Long before there were telephone directories, many cities and towns published city directories. Early publications were often limited to urban areas and may not have been printed yearly. But, by a certain point, almost every U.S. town had annual directories. These commercial publications helped businesses communicate with their customers and residents to find each other. The best part: many of the city directories are digitized online.
1. Capture the basic structure of a household.
The residential listings in city directories may include your ancestors’ address; names of adults and their occupations. In addition, they’ll reveal whether they rented, owned or boarded at their residence; and their addresses. Occasionally other gems appear, too. Take a look at this listing for my grandfather and great-grandparents in the 1945 Pueblo, Colorado city directory.
This entry, digitized on Ancestry.com, shows my great-grandfather’s death date and age at death. His son, my grandfather, is listed beneath him. His occupation as “USA” hints at his recent release from WWII military service. Next appears my great-grandmother, identified as the widow of John J. It’s a sad but powerful snapshot of my family just after the war.
2. Watch your ancestors’ lives change over time.
I often use city directories to track my relatives’ lives from year to year. I can see subtle (and occasionally dramatic) changes in the household. These events are not captured by censuses taken only every 10 years. For example, the life of the young WWII veteran John Felix unfolds in Pueblo city directories in the years following that 1945 entry:
As you can see, by 1948, John’s a married man. He and my grandmother Barbara are both in the workforce. She’s a telephone operator and he’s a driver. Within two years, Barbara has become a stay-at-home mother and John is a foreman at the Sun Valley Dairy, a position he still holds in the 1952 directory. By 1956, he has taken a job at the Sinton Dairy, and the family has moved from Siloam to Bear Creek Canyon. The next three years see him holding steady as a plant employee at Sinton.
3. Learn more about their home, job or community.
Use city directories to help you learn more about the history and occupancy of an ancestor’s home. Here’s how expert cartographer Randy Majors does this. I especially love how, once he discovered that a street name changed, he used entries for the neighbors to determine the previous name of the street and trace its occupancy back to around the time it was built.
I like to browse each year of a city directory in which my ancestor appears to see what else I can learn. Sometimes I’ll find listings for the family’s places of employment. I can see how far away they worked from home. I may find listings for a relative’s church or school, or the names of cemeteries or funeral homes that served the family. In the 1889 city directory for Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I discovered the stunning tale of my Felix ancestors in the Great Johnstown Flood: the great-grandpa whose death was listed in the 1945 directory above was a teenager at the time. Watch that below.
The Ancestry.com city directory listing for the family reveals that the entire family survived. They took in flood survivors, tripling the size of their household (that’s what the number “4-12” means at the end of the Felix listing, as explained in the front of the directory).
Another part of the directory tells the story of the flood, down to details about how each neighborhood fared, including the Felix’ part of town.
Ancestry.com hosts by far the biggest collection of online digitized directories, which are fully searchable (including by address, business name, etc.). Searching may not bring up every relevant entry, especially for older directories or those with poorer copy quality. But other directories are within easy reach online, too.