City directories are useful for the year-by-year portrait they can paint of our ancestors. They document their moves, changes in occupation, and may note the widowed status of a wife who has recently lost her husband. All of this information can be obtained by simply looking up an ancestor’s name. But consider the other types of information that a city directory holds, and how that might be used to aid your research, or develop context for your ancestor’s story.
Check the Front Matter
Let’s begin by looking at the table of contents and the material located in the front of the directory. This could be just a few pages, or nearly a hundred, depending on the time and place of the directory, and the way the publisher organized the information. Most directories will begin with an introductory section which provides a written snapshot of the city, providing population figures, description of its major industries, and often serving as a promotional piece, painting a vibrant and thriving portrait of prosperity – regardless of the individual circumstances of many of its residents and business owners. Subjects may also include major transportation routes and providers, real estate and development, banking, energy, climate and health. Here’s an example from Baltimore in 1912:
Other sections in the front of a city directory might include detailed listings of professional, civic, religious, labor, ethnic, and fraternal organizations.
There may be special sections for any number of subjects. In the case of Baltimore, for example, there are listings of the major wharves, as well as a church directory.
Finally, if you expect to find your ancestor listed in the alphabetical section of names, but cannot find him or her – check the front of the directory for a list of changes, omissions, and “too lates”.
Never overlook the abbreviation listing, often found at the beginning of the listing of individual names. Not only will you find common abbreviations, such as “h” for “house,” but there may also be abbreviations for various occupations, some city streets, religious denominations, and other information.
Advertisements & Businesses
Most directories for major cities also had a special section for business listings and advertisements. Sometimes these were combined, appearing together in one section – or they may have been in separate sections – one being a strict, simple listings of businesses; the other filled with half- or full-page advertisements. Looking at this information can help you learn more about the company your ancestor worked for, or how your ancestor marketed their own services if they were in business for themselves.
Some city directories may also have a listing of residents by street. This can prove extremely useful by allowing you to get a glimpse of the neighborhood. What were the cross-streets near them? Who were the neighbors? Which churches, schools, and businesses were nearby?
In the residential section of the 1917 Nashville directory, Walter B. Robinson’s listing shows him living at 2502 Winford Avenue. Taking this information and now looking up his address in the street listing, we see:
Although the details of the family relationships come from other sources (this is one of my own family lines), the home of W. B. Robinson at 2502 [Winford Avenue] near the intersection of Newson is just a few doors away from members of his wife’s extended family, the Yeargins. Nearby also are two different members of the Rader family. Within a few years, one of Walter’s daughters would marry a Rader stepson. This city directory listing shows that these families lived very close to each other, and their children most likely played together, went to the same schools, and grew up together.
Although city directories might come readily to mind as a resource for densely-populated urban areas, some directories were compiled for counties and smaller towns, such as county seats. Such directories might serve an entire county, adjoining counties, or even a small region. For instance, the 1874 directory compiled for Coldwater, the county seat of Branch County, Michigan, also provided information about individuals and businesses throughout the county in smaller towns like Quincy and Bronson. People and businesses in adjoining Hillsdale County were listed as well.
City directories are so much more than just names and addresses. Use them to develop your view of your ancestor’s entire community – neighbors, shops, stores, schools, churches, lodges, factories and more . It will add a richness to your ancestor’s story, and guide you to new resources to explore.
Start exploring your ancestor’s community in the U.S City Directory Collection, 1822-1995, on Ancestry.
Linda Barnickel is a professional archivist and freelance writer. She is the author of the award-winning book, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory and has written on numerous historical, genealogical, and archives-related subjects. Learn more about her work at www.lindabarnickel.com.