directories, but it’s still a useful list. You can search all 1,905 databases at search.ancestry.com/search/category.aspx?cat=135.
Free for all
Subscription sites are handy because they offer large collections and multiple search options. But with these sites and tools, you don’t have to pay a dime to start using online city directories in your research.
- Google: Try entering the phrase “city directory” in a search at the free Google Books. The results may surprise and even overwhelm you: Here’s the 1848 Boston directory; 1869 Salt Lake City; 1855 Nashville, Tenn.; 1859 Trenton, NJ; 1850 San Francisco, 1852 Detroit … the list goes on and on. Of course, the best bet is to search for “city directory” plus the name of the place you think your ancestors called home.
- Portal sites: These sites help you find city directories on websites of libraries, the USGenWeb project and more. Online Historical Directories categorizes its links to online city, organizational and other directories—both free and fee-based—by place. Another way to find lots of online city directories is simply to click on the venerable Cyndi’s List. The page at cyndislist.com/directories/us gives you a long list. You also can search the site for a link to the directory you need using the Google box in the upper right-hand corner: Enter a search such as Buffalo city directory. Be aware, however, that with more than 300,000 total links, Cyndi’s List occasionally sends you someplace that has moved or gone offline.
- DistantCousin.com: Although it offers a variety of databases, this site has developed a particularly rich collection of city directories. It includes more than 100 directories, ranging from Boston in 1800 to Coldwater City, Mich., in 1949-50. Most fall roughly in the years 1840 to 1930, which seems to have been a heyday for city directories in the increasingly urbanized United States.
- Old Directory Search: This site offers just nine scanned directories at www.olddirectorysearch.com, but it’s worth a look because several major cities are represented: 1892 Denver, 1844 Chicago, 1786 New York City, 1837 Cleveland and 1890 Philadelphia. Despite the website name, there’s no search option, but each directory has been indexed by surname—click on the page with the range you’re looking for (“Aaron-Abbott,” for example).
Before you get too excited, though, be aware that many of the city directories accessible via Google Books are available only in “snippet view.” Those “snippets” may or may not display the listing for your ancestors.
Others, however, are completely viewable online, with page images, and easily can be searched. The speedy full-text search is pretty simple, and can’t distinguish names from other words: Searching the 1854 Galena, Ill., directory for “Grant,” for example, finds three surname listings and one for a company that “will grant Marine policies of insurance.” (No Ulysses S. Grant, however—he wasn’t yet working at his father’s tannery there.) Another caveat is that Google Books won’t let you print the directory pages you find; you can work around that by making a screen-capture of your find and then printing the image.
You can find online city directories not in the Google Books collection by simply searching Google. You may have to scroll down a bit to locate historical directories, rather than contemporary ones. A search for city directory Charleston SC, for example, turns up a current directory of city officials, a page listing directories at the library there (in print, not online), and several other misses before this hit: a 1794 Charleston directory at homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~tga/census/1794chasdirecta-c.html.
You can search the entire collection from the main city directories page, or browse by clicking on links grouped by state. Once you’ve selected a state, you also can search that state’s collection (some contain only a single directory; others, more than 20). Individual directories, however, can only be browsed, either by an index of pages or by clicking on the first letter of a surname in a name index.
Once you’ve found an ancestor, either by searching or browsing, you can view an image of the actual page, which is useful for finding neighbors who might be relatives.
- Historical Directories: If you have ancestors from England or Wales, don’t miss www.historicaldirectories.org/hd/index.asp from the University of Leicester. It’s a digital library of local and trade directories spanning 1750 to 1919, with particular emphasis on the 1850s, 1890s and 1910s. You can find the directory you want by location, decade or keyword. Browse or search (an optional “fuzzy logic” feature helps with spelling variations), with images of the original pages available.
- Libraries and archives: Many repositories also have dived into digitizing local city directories. The state of Maryland’s Archives Maryland Online, for instance, offers a wealth of Baltimore directories ranging from 1827 to 1857, plus the 1910 and 1924 Annapolis volumes. The collection also includes “The First Colored Professional, Clerical and Business Directory of Baltimore City,” with editions spanning 1913 to 1946. You can’t search any of the directories in the Archives of Maryland Online, but you can view each page either as a transcription or as a PDF, and you can jump to specific pages once you’ve got an idea where within a volume your ancestor might be listed.
Got Cincinnati ancestors? Look into the Virtual Library of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s superb online collection at virtuallibrary.cincinnatilibrary.org/VirtualLibrary/vl_CityDir.aspx, spanning the years 1819 to 1934. This collection is unusual in that you download the entire digitized directory, enabling you to research offline. The PDF files have been run through Optical Character Recognition (OCR), so you can use standard search capabilities to find names in the scanned pages.
The Los Angeles Public Library also has digitized some of its local city directories and street-address directories at rescarta.lapl.org:8080/ResCarta-Web/jsp/RcWebBrowse.jsp. A total of 24 titles span the years 1909 to 1987. Clicking on the link for a single directory brings up the first of a series of browsable images, from which you also can search using the “Find in this document” blank. Or you can search the entire directory collection by clicking the Simple Search link at the top. Results are amazingly fast, and a little dropdown Hit menu lets you skip between hits within an individual volume. Given that the 1942 directory, for example, contains nearly 2,900 pages, searching is a lot speedier than browsing for your LA ancestors.
Let’s dig deeper into that Los Angeles collection to show how even simple finds in city directories can help you get past brick walls in your research. Suppose you’re looking for an ancestor whom you knew as Emerson Treacy, a movie, TV and radio actor who among his many, mostly minor roles had a bit part in Gone With the Wind, released in 1939. But you’ve struck out in your search in the most recent available census, 1930, and don’t want to wait for the 1940 enumeration to be made public.
Surely if Emerson Treacy appeared in Gone With the Wind, he had to be living in the Los Angeles (Hollywood) area in the late 1930s. Sure enough, a Simple Search of the Los Angeles Public Library’s databases turns up 24 volumes containing Treacy. (If there were also a Treacy Avenue or a business containing that name with multiple employees, you might have to slog through a lot of hits in each volume.) And there he is in the 1939 directory: “Treacy, Emerson (Ann M) actor h2025 Grace av.” (If you get more than one hit in this database, click on the binoculars icon to go to the next one.)
So now you have his wife’s name, Ann, as well as his whereabouts in 1939—which will make it a lot easier to find him in the 1940 census when it’s released in April. Because the directories are dated every year or two, you can follow Treacy’s movements much more closely than in the decennial census. Checking backward and forward a few years in either direction, he’s listed in 1936 and 1938, along with wife Ann (“Anne M” in 1938), already at 2025 Grace Ave. But he’s not in the 1942 directory, and there’s a big gap in the hits thereafter. He does appear again in the 1963 street directory, but at a different address.
Something interesting pops up when you go back to the 1932 directory. He and his wife (here she’s “Anna”) are living at a different address, 565 N. Larchmont Blvd., and he’s listed as “Treacy, C. Emerson.” (Note that initial!) There’s no 1930 directory in the collection, though, and he’s absent from the 1929 edition. Perhaps he moved to Hollywood after 1929, then, looking for his “big break.”
Armed with the information about “C. Emerson Treacy” and wife Ann from your city directory search, it’s time to take a fresh look for this elusive ancestor in the 1930 census. You know he might be in California, where the directories place him as early as 1932, and you now have a previously unknown initial and the name of his wife.
Soon your city directory clues lead you straight to “Charles E. Treacy,” living in Los Angeles in the 1930 federal census, with wife Ann J. and son Robert E. He’s 29 years old and was born in Pennsylvania. Seems plausible that “Charles E.” could be “C. Emerson”—but scroll to the right and there’s the clincher under “Occupation: “Actor / Motion Pictures.”
Earlier, I credited city directories with breaking my search for my great-great-grandma. A family Bible record for her daughter Mary, my great-grandmother, gave me Mary’s maiden name of Ekstrom (or Eckstrom) and birthplace in Sweden. I learned from Swedish records that Mary’s parents were Olof Ekstrom and Anna Maja Pehrsdotter. Olof had left for America, solo, “without papers,” in 1869. Then the trail went cold. What had happened to Olof and Anna?
City directories on Ancestry.com suggested an answer: Searching for Ekstrom in directories for Rock Island and Moline, Ill., where the rest of my Swedish kin had settled, I found a listing for “Mrs. Mary A. Ekstrom (widow Olof)” living at 1312 6th Ave. Could this be Anna Maja, first and middle names flipped? Further searching in the directories bolstered the plausibility of that guess: Also residing at
1312 6th Ave. was an Oliver Ekstrom, who worked at M.M. Iron Co., along with a Charles Ekstrom. Maybe his brother? I knew from Swedish records that Anna had sons Olof (Oliver?) and Karl (Charles?).
Eventually, cross-checking the entire family in census records and obituaries—now that I had something to go on—confirmed my hypothesis. My great-great-grandfather Olof had died shortly after arriving in America, and his widow and the rest of the family later joined daughter Mary in Rock Island, Ill. I now had the entire family saga and had “found” Anna—thanks to online city directories.
If your ancestors spent any time in one of America’s metropolises—or even a small town—it’s likely their presence was recorded in one or more city directories. Not long ago, you would’ve had to seek out that dusty volume on a library shelf somewhere, perhaps in a faraway ancestral hometown. Today, however, it’s increasingly likely that the city directory with those crucial genealogical answers is within easy reach online. All you have to do is get on the right virtual page.
- Our ancestors were often more mobile than we might realize. Keep in mind they may not show up in an area’s city directories for several years after they moved there.
- After you find an ancestor in the surname listings, check the listings by street name to see who their neighbors were. You may recognize the names from your family’s records.
From the January 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine
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