Using City Directories in Genealogical Research

Oct 29, 2009Updated 8 months ago

Business Listings on in a City Directory
City Directories, which were created in cities and towns all across the United States, can fill in the gaps between censuses, as well as provide all sorts of information such as name, address, employment, business address, and names of other individuals living at the same address.

Using a City Directory for Genealogy Research

Adult men and adult single women, whether employed or not, will both appear in most directories. Women heads of household, or women who were employed outside the home, are generally also be listed separately. In one illustration to this article, a page from an 1892 city directory, there are several members of one family. The example shows four adult family members who all live at the same address. Since one person also owned a business, the location of the store appears in the owner’s work listing (w) just before the residence (r) address.

From a genealogist’s standpoint, the lack of the wife’s name and underage children’s names can be frustrating. However, when a child eventually does appear in a city directory listing, the information can help determine his or her approximate age. Using listings from various years, it is possible to develop a timeline and estimates for the birthdates of children in the family. Since names may be listed differently in different years, it pays to check all the directories possible – one directory may provide a middle name or initial that does not appear in other years.

Since occupation or employer is listed, this information can lead to some interesting discoveries, as well as the possibility of verifying family stories of what a great-grandfather did for a living. An entry in a city directory, which included an employer such as “Jones and Sons” may not mean much at first, but with a little research, you may find that the company manufactured carriage parts, or provided a service such as funerals. Women who were employed as nurses or teachers also appear, often with the name of the hospital or school. Nuns may also appear in a directory.

Many city directories also contain a street cross-index, which is useful for determining neighbors. These cross-indexes may be difficult to access in online images; consulting the actual directory may be necessary.

Cross-Indexes and Business Listings

Businesses and organizations are also listed, usually separately from the residence information. For example, one section of an 1892 city directory included a carriage maker, a dairyman, a grocer and saloon, a home for orphans, a church, a chapel, a school, a cemetery, and a monastery. Even the ads can be valuable. Advertisements may be in separate sections, or running down the sides or bottom of other pages. If your ancestor owned a business in town, he may have advertised in the local directory.

Even relatively small towns are likely to have had city directories, so always check to see if they exist. The historical collection in the local public library is the first place to look, but there are larger collections being developed all over the country. The examples shown here are from the Hannibal, Missouri, Public Library website. Although Hannibal was not a large city, the city directory included information from a nearby smaller town, Palmyra, proving that it pays to look at directories for nearby larger cities, too.

Where to Find City Directories

One web site that lists major repositories of city directories in the U.S. is City Directories of the United States of America. Cyndi’s List, that great website for all things genealogical, also has a page of city directories.

If your ancestors lived in a small town or a big city, the chances are they can be found in a city directory. It may require some effort to track down the directories, but the results are often worthwhile.