City directories may be the most potent weapons in the genealogist’s brick-wall-busting arsenal. These cousins of today’s phone books can clue you in to ancestors who’ve gone missing in the census, and even jump-start your search for church and occupational records. City directories list a town’s inhabitants alphabetically, and usually include all the adults in a household, plus their occupations, employers’ names and home address. But if you’re used to having information at your fingertips online, city directories can be frustrating. Census and vital records have gone digital in droves. Where are the city directories?
The subscription Web site Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com > has a long list of city directories, ranging from the 1889 and 1892 Abington, Mass., directories to the 1890-1891 book for Zanesville, Ohio. Because you can search Ancestry.com’s online directories — part of the US Records Collection — singly or all at once, you can track down tricky ancestors in a flash without a brute-force search through books in the library. You also can try various search strategies to zero in on an ancestor whose name is spelled differently — or whose name you may not even know. Try leaving the name field blank and filling in an address (or part of one) in the keyword box. Run an occupation search if you know Great-grandpa was a blacksmith, say, or an attorney; widow also works as a search term.
If you don’t want to spring for access to Ancestry.com, locating city directories gets trickier. You’ll find many seemingly promising Internet sites that purport to serve up directories, but turn out to be nothing more than shills for Ancestry.com’s paid databases. And other sites such as City Directories of the United States of America <www.uscitydirectories.com>, though useful, help you locate print directories, not actual data.
But a few free sites have begun to post transcriptions and even scanned pages from old city directories, with more added all the time. Old Directory Search <olddirectorysearch.com>, for example, has only nine digitized directories, but the list includes such major cities as Denver (1892), Chicago (1844), New York City (1786), Cleveland (1837) and Philadelphia (1890). Though none is searchable, each database has a clickable surname index. You’ll need the free Adobe Reader software (available at <www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep2.html>) to view these PDF images, which are exceptionally crisp. The site also has one of the better collections of links to other online city directories. (You can find this same bunch of directories at The Genealogy Register <genealogyregister.com/citydirectories>.)
DistantCousin.com <www.distantcousin.com/directories> has scanned directories from 30-some states. Don’t get too excited, as most states have only two or three directories — but at least the images are free and fairly clear. Though you can’t search them, many of the directories do have surname indexes on each page. Keep an eye on this site: New directories are being posted all the time. Recent additions include Canton, Ohio (1914); Attleboro, Mass. (1911); and Newburgh, NY (1864-1865).
For transcriptions of the 1843 Chicago directory and portions of the 1865 Boston book, visit All Ancestors <all-ancestors.com>.
An interesting cluster of online directories (all from 1859) is sponsored by, of all things, a screen-printing and embroidery business called Blue Heron Industries. Send them your next T-shirt order if you hit pay dirt at <www.kentuckycitydirectory.com> (Lexington and Louisville), <www.virginiacitydirectory.com> (Norfolk), <www.delawarecitydirectory.com> (Wilmington) or <www.wisconsincitydirectory.com> (Milwaukee). Pages are scanned and indexed by surname.
You can find more such smatterings of digital directories at Cyndi’s List <www.cyndislist.com/citydir.htm>. You might be pleasantly surprised by the genealogy treats that online entrepreneurs and volunteers have hidden out there: an in-progress index and transcription of the 1890 Cincinnati directory <members.aol.com/cintigenealogy/1890citydirectory>, for example, plus several old San Francisco city directories (1846, 1850, 1852, 1853) and telephone books (1878, 1903 with scanned pages, 1906) at <www.sfgenealogy.com>.
More volunteer contributions lurk within the RootsWeb <www.rootsweb.com> and USGenWeb <www.usgenweb.org> umbrella (most of USGenWeb’s data resides on Roots Web). You can search dozens of city directories at <userdb.rootsweb.com/citydir>. Search by first name, surname — choose the exact spelling, “begins with” or Soundex (to cover spelling variations) option — year and city.
Another easy way to find city-directory files in this vast trove of data posted by folks just like you (only with more time on their hands) is to use USGenWeb’s archives-search page at <www.rootsweb.com/ ~usgenweb/ussearch.htm>. Simply pick the state where you’re trying to find ancestors, then fill in as much or as little as you know in the query box. To focus on city directories, include “city directory” as part of your query. This way you can find, for instance, the 1866-1867 business directory for Bertie County, NC, as well as surname-specific files such as “APPLE in the Philadelphia Directory (1791-1885).” These aren’t necessarily in the RootsWeb directory search, so try both approaches.
You also should use your favorite all-purpose search engine, such as Google <www.google.com>, to look for Web pages containing terms such as “city directory” and genealogy plus the name of the locale (for example, boston “city directory”).
Looking up your ancestors in an old directory isn’t quite as easy as finding someone in a contemporary online phone book — but it’s getting there.
From the April 2005 Family Tree Magazine