City Directories


Before there were telephone books, city directories were printed to help people locate each other within a city. As a general rule, each employed adult in the household would be listed, along with his or her occupation, marital status, place of employment, and home address. In some directories a man's wife would be listed in parentheses following his name, in others, if she was employed, she would be listed on her own. Sometimes you can find out when a man died as his wife will appear alone the next year as a widow. We have seen entries for people who moved out of town with their new residence listed in place of the old one. A typical entry might look like this:

Doe, John (Margaret) salesman 39 Scott av

Doe, Margaret, Mrs. dressmaker 39 Scott av

Mrs. Margaret Doe may have a separate entry in the directory because she has her own profession or was employed.

City directories may be helpful to you as a census substitute, to find people who moved into and out of a community within the census decade or to find people in years before Federal censuses began in 1790 and more recent than the 1930 census. People you cannot found in a census index might be located in a census by searching for their street address in a city directory. Later censuses have the street names written vertically along the left hand side of the census form. In this case, you will have to search the census "line-by-line" for that address. It helps to know which precinct or township they were in to locate the general area to search. This does not work as well for people living in rural areas where they did not have street names or addresses.

City directories in modern times were usually created for towns of 10,000 people or more. For smaller towns or cities, you may find there is a county or state directory.

Some city directories have a reverse index. These are sometimes called “crisscross” or householders directories and are arranged by street and house number. Using them, you can find people living at the same address or be able to view the neighboring families. Ethnic groups may be located in a different part of the directory.

In some places, people were given the choice whether to appear in the city directory. The books generally had a "yellow pages" section. These can help you find addresses for churches, businesses, and the like. If you find the name of someone’s employer, you may find the business address in the yellow pages and, who knows, you might be able to locate business records.

Janna used city directories to great effect when she found an 1853 civil marriage record for one of her ancestors. The record gave the date and name of the minister only. She checked the "yellow pages" section of the city directory for churches and found the minister listed for St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Greenwich Village. A bit of checking on the Internet revealed that St. Mark's still exists, now in Harlem, and a letter to the church brought her not only the marriage record, with the parties' names, addresses, ages and witnesses; and, an added bonus, the baptismal records for a couple of children born before the family moved to Iowa about 1857.

In addition to city directories there may be specialized directories available to help with your research, for instance, those for college alumni, medical doctors, residents of a military post, a county or region, farmers, lawyers, members of a church, fraternal organization or club.

A few directories are available as far back as the 1600s. Large collections of city directories exist at the Library of Congress, the Allen County Public Library, and the Newberry Library; be sure to also check your state and local libraries.

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