Document Detective: City Directories

By George Morgan Premium

City directories have been published in the United States since the 1700s. They provided a way for people to connect with one another, and find businesses and organizations in their area. Today, you can use them to learn about your ancestors and their neighborhoods. They even can help you construct family relationships.

Directories usually came out every year or two. The format and contents vary by location, time period and publisher. Most directories list people by surname; some are arranged by address or have a “cross listing” by street in the back. Residents may be listed separately from businesses and organizations, or combined, as in this 1913 directory from Rome, Ga. In some places, primarily in the South before 1960, African-Americans were listed in a separate section. You’ll also see businesses’ ads.

When using a city directory, review the table of contents and introductory text to understand the organization, format and abbreviations in the book.

Individual listings often give a person’s occupation in abbreviated form, sometimes with the type of business or employer’s name. A married man’s name may be followed by his wife’s name in parentheses. Other notations may indicate a single woman or a widow. If a widow appears at the same address where the husband lived in the previous year’s directory, you’ve narrowed his date of death.

Searching a chronological run of annual city directories can help you estimate when a family arrived in an area. Use old maps to locate the place of employment, as well as nearby churches and schools the person may have attended. Look for directories in print and on microfilm in public libraries and archives. Directories are also available online at, Fold3 and elsewhere. The Online Historical Directories Site has links to city directories on free and subscription websites, organized by place.

1. “Miss” might follow the name of a single woman. Widows may be noted with “w” or “wid,” and some directories include the name or initials of the deceased spouse. Here, a single Mary Holbrook resides at the same address as Mary J. Holbrook, the widow of G.M. Holbrook, and Geo. R. Holbrook, a laborer (lab). It’s a strong possibility they’re related, perhaps a mother and her children.  

2. This directory gives a man’s occupation and employer’s name. J.C. Holcombe, whose wife’s name is Mary, is a conductor for the Southern Railway (condr S: Ry). Check the front of the book for a key to abbreviations.  

3. Check all the listings for a surname. Those living at the same address are usually related. Miss Anna Holder, Miss Emma Holder and Miss Ida Holder all live at 808 S. Broad. The address can help you locate hard-to-find folks in censuses; 1880 and later censuses give each person’s relationship to the head of the household.  

4. Persons with the same surname and employer may be related. Emma D. Holder is a bookkeeper for the Averett Grocery Co. William I. Holder is the president of that company, Scott T. Holder is secretary-treasurer, and C.W. Holder is a clerk there. Scott T. Holder and his wife (Clara) live at 7 Klassing, as does Miss Hazel Holder, suggesting she’s a daughter.  

5. Watch for errors. The address given for G. B. Holder and his wife, Annie, is 808 S. Rome. Misses Anna, Emma and Ida Holder are listed as living at 808 S. Broad, and both Ida and G. B. work for the Rome Mercantile Co. So there’s a strong reason to believe that G. B. and Annie are the parents of the three single women, and that all five live in the same household. Other records indeed confirm the family lives at 808 S. Broad; the city directory’s 808 S. Rome listing is an error.  

From the December 2013 Family Tree Magazine 

New course: Using U.S. Vital Records

In this 4-week course starting July 19, you’ll learn the basics on how to find and analyze three key records – birth, marriage, and death – for your U.S. ancestors.