The R.L. Polk company, though not the earliest company to do so, published their first city directory in the 1870s, as a way to centralize community information. They employed sales associates and census enumerators to go door to door to collect information, sell advertising and make sales for their new directories. These handy guides were the quitessential Google search of their day–the go-to resource for finding information. These same directories can be an important resource for genealogy research today, providing details such as name (and spouse), address, occupation and more.
Where Can I Find City Directories?
Libraries have long been loyal customers who have yearly subscriptions for the city directories in their town and surrounding area. These directories, often dating back decades, can be found in their reference or genealogy departments. If the local public library does not have them, the local college and university libraries likely will. Local historical societies or genealogical societies are great places to look as well.
City Directories are also starting to be digitized on the websites of libraries, historical and genealogical societies, and even in large databases, such as MyHeritage, Ancestry, or Google Books.
What Information Can You Find in City Directories?
A wealth of information can be found in a city directory. Beyond contact information like addresses, city directories can also include:
- a brief local history
- a street guide and ward boundaries
- a population count of the local city and sometimes the surrounding areas
- social service staff members such as fire and police departments
- city and county officials, including the courts and federal officers
- a list of local churches and a separate list of the clergy, by name
- schools and universities and sometimes a listing of their staff members
- hospitals, orphanages, and homes
- lodges and social organizations
- a list of residents by name and by street
- among the information collected were names, spouse’s names (often in parenthesis), whether they are a widow, occupation, and address
- this makes them a great resource for collateral research to locate friends and relatives in the listings by street address.
- business directory listed alphabetically and by type
- ads for businesses that chose this option to advertise
- newspapers and publications
Helpful Hints for Searching City Directories
- Be sure to look towards the front of the book for abbreviations used throughout.
- Don’t stop in the first alphabetical list that you find! Depending on the size of the area, there may be several communities listed in the same directory.
- If you already know your ancestor’s occupation, perhaps from a census record, be sure to take that one step further and see what can be found about that business in the directory.
Today we are fortunate to be able to sit at a computer and search the white pages, yellow pages, city and county web pages, Wikipedia, or business or personal names specifically. But back in the day, city directories were the best source to find all of this information all in one place.
What details may be discovered in city directories about your ancestors? The experts at Legacy Tree Genealogists can help you piece together all possible resources to preserve your legacy and the details that bring your family history to life. Contact us today for a free quote.
Some directories also included listings by street name and number. On my GGrandmothers ship manifest, included in her record was an address where she was headed. I found the address in the city directory, and it belonged to my GGrandfather’s brother. I haven’t been able to find any other info about the brother, except through the city directories. I traced him for three years, and then he vanishes. No more city listings and no Census entries.