Using Ancestry.com: City Directories, by Juliana Smith

Nowadays, when we need to know where to find a business, organization, or even individuals, we hop online and pull up an online directory or search engine. In the pre-Internet days, we used telephone directories, and in pre-telephone days there were city directories. Ancestry.com added 1,003 directories from various locations to its collections last week and in light of these new resources, I thought this week would be a good time to talk a little about directory research.

I truly believe that city directories are among the most underestimated record groups. Although the entries are brief, the pieces of information that are included can be pivotal in our research. They can take us back and give us a year-by-year snapshot of where our ancestors were, how they earned a living, and often much more if you read between the lines.

Of course when I saw that the directories were posted, I made a beeline for the New York directory collection. Using the 1857 New York City Directory that was posted this week as an example, (I just happened to be browsing it!) I thought I’d take a look at some things you might find in a directory.

The Basics
A typical directory entry might look something like this one from the above mentioned directory:

Tobitt, John H., printer, 181 William, h. 33 McKibbin, Brooklyn

This tells us that John Tobitt was a printer at 181 William in New York City and lived at 33 McKibbin in Brooklyn.

Another entry from that page was for

Tompkins, Hannah (col’d), wid. John T. h. 52 Laurens.

Col’d was the abbreviation for colored, and wid. was the abbreviation for widow. By backtracking through previous directories, you could possibly narrow down the date of death for her late husband John T.

The address is a crucial piece of information and can help to identify your ancestor in other records that also include the address, and mapping it can help you identify where to look for other records, such as church records. Occupations are helpful identifiers too and can help you make sure you have the correct family in census records, among others.

Online directories offer a distinct advantage in being able to actually search by address rather than name. This allows you to search for neighbors and other people living at the same address, who may be relatives. Granted, it’s currently an imperfect science in that you may have to wade through some hits where the street and house number both appear on the page but in different entries. However, I tried this with an address on Greenwich in New York City and only had to go through twenty-some odd hits. I did find a couple other people living at the same address in this manner.

City Information
The 1857 directory started with “City Information.” Government officials such as aldermen, health wardens, and assessors were listed as were the courts, police stations, and firehouses. For this New York City directory, there was also a table of distances from various streets to City Hall, the Battery, and the Exchange (Ancestry subscribers can see it by browsing to City Information, image 146).

It also included transportation information with depots, destinations, routes, and schedules being listed for ferries, omnibuses (stage), and railroads (City Information, images 129-130). This information can give you an insight into how your ancestor traveled to work, visited family, went to church or attended school, or even how they left the city for greener pastures (City Information, image 125). Church and synagogue listings included the address, names of priests, ministers, or rabbis, and sextons (City Information, images 110-14). Cemeteries were listed, as were asylums, dispensaries, and orphanages.

If your ancestor was involved in fraternal organizations (listed as “Secret and Benefit Societies, City Information, image 119), you might find him listed if he were an officer in the organization. And if you were wondering what ethnic and mainstream newspapers were available, it includes a list of those as well. I found several Irish newspapers of interest and followed up with the U.S. Newspaper Program. I’ll be looking into whether I can borrow the films through Interlibrary loan.

Street Directories
A section I often turn to and have found very helpful in directories is the street directory. These can help you to pinpoint your ancestor’s residence on a map. For example, I found a James Kelly in the 1859 business directory with an address of 209 Ave. B. Although there was no street directory included in that issue, I went to the street directory for 1957.

Looking under Avenue B (Image 131), I learned that it ran “from 239 Houston, N. to E.R.” (north to East River). Below that, it lists addresses from the left side of the street and right side of the street corresponding with each cross street. Where it intersected with Houston, the address of the left corner house was 2 and the address of the right corner house was 1. Moving north, at Second Street the corner houses were numbered 14 and 15 (respectively). If I were wondering about the residents of 7 Avenue B., I would know from this that they lived about halfway between Houston and Second streets on the right side of the street.

The 209 address for James Kelly happened to fall on the right corner of E. 13th. This is particularly interesting to me since I have found the family in other records around 12th and 13th streets.

Where to Find City Directories
Ancestry.com has a growing collection of city directories available to subscribers, many with images of the actual directory. There are a large number of transcriptions of directories from around 1890 that can fill in some blanks left by the missing 1890 U.S. Census. There are a number of international directories available as well, particularly for the UK. To view these titles, click on the country on the main search page and then select “Directories and Member Lists” from the side menu.

Directories are also available on microfilm in some larger libraries, such as the Family History Library, Newberry Library (Chicago, Illinois), the Allen County Public Library (Fort Wayne, Indiana), the New England Historic Genealogical Society (Boston, Massachusetts), and the New York Public Library (New York, New York), to name a few. State archives, county libraries, and historical societies are other good places to check. Do a little poking around online for your area of interest and you may be pleasantly surprised.

Tips
Some parting tips . . .

  • Check multiple directories. There was often more than one directory published in the area and one may contain more detailed information than the other on your ancestor.
  • Look at the beginning (or end) of the directory for “Names too late for inclusion.” These are the folks that weren’t in time to be put in alphabetical order.
  • If you have an address for an ancestor and are wondering why they aren’t listed, look for a section on “names refused.” These are the people who for one reason or another didn’t want to share their information with the directory canvasser. They are listed only by street address.
  • Search the directories as well as browsing them. Your ancestor’s name may be listed with his or her business, as a society officer, a trustee of an institution or in any number of unexpected places. Let the search tool help you cover more ground. (Note: For the new directory databases, which are grouped by state, you will need to search them through the main state page, but can confine your search to one year by including that year in the appropriate field.)
  • That said, if he or she doesn’t come up in a search, be sure to browse to that letter and look for yourself. OCR errors happen.
  • As Paula mentioned in a recent Tip from the Pros (http://blogs.ancestry.com/circle/?p=62), check out abbreviations and make sure you understand the significance of those abbreviations. If you assume incorrectly, you could be missing out on a great lead.
  • Browse through the entire directory and scan the table of contents thoroughly. In the 1859 Business Directory that was just posted for New York City (http://content.ancestry.com/Browse/list.aspx?dbid=8773&path=New+York.1859), I found that there was also a directory for businesses in Brooklyn included, although it wasn’t mentioned in the title. (Yeah!)

I know I’m probably missing a few more tips, but I’m already well over my recommended word count for this article (I do tend to carry on when I’m excited, don’t I?) So for now, I’m calling it a night (after one more peek for some of my ancestors). If you have a directory tip you’d like to share, please add it in the comments field at 24/7 Family History Circle. I’m looking forward to learning some of your secrets for navigating these gems!

Juliana Smith has been the editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than seven years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at: Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

16 thoughts on “Using Ancestry.com: City Directories, by Juliana Smith

  1. Juliana, My husband and I recently went on a “Genealogy Trip” to the roots of our parents. We found the City Directories very helpful. For instance, we did not know when his great-grandfather died. We checked death index but because it is a common name was not certain that the John Lynn we found was indeed his grandfather. Then we went to the City Directories for Rochester, New York and found him listed in several years then in one of the directories it states “John E.Lynn, died Oct. 10, 1913, age 66″. This verified his death date!
    Thank you for making me aware of other uses for the directories.

  2. Where do I send this whitout it getting an error message and wiping out what I wrote???????????????????????????????????

  3. Thousands of city directories, and not even ONE from West Virginia. Not even the capital of Charleston? People in WV are starting to say we are not important enough to be ranked with some tiny cities on the list that we have never even heard of. NOT EVEN ONE?????

  4. Please make these articles printer friendly like you used to. 5 pages is too long to copy for a regular article! Thanks, Lola Pinder

  5. I did go through city directories for someone I was researching and was able to narrow down a death date to a specific year. Then I was able to go through microfilm of the newspaper for that city and find a death notice for the specific individual which gave me the name of the cemetery where both he and his wife were buried.

  6. I would like to add that in Indianapolis,In. street names changed from the 1920 census of my neighborhood to the 1930 census so people still lived in the same house but had a different address. We had a Indpls., Polk City Directory which I enjoyed looking through as a young boy in the 1930′s.
    Gene Cordell in INDPLS. Quaker Genealogies

  7. Juliana, I certainly agree that directories are one of the best resources available. They constitute an annual census that gives great insight into people’s lives. Three of the best features of information in city directories that I know are 1) using them to locate people who cannot be found in the census, and 2) finding marriage and death information, and 3) identifying relationships by address. My experience is primarily with Connecticut directories. They note when people moved to other places with comments like “rem. [name of another town]. Women are sometimes listed under their maiden names the year they married with a reference to their married named. Directories also note death dates, especially of long time residents. Lastly, as child became adults, they were typically listed under their own names, but their address noted that they “boarded” at an address that was usually their parents’ home. So I always check every year available. Thanks for a great article.

  8. The articles are helpful but I do not care to print the comments. I don’t consider this a printer friendly version, the old printer friendly version was just that.

  9. I too have found the city directories very helpful. I have estimated a time of death by noticing the beginning of the widow listing and also used them to estimate the age of a person by when she appeared listed as a “student”. It helps particularly for women who seem to “fly under the radar” in the early 1900′s.

    I have also seen directories that listed the addresses in sequence in the back so that you can see everyone who lives at the same address.

  10. Of course, you can make your own “printer-friendly” copy:

    1) Open your word processor.

    2) Go back to your web browser with the article, and highlight the text you want to save (in Windows, depress the left mouse button and drag the mouse from top to bottom). Release the mouse with the text highlighted and go to [Edit} {Copy} or do a Ctrl-C keystroke.

    3) Go to your open word processor document, and do an [Edit]{paste} or a Ctrl-V and the text should appear in your word document.

    4) Edit it to your heart’s content – change the font size or the margins until it fits on however many pages you want it to be on.

    You should also copy the URL (the web page address) from the web browser and copy it at the top of the article so you can find it next time you want to read the comments!

  11. The City Directories for Asheville, NC have been a most valuable tool for me in my research. I have spent many days/hours in the library there going through the 1800′s & early 1900′s. In searching my mother’s maternal history, I was delighted & surprised to find that her grandfather (about whom we could find very little) actually lived with his brother- and sisters-in-law in that town before he died at an early age. I actually was able to locate the houses where the families had lived (some still standing); I learned that my mother’s father had lived in Asheville at one point instead of in Hendersonville where she was born; and quite possibly met his 2nd wife (my grandmother) while she was living with her uncle and going to Nursing School!

    What a wealth of information can be found in those “tomes” if you take the time to look! These books have not been put on microfilm yet; and they are worn; but they are still sitting out in the open for people to use. I wish they could be added to Ancestry.com’s collection and SOON. You can go street by street,house by house, find the employment information of the residents, almost as much information as you can find in the census! (I said “almost”).

    As a teenager, I worked in the “stacks” of the Asheville Library; and while I was cleaning/dusting, etc., I spent many an hour cheating and studying the City Directories even before I became interested in genealogy!

  12. Printer friendly version is much easier and is quicker. I saved the article to My Documents, used Print Preview to see what pages was of interest and printed only the ones I wanted. A little longer process but it does work. I’d like to see Printer Friendly Version return to the newsletter.

  13. Thanks for the info on the “Names too late for inclusion” and “Names refused” categories. I’ve tracked people year to year in these directories and wondered why there were gaps or differences. I figured it was due to a directory employee not finding someone at home and getting the info from a neighbor the way the census employees did. I agree that these old directories are underestimated for the info they provide. I’ve used a Polk directory to verify that both of an adoptee’s birthparents worked at the same business together the year she was born. Thanks for a great article.

  14. In printing the above article, 7 pages of print included comments-this is not necessary, a waste of ink and paper. Please allow for the printing of the article only.

    Thank you

  15. Good article. I learned something–esp the “refused” and “too lates.” A friend showed me the great value of city directories years ago and they have been very helpful. I’ve used the Lowell, Mass. directories a lot and was thrilled to find comments in the late 1800′s thru 1940′s with exact death dates or “removed to Boston” notes. They’ve saved me lots in death certificate search fees and helped me trace my nomadic ancestors. I agree with the earlier comment that these great resources should be better preserved, and old, single copies should not be allowed to be used without being microfilmed.

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