Spotlight on the Record: City Directories

March 27, 2018

Happy spring, everybody!


This week, we're going to dive right into a record type that, over the past year or so, has become one of my favorites.  It's not a glamorous record and doesn't contain a huge amount of information per ancestor, but it does a job that almost no other record can do.  I give you the workhorse of the genealogical world: the city directory.


What is it?


The city directory was the forbearer of the phonebook... which, come to think of it, is also obsolete, so for my younger readers, the city directory was the forbearer of what would happen if LinkedIn and had a baby.  For those younger readers who are still confused, you can google what a phonebook was, but you'll probably just find videos of people trying to tear them in half.  


City directories were in use for centuries in places, dating back to the late 1700s in the eastern United States.  For example, there are extant city directories for Philadelphia dating as far back as 1785! The very first known directories were compiled in London in the 16th century, and the first substantial directory of residents' names was The Inhabitants of London in 1638 1.  By the mid-1800s, they were regularly published in most urban areas in the U.S. and its territories, assuming a sufficient population.  As the name implies, city directories were listings of the working residents and businesses of a city, usually presented in alphabetical form, but also sometimes geographically (I.E., arranged by street).  They were generally published on an annual basis.   


The city directory is an often overlooked, yet vitally important genealogical resource.  It has two main uses that cannot be performed by any other record type I know of.  The first is that it is often used as a substitute for the 1890 Census, which, as I mentioned in the last post, was almost completely destroyed by fire in the 1920s.  It serves as a bridge to cover the twenty year gap between the 1880 and 1900 censuses.  The second service the city directory provides is a year-by-year snapshot of your ancestor's life.  It can tell you when and how often your ancestor moved from one location or home to another; it can tell you when and how often your ancestor changed jobs; it may even be the first evidence you find for a year of death of a breadwinning ancestor! Ten years is a long time to not know what your ancestor was up to, and the city directory does a great job of filling that gap between one census and the next.  


What is its availability?


This is a complicated question, because the answer will be different for each locality.  Whether or not you will be able to find a city directory for any given location in a given year is dependent on several factors:


1) When did your location start making directories? This may seem pretty self-evident, but having experienced it myself, I can tell you how easy it is to find yourself frustrated at the lack of, say, a city directory for St. Louis in the year 1801, only to realize that St. Louis didn't start making directories until 1821!


2) Was your location near/in a good-sized city? Very rural areas may not have had the population to justify compiling a directory (which is why we expect city directories to begin in Wyoming in 2022), but if your location was in the orbit of a metropolis, your location's information may have been included in that city's directory.  It may also be in a county directory, if one exists.  If your ancestors were city dwellers, on the other hand, you're probably sitting pretty.


3) Was there any good reason that your location may not have made a directory in a given year? This question may be tough to answer unless you're very well-educated in your location's history.  Denver, for example, made city directories without fail every year from ca. 1870 until the 1940s.  Several years in the 1940s are missing, possibly due to wartime shortages and the accompanying sentiment for everyone to tighten their belts for the war effort.  In addition, there is no 1952 Denver City Directory, and there never was one, despite the fact that there are directories for the surrounding years.  It turns out that there was a paper shortage that year, and so they could not justify the paper usage and expense.


4) When did your location stop producing city directories? City directories began to die out in the mid-20th century, especially as they were being replaced by phonebooks.  Some cities started to scale back on their directories as early as the 1930s; others continued to produce them well into the 1990s.  


What information does it contain?


City directories, despite being made by many different businesses over a wide range of time, are remarkably consistent in the information they provide.  Every city directory will give you the following information about city residents: the names of the working individuals (men or women both) in the household, their profession (often abbreviated), and their home address, as well as the names and addresses of local businesses.  


There's also a decent variety of useful information that a directory may or may not provide.  Some directories will inform you whether the individual owned their home, or was renting or boarding; this will take the form of a single letter before the address.  Most often, an "r" indicates a renter, an "h" indicates a homeowner, and a "b" indicates a boarder.  "P" was obviously used to indicate a poltergeist haunting the premises.  Sometimes a different code will be used, however (for example, "r" might mean "resident" instead of "renter," which clearly changes the story significantly!), and it is incumbent upon you to check the beginning pages of the directory for a key to that particular publication's code of choice.


If the husband of the household was deceased, whether or not the widow had a job, she would often show up in the directory herself, listed as, for example, "Cindy (wid. Thos.)."  The husband would subsequently show up as "p," as previously discussed.  If you hadn't already known when the aforesaid Thomas died, the city directory can help you narrow it down.  Be careful, though, as the information for city directories was compiled the year before they were published, so if you're looking at an 1870 city directory, the information it contains was accurate in 1869.  Always check the opening pages of the directory for more detailed dates!


Shown here: "p."


Other valuable bits of information may include: a date of death for a resident, a forwarding address for a resident who had moved away, a business directory, and a street directory.  This last one is especially useful if you're looking for information on the history of a particular building, or if you'd like to see who your ancestors' neighbors were.  Don't discount this as a research strategy, as relatives often lived near each other, and finding the names of relatives and their subsequent genealogical information may be what gets you past that brick wall you've been bashing your head against for the past few years.  Your city directory may also contain maps, images, and ads for local businesses.  


A city directory can even help you discover more personal details about family dynamics, as long as you learn to read between the lines a bit! Take a look at this snippet from the 1867 Pittsburgh City Directory:


Other than the fact that this image should serve as a very valuable reminder of why it's so important to make sure that you're tracing the right person, and not just some random person who happens to have the right name, there's an interesting story to be had here. Please look at: "Harrison, Alexander, of Harrison W. & A. 101 Craig, A" and "Harrison, Wm. of Harrison W. & A. 101 Craig, A."  Alexander and William Harrison were brothers and, as you can see from their listings, were living together and had a business together! If you examine the entry right above William's, you will learn about their business: they were produce dealers whose business was located at Diamond Market House (today known as Market Square, the area is considered historic Pittsburgh's central gathering location, and must have been a prime piece of real estate for a business).  So far, so good.  Now let's look at the next year's directory listing for the same men: 


 Uh oh.  The first thing to notice is that their business is gone, and that Alexander is still living at 101 Craig, but his profession has changed.  Now he's a plow grinder.  William's job has not changed significantly -- he's working as a grocer -- but he's moved out of Alexander's home and into a downtown Pittsburgh residence.  


So what happened? Well, short of finding a journal kept by either of these two men, we'll never know for sure, but I think we can reasonably assume that there was a rift.  Whether the collapse of their business precipitated the tension between the two or was a consequence of it, it seems clear that William would have had no reason to move out2, especially with the greatly increased cost of renting a separate place -- right in the heart of downtown, no less -- if there had not been some difficulty between the two men.    


Let's look at another example of how a city directory can tell you more about family matters.  This one involves the same Alexander Harrison as before, but a different William Harrison: Alexander's son.  Because goodness knows there weren't already enough men with the same name out there.  Take a look at them, first listed separately in the 1871 Pittsburgh City Directory:

And now 1873:


And 1874:








And finally, 1879 (I haven't successfully identified William J in the 1878 directory):


The first lesson from this long string of annoyingly crooked screenshots is that city directories can help you find whether two people were family to each other.  It's never a sure thing unless you find supporting documents, but if two people with the same surname had the exact same address, especially for multiple years and multiple moves in a row, you can surmise that they were living together (unless they were living in a big apartment building and had a common surname) and were probably related.  Despite a change in location nearly every year, William and Alexander, with only one year's exception, stayed at the same address; even if I didn't already know they were father and son, I could certainly use that as evidence of their connectedness.


The second important lesson is that city directories can help you pinpoint the timeframe when a working adult child left home.  As you no doubt noticed, 19 year old William J. attempted to leave the nest in 1873 (listed in the 1874 directory), but didn't go far; he was listed as living only about a block and a half away from his father! You may also have noticed that William's address in the 1874 directory was still the same as the previous year, but that his father's address changed.  In other words, the family moved out (likely for an apartment with increased space, since they had several growing children) and left William living in the old apartment independently.  Something clearly didn't go according to plan, though, since the next year, William was back again with the family.  Was he just not quite ready to "adult" yet? Did he lose his job and have to move back in with his parents for a bit for financial reasons? Hard to say.  But something definitely happened there.  He stayed at home with the family through at least 1876.  Sometime in between the 1877 and 1879 directories, he moved out, and this time, it stuck.  


Knowing the when of a person's departure from the family home can sometimes also help you work out the why.  In this case, it was one of two things: in 1877, William J. married, and in 1878, his father died (as evidenced by William's mother Sarah's listing in the 1879 directory as Alexander's widow).  Either one of those could easily have been the impetus for William's departure from the family home, but without a listing for William J. in the 1878 directory, it's hard to know which event spurred him on.


How reliable is it?


City directories are original sources, make no mistake about that.  The more important analysis to be done regards the information, as the info in these directories could have come directly from the person in the know, making them a potential source of primary information.  Unfortunately, however, like the census, it wasn't considered necessary to gather that data from each working resident him or herself.  Canvassers sometimes got information from family members, landlords, or neighbors.  Without any indications of who provided the information, it must be regarded as secondary.  The information is still quite useful, but where possible, additional sources should always be used to verify the information in the directory.


As with all rules, however, there are exceptions.  Lucky us, we have an example above where we can actually reasonably hypothesize that this information was primary! Take a look at William and Alexander Harrison's listings for 1876, noting the differences in phrasing.  William's listing gave his address as "Webster av and Roberts," while Alexander's listing gave his as "Roberts, near Webster av."  These were -- as with the surrounding years -- the same address, but given differently.  This would only happen if the addresses were garnered in two separate conversations, rather than one, as would have happened if the canvasser had spoken to their landlord or a neighbor to get their information.  The most likely explanation, given that there needed to be two conversations for this written discrepancy to happen, is that Alexander and William themselves were asked for their information separately.  Thus, in this particular case, and a few others, we can make the argument that the information in the city directory was primary.


Other than their tendency towards secondary information, directories also have one significant weakness, especially in the 1800s: since they were made for profit, largely for businessmen searching for customers, networking opportunities, and the such, the businesses in charge of creating the directories may have been less concerned about documenting every resident then they were about documenting the right residents (I.E. the wealthy), which could lead to incomplete coverage.  


Overall, city directories rank alongside censuses in terms of reliability: full of good information, but almost always without a clear informant.   


Where can I find it? 


City directories are spread out all over the place, so there isn't a single easy answer to this question. has a sizable collection of city directories, both from the United States (1822-1995) and the United Kingdom (1600s-1900s), as well as selections from Australia, New Zealand, and others, but of course, Ancestry is a subscription service.  Internet Archive, which is a free website, also has a decent collection of directories, though it's not quite as user-friendly or as comprehensive as Ancestry's; you'll want to do a search for "[Location] City Directory," and see what pops up. Don's List has a small, but potentially valuable to you, collection of directories available.  The Digital Public Library of America should be a spot you search, as should the Library of Congress, which contains a significant collection of city and county directories.


Rounding out your online resources for city directories are two websites you should probably bookmark: the LDS U.S. Genealogy Records Directory, and the Online Historical Directories website.  Each of these has made a significant effort to link to as many online directories as possible, or to share an offline route to access those directories.  


And speaking of offline, the desired location's local library, or university library, and historical or genealogical societies are also good resources if none of the above online methods work for you.    


Now go forth and peruse those proto-phonebooks to your heart's content.  




1 For a fascinating and more detailed history of city directories, with particular attention given to New York directories, please read Direct Me NYC 1786: A History of City Directories in the United States and New York City.


2 Before making this statement, I did some additional research on William and found that he did not marry until ca. 1872, so he did not leave his brother's home for an imminent marriage, which would have been the most obvious explanation.  Also, it would be surprising if the dissolution of their joint venture, so soon after its creation (it was only listed in one year's directory), did not cause any kind of personal tension between the two.  As they say, "family and business do not mix."

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