Rebecca’s Reel Hints: The Hidden Gems of City Directories

What is a City Directory?
It’s the phone book; pre-phones, of course. City directories were printed lists of people in a city and its surrounds, with business advertisements, home addresses, family names and occupations, and information about the city. It is a valuable source for finding families according to their location, occupation, race, and community that can seriously supplement the years between censuses. The following is not a complete description of all city directories everywhere, but it will get you started…

Short History of the Directory
The first city directory was published in Baltimore in 1752 and next in Charleston in 1782. These were compiled by private companies, and had no government regulations guiding their creation or publication. You may find a city with more than one directory in a year, or missing a few years, depending on the success of the company at the time. Large cities and their suburbs are more likely than a small town to have a directory.

What Can I Find in A Directory?
Directories vary over time, depending on the size of the city and sophistication of the company providing the publication. As with all genealogical records, the earlier directories have less information than later ones. You may be able to find:

  • Name and address, sometimes birthplace
  • Occupations
  • Name of wife, adult children, relatives, and boarders in household
  • Other persons of same name in city or on the same street – browse by surname AND street name in later directories
  • Advertisements for business
  • Sometimes death listings for the last year or women listed as “widow”
  • Histories and facts about the city and MAPS!

 

Where Can I Go to Find a City Directory?
There is no one place that will have every city directory in the United States, but the Library of Congress gave it a really good try (www.loc.gov). Not only do they have the largest collection, they have early phone books as well. The best places to start are at the county library or historical society; check the state archive, local university libraries, and state library as well. The trick is that not every directory may be in each place. You may find a few years you need at the historical society and a few more at the state archive. Keep digging! Some may be in their original paper form, and some may be on microfilm. Many places are digitizing their directories: try a Google search for the place plus the word “city directory.” Ancestry.com and other places have some online, but don’t forget about the vast holdings of the Family History Library: order a microfilm of the directory to come to you at your local Family History Center (https://www.familysearch.org/films/).

Some Hints for Success:
Number one rule of reading any genealogical index: Don’t just read the page with your ancestor’s name on it – read the introduction and explanations at the front as well. The same goes for city directories. There are some great tidbits of information that could guide your search. For example, in an 1869 Boyd’s Directory for Washington DC, it reads “Many of our streets need renumbering, especially 7th, 9th, and F streets, and Pennsylvania and New York avenues. There are squares having duplicate numbers, and in some cases triplicate numbers. In fact, the whole city ought to be renumbered.” There are abbreviation tables, maps, city histories, lists of names omitted from the index, and (best of all) sometimes listings of how certain surnames were spelled multiple ways.

You’ve Got to Try This!
If you haven’t cracked open a city directory to find an ancestor before, now is the time. I am working with a client problem right now that I could not be solving without the directories. The ancestor lived in that critical time between 1790 – 1840 when censuses are so limited. In the censuses I found three men named John. In the directories I found six men named John, their occupations ranging from “cordwainer” (shoemaker) to mariner, plus their addresses and other people with the same surname living near them. Put city directories at the top of your research to-do list, and dig a little deeper for those mysterious ancestors!