Have you used City Directories in your genealogy research? If the answer is no because all of your ancestors lived on farms, you get a pass, but everyone with city dwelling American ancestors should have answered with a resounding YES!
“They don’t have city directories at my library.” This used to be a good excuse, but Ancestry.com has a huge collection of city directories online and they are available through Heritage Quest too.
“City Directories are like phone books.” City Directories are only a little bit like phone books and don’t you check old phone books too? I guess that will be another post.
“I can find that information in the census.” Only if you are looking at a City Directory for the same year as a census, and even then there are things that you can find in a City Directory that the census does not tell you.
I like to think City Directories are a reward to researchers who have no ancestors on agricultural census schedules. The population schedule covers everyone (after 1860), tax lists don’t care where your ancestors lived, land records cover land in the country and in the city, but city dwellers aren’t (usually) on the agricultural schedules and farmers aren’t (usually) in city directories.
So what are you missing?
Most people do not miss out on the alphabetical list of names. This is the part that looks like a phone directory, but includes the person’s occupation and isn’t restricted to the person who pays the phone bill. Lots of abbreviations are used and there is usually a key to these towards the beginning of the book just before the names list begins. I keep a copy of the one Polk’s uses on my computer so that I don’t have to go searching for it every time. Each city will have a few special abbreviations, usually for their rail roads and other large employers, so those will need to be checked each time if the initials aren’t familiar to you.
The general order for these entries is: last name, first name, middle initial, title; (spouse, or “wid” and the name of a widow’s deceased husband); occupation, employer; and finally the address. Before each address is an “h” for householder, “r” or “rms” for roomer, “bdg” for boarding, or “res” for resides. Finally there may be initials in parenthesis () that denotes a smaller town or area that is included in the directory but is not technically in the city.
Some directories have no commas and no periods in their entries so it all appears to run together, I expect it saved time, page space and ink, but it can be a little confusing at first. If any part is not relevant to the individual entry it is simply dropped.
For example the 1902 City Directory for Cripple Creek, Colorado has:
Webster, S W, blacksmith Sam Burns, res 224 E Warren (S. W. Webster, a blacksmith for Sam Burns, resides at 224 East Warren Street).
Not very exciting stuff, sort of the same as you would expect from a census entry and this doesn’t even list family members. I agree, but let’s compare it to the 1910 Census of Cripple Creek:
114 El Paso Avenue:
Webster, Sydney W., head, M, W, 42, M1,,Canada Eng, Canada Eng, Canada Eng, 1888, Na, English, Blacksmith, own shop, OA, yes, 0, yes, yes,,R,,H,
Lucy M., wife, F, W, 30, M1,, 0, 0, Canada Eng, Canada Eng, Canada Eng, , , English, none, , , , , yes, yes, R
Lots more information here, but if we put it together with the city directory we have even more. In 1902 has was working for Sam Burns and living at 224 East Warren Street, in 1910 he is working for himself and he has moved to El Paso Avenue. It tells a more complete story about his life even in that short time period.
So how about 1900? The 1900 City Directory for Cripple Creek has:
Webster, S W, blacksmith Sam Burns, rms 222 Warren.
And the 1900 Census of Cripple Creek has nothing. Just to be sure I searched for his employer, Sam Burns, and found:
222 East Warren Avenue:
Burns,, Samuel, head, W, M, Feb 1843, 57, M, 29, , , England etc.
Also in this household were Sam’s wife, Mary A., his daughters, Mary and Margaret, and his son, John. There is no sign of Sydney W. Webster.
Without the City Directory information I would not have known who his employer was nor where Sydney was living in 1900. In short if I had only relied on the census, I would have no idea that Sydney was living and working in Cripple Creek as early as 1900.
Another entry in the 1900 City Directory shows that Sam Burns’ address was actually 222-224 East Warren and so Sydney was rooming with his employer in 1900 and 1902.
What else might you be missing?
We covered listing by person’s name, but city directories also include:
Listing by street – use this to find neighbors, locate the house on modern maps (often the numbers change, but the cross streets are still the same), check other years to see who lived there before and after your ancestors.
Listing by business – find out more about the business your ancestor worked for or owned.
Church and cleric listings – many marriage certificates and license returns have the name of the minister, but not all say which church or even denomination the minister was from – the city directory makes it easy to find out. Also, with the church address you can see whether or not your ancestors were worshiping in their own neighborhood or if their ties were to another parish.
How have you used city directories in your research? I would love to hear about your successes and failures with city directors. Share your clever tips and fascinating stories here.