Posted by Ancestry Team on February 26, 2016 in Collections, Website

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.



Street Listings

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.

Smaller Cities 

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



  1. Janice

    I really hadn’t thought about all of these other things you could find in a city directory. I will have to check some of the records I’ve attached to ancestors to find the additional info mentioned. Thanks!

  2. Monika

    I have always enjoyed looking through the City Directories. One little caveat, however, when it comes to determining widowhood. Many women kept showing the name of their husbands in directories even after their husband’s death…maybe for protection/security reasons or? I found many female ancestors where there is no doubt that their husband died years prior, but where the directory still shows their husband’s name.

  3. Pat

    I LOVE City Directories! Since there’s no 1890 Census (for most of us), sometimes you can nail down a family in a City Directory from that general time period. Also, confirm locations between Census years.

  4. dianeturnbull1

    @Monika I don’ t know if this applies to other cases, but my grandmother was divorced from my grandfather and she always had the “widow” designation after her name. He was listed in the same directory at a different address (with another woman and listed as a boarder) and died several years after the divorce. I was thinking the authors of the directory would not want a woman listed as divorced because it wasn’t as socially acceptable(?). This was during the 1930’s-40’s.

  5. Cathy

    Don’t forget you can take the street addresses you find in the directory and save them on a mapping program (I use Google maps). You night have to do a bit a research in cases where the street names have changed or the streets have disappeared but it is well worth the effort. I did this with my family in Chattanooga (where street names changed and one street disappeared because Cameron Hill was carted away in dump trucks in the 1950s for a highway project). It is helpful to see where everyone was living plotted out on the map. In some cases, the early directory was a little vague (near the corner of Maple and Ash), so I had to guesstimate those locations.

  6. Monika

    #DianeTurnbull1- Oh, yeah! There was definitely a stigma attached to divorce in those days. You find the same situation in Census records where your ancestor claims to be a widow in a certain year (while the husband lives at a different address with a “housekeepeer”) and ten years later she shows as divorced! That “widow” versus “divorce” status can go on for decades.

  7. CH

    City directories are very helpful. Even with irregular information and publications. They do sometimes fill in some gaps.

    I wish there were more of them and they were contiguous. If the one you think you want is missing, you might try the local public library to see if they have a “missing” one that Ancestry doesn’t not have. Reference librarians are usually very helpful and frequently do not charge anything. But don’t expect them to do research. Ask for something specific. They are usually busy with lots of people.

    “dianeturnbull1” is quite right. There was a stigma to divorce for a very long time. I found it many times.

  8. Monika

    Uuuhh! I just thought of a question that has been on my mind for months. I am looking for a certain relative. I find him married in the late 1990s in Nevada. Also found his marriage record with his wife’s maiden name on ACOM. In my efforts to find him again AFTER that I find HER divorcing him and remarrying someone else and the Directory on ACOM shows her living in Tarrant County, Texas now! But the relative (her first husband) that I am looking for has completely disappeared from the surface of this earth! I do not want to write to her, because I do not want to establish contact with them. I seriously suspect that he is in prison. Is there any way of finding out whether someone is in prison/jail?

  9. CH

    Monika: Good question. Police records are sometimes published in newspapers. Arrests and etc. Small print in the back of the newspapers. Less likely for large cities because there is more crime and the newspapers probably don’t want to use up a lot of space for just the small stuff. They tend to go for the sensational news. If he was convicted for a crime, it is public record. There had to be an arraignment and depending how he pleaded, some kind of case record.

    Google his name in a variety of ways. Is he old enough to likely be deceased? Did they have children? Any other family? What kind of work did he last do?

    I have situations like that where the guy goes missing, totally. Sometimes never to be heard of again. After a certain number of years, you have to know the guy is deceased even if not found. Maybe someone else can suggest some things. Good luck.

  10. Monika

    @CH – Thanks! Never thought of googling “Searching for Prisoners”. Will do that right now! Looking through newspapers would require knowing where he lived after Nevada. And, yes, it would be a public record but WHERE in the US should I start looking since I have no idea where he all lived. And, no, I am convinced that he is not dead. I can feel it in my bones!! The divorce was not that long ago! I met him once many years ago and the coldness in his eyes scared me. There is something in my gut that tells me that he is in prison and that maybe that is why she divorced him. I guess I should zero in on the divorce year and start looking around that time.

  11. Joyce

    Directories have been a life saver forme with one particularly tough family in NYC…we have had to figure out who people are based on correlating addresses in directories with other info such as Census data, addresses on BMD’s etc—it is a very common surname and there are tons of them. BUT some things to know about that have gotten in my way…when several people living in same house often only 1 person is listed in directory–I have been told it cost $ to get listed…in NYC there was a yearly “moving day” when rents went up and families traditionally moved from one place to another, so if your family was poor and moved a lot it makes them really difficult to find–ESP if they changed occupations often…BUT I have been able to put together quite a bit of data JUST by finding people living @ same addresses or even near each other in directories.

    A lot of people don’t use directories and I don’t ALWAYS use them–but I usually do–and when I do I add the address as a comment in my tree so later on you can check if you think you found someone else at that address on another document.

    I google map the addresses to see the areas folks were as most the time I found my folks living fairly close together…

    For me, while doing a VERY tough family, directories have been a life saver…I have another family who we think were 1st cousins to MY family and they used the same names for their kids…so it became VERY important to figure out who was who by using directories combined with other documents.

    IF you have not used directories in the past I highly recommend you give it a try! There is a LOT of info you can piece together.

    One thing I learned just the other day is that at the top of the directory you can click on the “letter” and go to any last name for that directory…I have been using directories for many years and just discovered THAT the other day after watching the 5 min video on WILLS which has a similar feature…

    I WISH I had known about that time saving maneuver years ago–I would have save SO much time!!!

  12. Joyce

    re the “widow” comments…you cannot ever trust a woman listing herself as a widow in “the old days” as men and women alike hid the fact that they were divorced or separated…unless you find a death proving it, always leave the option open that the person might not be a widow at all…

    You RARELY find people admitting to being divorced back then(1800’s early 1900’s) ESPECIALLY the women…

    Divorce was frowned upon…so both men and women often hid it–

    I have even seen a couple of divorced men in my family change the order of their name in a smallish town…suddenly listing themselves by their middle name first and first name as their middle name after being divorced.

    I NEVER trust the “widow” thing unless I can find evidence of the death.

    TOO often they were not widows at all…

  13. Steve Colburn

    Great article, very helpful. I was just doing some research in City Directories a few days ago, and now have some extra things to go back and look for. This info could be very useful in building an ancestor’s profile, and developing their “FAN” (friends, associates, and neighbors) club! Thank you!

  14. CH

    Don’t forget to check for other people with the same surnames in the same place and time. Also check for other surnames.

  15. Christi Spicer

    I’ve been trying for years to find some link to my ancestry. I simply can’t afford the DNA kit at this time. I’m searching for ancestors related to: Milton Harrison Woodruff (my father) & Charles Milton Woodruff (my grandfather). Can anyone help me?

  16. Dee Green

    I grew up in Humboldt County, CA, where there are a lot of small towns; the largest is Eureka. The city directory is listed as the Eureka City Directory. I have seen many records transcribed with the town as Eureka when, in fact, they lived in Fortuna or Freshwater or other surrounding towns. So check the start of the alphabetical listing you are working in to make sure it doesn’t note a different town. And please submit a correction if you find something wrong so the next researcher has correct information.

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