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 Iâ€™d take a look at some things you might find in a directory.
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.
Colâ€™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, itâ€™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.
The 1857 directory started with â€œCity Information.â€ 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 â€œSecret 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. Iâ€™ll be looking into whether I can borrow the films through Interlibrary loan.
A section I often turn to and have found very helpful in directories is the street directory. These can help you to pinpoint your ancestorâ€™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 â€œDirectories and Member Listsâ€ 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.
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 â€œNames too late for inclusion.â€ These are the folks that werenâ€™t in time to be put in alphabetical order.
- If you have an address for an ancestor and are wondering why they arenâ€™t listed, look for a section on â€œnames refused.â€ These are the people who for one reason or another didnâ€™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 ancestorâ€™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 doesnâ€™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 wasnâ€™t mentioned in the title. (Yeah!)
I know Iâ€™m probably missing a few more tips, but Iâ€™m already well over my recommended word count for this article (I do tend to carry on when Iâ€™m excited, donâ€™t I?) So for now, Iâ€™m calling it a night (after one more peek for some of my ancestors). If you have a directory tip youâ€™d like to share, please add it in the comments field at 24/7 Family History Circle. Iâ€™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.