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U.S. City Directories: One Database, a Billion Records, and a Lot of Answers

Posted by Paul Rawlins on April 19, 2012 in Content

If you’re like me, the 1940 census was full of surprises—like my own parents not living where they were supposed to be living. Enter U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989 (Beta).

We’ve had city directories on the site for years. They can be a great source for names, addresses, and occupations. They’re printed more often than censuses. And they can give you a feel for a time and place, with maps, clubs and churches, and ads for local businesses (apparently in my home town, ice cream was health food back in 1946—so long as it was Brown’s).

 

 

1 Billion (Better) Records

But if City Directories were great records before, they’re downright indispensable now. Over the last year, we have been running our U.S. directories through a new process similar to the one we used to create indexes for our U.S. School Yearbooks collection. The results: over 1 billion records with a better, more accurate index, more names, and more matches turning up when you search.

Matches like my grandmother, Mabel C. Stoddard—living in Rexburg in 1939, instead of Plano, where my mother was born.

 

 

With the cross streets, I’ll be able to narrow down the enumeration district and find my mother’s family in the 1940 census. (And apparently listing yourself as a widow after a divorce hadn’t gone out of fashion—though that’s another story.)

 

Finding Family

I know my grandmother  moved to Ogden, Utah, later. I don’t have access to the 1950 census, of course (another 10-year wait), but directories can give me an idea of when the family headed south. A search for my grandmother in Ogden in 1950, +/- 10 years, brings up the first hit in 1952.

 

 

Checking the browse tells me that we have directories for Ogden for 1944, 1946, 1948, and 1951, which makes a move sometime around 1952 likely. (My mother shows up herself two years later, complete with occupation: a clerk at the credit bureau.)

Put Directories to Work

If you haven’t searched U.S. City Directories lately, you could be in for a treat—or maybe even a feast. And don’t let the “Beta” throw you. It just means we’re adding even more improvements to the collection.

20 comments

Comments
1 Anne BurnsApril 19, 2012 at 3:24 pm

I knew where my great grandparents lived in Pensacola so it was easy to find them in the census but also realized that those doing the census can make mistakes as they spelled my great grandfather’s first name wrong! Even still, to see it in black and white is great! :-)

2 Libby BrintonApril 19, 2012 at 4:38 pm

City Directories are great if your family lived in a large city. But they weren’t listed in the township where I thought they’d moved in 1937 & where I was born in early 1941. They also weren’t listed with either set of my grandparents.

Guess I’ll have to wait for the Pennsylvania Index to be completed.

Anyone have any suggestions?

3 Jerry A. McCoyApril 19, 2012 at 5:00 pm

The Silver Spring (MD) Historical Society has city directories dating back to 1912 (you currently only have 1958 & 1960). Would you be interested in partnering to digitize our collection?

4 Elizabeth H.April 19, 2012 at 7:25 pm

I knew my husband’s father’s family would be in Akron, Ohio, and I knew the address, but the oldest brother wasn’t there. The family story always said that he came to Atlantic City, New Jersey in the early ’40′s. Thanks to ancestry.com’s City Directories (for both Akron and Atlantic City area), I am able to see that the family moved in the late ’30′s! Once I found the family in the 1940 Census in Atlantic City, I could see that the youngest child was born in Ohio in 1938, so they must have moved soon after she was born.

5 Paul H.April 19, 2012 at 8:55 pm

Some of the directories that have been uploaded are incomplete (like Sacramento, 1960); it looks as though the microfilm may have come in two or more volumes, and Ancestry only bothered to scan one. Also, it’d be nice to see some more recent directories, dating beyond 1960.

6 scwbcmApril 20, 2012 at 9:35 am

The City directories and voter registration have been very helpful for locating people in the 1940 census. I have found most of the people I am interested in, in the 1940 census already and have them attached to my trees. The WWII items have also helped. One thing that I particularly like is that some of the directories will indicate that someone is a widow. This is has helped me avoid a futile search for the spouse in the 1940 census.

7 Lesli MApril 20, 2012 at 2:07 pm

I beg to differ on you saying “The results: over 1 billion records with a better, more accurate index, more names, and more matches turning up when you search.” Just searching for ONE couple that I know lived at one address for more than 30 years resulted in TWO hits for each of their names in the US City Directories (Beta) index. Based on the listings that are in the beta database, I should have gotten 24 hits for at least one of the couple (the husband). I’ve had to save nine images from the index because the names on the page were not in the index AND I had to correct three listings where the name was bungled beyond belief. That still leaves me with 10 more years I have to hunt through. Hours and hours of time wasted because Ancestry won’t put a team on correcting the index. “Accurate” is an big fat lie. And no, I’m not submitting this problem AGAIN to the support email. I wouldn’t mind submitting corrections if there was a way I could submit a “this person not indexed” error.

8 Sue RApril 21, 2012 at 1:46 pm

The New York City Directories are actually MIDDLETOWN NEW YORK. Please fix.

9 Paul H.April 22, 2012 at 4:54 am

Yeah, let’s not expect acknowledgment or action from Ancestry personnel. Their specialty is blowing most of their budget on marketing (e.g., primetime network television ads) and generally shirking their duty to the product itself, halfassing pretty much every aspect of their service.

10 Paul RawlinsApril 23, 2012 at 8:50 am

Thanks for the comments. I’ve passed some of them along to the folks who handle acquisitions and the indexing process for this project.

And congratulations on the finds.

11 ShellyApril 23, 2012 at 10:27 am

I have found the new US City Directories Beta database to be helpful and hope it continues to expand, but I have encountered a problem. Any time I try to do an exact search with a person’s name & their state, it tells me that there are no results. If I search for just the name, it gives me lots of results from the same state (in addition to multiple other states). I hope this will be fixed when it passes the Beta stage.

12 JadeApril 23, 2012 at 3:29 pm

Most people in USA did not live in cities until at least the 1940s.

This crowing about City Directories is a lot like the foolish blog statement that “most of our ancestors lived in London . . . .” in 1911!!!! My last London ancestor left there before 1654.

All of us could use more historical understanding.

13 Judy HolzwartApril 23, 2012 at 8:14 pm

Thanks to the new directories posted, I was able to narrow down, to within a year, when my gggrandfather, Frederick, died. Thanks so much!

14 MicheleApril 24, 2012 at 9:38 am

I would suggest using the browse feature in the city directories if you can’t find someone in a search and you know where they lived. This also lets you know which scans are incomplete. I’ve come across several years where there is only the first or second half of the alphabet. So frustrating. However, I am very happy with the additional directories that have been posted!

15 DianeApril 24, 2012 at 8:00 pm

The US Directories Beta are a great thing unfortunately the transcriptions for the Detroit Directories are atrocious. Browsing is the only practical way to search them. Also, the directories are incomplete. Either missing half the names (from N-Z) or just having random groups of the street indexes. The 1940 Detroit directory has only 255 pages of street indexing (back matter)!!!

16 DeniseMay 24, 2012 at 7:19 am

The city directories have been very interesting in finding more about where my family lived in Hartford, CT during the thirties and forties. However I have had to BROWSE through the files since the indexes are mostly useless for many of the years. Whoever did the indexing for this town (Hartford, Connecticut) mus thave just hit random keys to page through the names, rendering any search useless. It be be very worthwhile to pass this information along to whomever handles the review of the index results BEFORE publishing to the web and it would be even better if I could report the problem directly from the image.

17 Sara SavelMay 25, 2012 at 11:03 am

The Detroit city directories are grossly incomplete, especially the midcentury ones. Many of them only have the first few hundred pages, or just a incomplete street guide index. Detroit was a major American city up until the 80′S, with a large population. The city directories should be complete. I know they are available, as I have seen the original directories in person at a few genealogical libraries.

18 Joan LottnerJuly 24, 2012 at 7:51 pm

I have been searching the Grand Rapids and Detroit, Michigan databases and am extremely disappointed with the results. I have had to browse almost all of them and have made dozens of corrections so far when able. Dozens more I have not been able to correct as the indexing was so incomplete as to make correction impossible. Visual transcribing by the computer (as was done in the beta directories here) looks to be extremely inaccurate and in desperate need of major tweeking. Why Ancestry are you not using World Connect to fix this for now until you find a better solution? I know there a quite a few things on there now, but I have found the directories a very exciting new addition but they need to be way more accurate to be of any use to anyone. There are many that are incompletely scanned also and I am wondering if it is because that is all Ancestry had to scan or if the scanning was not completed due to this being simply a beta test version right now. Will the missing pages be scanned in later once all the bugs are worked out?

[...] our current collections better is important to us. For example, we have recently updated our City Directories to include even more information and are still indexing information for the 1940 US Census to [...]

20 Genealogy News Corral, Jan. 7-11January 13, 2013 at 12:00 am

[...] US census collections (correcting some Indiana birth places that were keyed incorrectly) and its City Directories. In addition, Ancestry continues with its indexing of information for the 1940 US census to make it [...]

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