City Directories, How Do I Love Thee?


Recently I’ve rediscovered the joys of city directories. A city directory makes a wonderful census substitute in non-census years. Bear in mind however, that directories, like most records we find for our ancestors, are male oriented. The person usually listed is only the head of household and as you know more often than not that was the husband, so the wife wasn’t listed. There are a few exceptions in some city directories, though, that will list a man and then also include the first name of his wife. Sometimes you may also find the name of an almost adult-age child listed as well along with the occupation “student.”

So what other ways can a city directory help you? Well if you have an ancestor who moved between census years but you’re not sure when, city directories can help you figure that out. If you are fortunate to be looking for them in an area with good city directories you can search consecutive years and see when they start showing up in the directory and when they disappear.

Here is an example of how they can help pinpoint not only a man with a common name but narrow down his death date. By searching consecutive years of city directories I was able to decide which of the many men I was looking at who shared a similar name, was the man I was looking for. I looked at the addresses of my likely suspects and the address of his wife’s family and when I found him showing up listed at the same address as the wife’s family, I knew I had found my man. I then proceeded to trace him year by year until one year he was gone and his wife was listed as his widow. Now I have a time frame to begin a search for his death record.

If your ancestor has a common name but an unusual occupation, that can also help you to decide who he was in the directory. If you know the name of the minister who married your ancestors, you can determine what religious denomination they were by locating the minister in the directory. You can then find the address of the church and maybe find out if the church is still standing.

City directories can also be used to help locate people living in New York City during New York state census years. Using their directory address you can then go to StephenMorse.org and figure out what Assembly District and Election District their address enumerated in. This works for federal censuses as well.

There are so many fun things you can discover when using city directories!

If you would like a more in-depth look at how city directories can help you in your research I recommend that you read “Effective Use of City Directories” written by my colleague Kory Meyerink.

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I would like to mention that I have been compiling a list of online city directories (as well as other historical directories such as county, rural, farm, Masonic, and church directories) on my website, the Online Historical Directories Site: https://sites.google.com/site/onlinedirectorysite/.

This is an ongoing project because 1) there is only one person doing the compiling in a very part-time capacity; and 2) with the advent of websites such as Google Books, the Internet Archive and the Hathi Digital Project, a multitude of directories have been placed online recently.

The site lists directories at both free and subscription websites. Please drop by!