Anatomy of a City Directory, by Juliana Smith

Taggart's Storage Warehouses ad, Brooklyn, New York 1879 City DirectoryAs I was winterizing the house and wrestling with a particularly stubborn storm window, it came crashing down and, of course, broke. With snow and frigid temps in the weather forecast, the hubby peeked in my office today and asked me where the phone book was so he could call the hardware store and see about getting the glass replaced. Phone book? I gave him that blank stare that told him I had absolutely no clue and turned back to my computer to Google the name of the hardware store.

Years ago, even before the telephone became widely used, directories were the way to go when it came to locating people and businesses. For family historians, they’re also the way to go when you want to locate your ancestors. As I mentioned in last week’s column, I have been anxious to dive into the new collection of U.S. city directories that were posted last week, and last night I finally got my chance. I spent quite a bit of time browsing through an 1879 directory of Brooklyn, New York, and was quickly reminded of just how much directories have to offer–and how much we may miss if we only focus on that one little line that gives our ancestor’s name, occupation, and address. While this article will use the Brooklyn directory as an example, others typically followed a similar format and you may find comparable content in other areas of the U.S. and around the world.

The Joys of Online Access
When I’ve been in libraries looking through city directories on microfilm, I have to really discipline myself because my time is limited. I need to pull as many of my family names and addresses as I can in the short time I have before closing time.

As I spin through the film, my eye catches sight of advertisements for local businesses. “Ooh, is the Tobin’s hat shop advertised in this one?” It’s like dangling something shiny in front of a child. Next thing you know I’m completely distracted from my purpose and reading the directory page by page. With these directories now available online, I can sit here in my jammies and browse to my heart’s content–page by page, or skipping ahead by changing the image number.

These directories are searchable, so you can put in your ancestors surname and jump right to that page, but it can be worthwhile to take the time to browse. Because the index was created by OCR (which means a computer reads the print), unusual fonts (especially those used in advertisements) or heavy print and smudges can cause you to miss some references.

The first thing I look for is the title page in the front of the directory. This tells me the publisher and typically what kinds of things I can find in the directory. In the 1879 directory I looked at, the title page reads, “The Brooklyn City and Business Directory for the year ending May 1st, 1880, containing also A Street and Avenue Directory, A Municipal Register, and a New Map of Brooklyn.” Yeah!

Some directories will also include a table of contents with page numbers. This directory didn’t have one for the entire book, but there were indexes for some of the sections that gave page numbers. For example, on image 21 of 774, I found an index to all the advertisements. Alas, I quickly found that the Tobins didn’t advertise here.

Although the pages of the directory won’t match up with the image numbers, with a little bit of math, you can estimate how far ahead you need to jump to get from the index to the desired page. Just bear in mind that there are two directory pages on each image when you’re doing your calculations.

Introductory Information
The 1879 directory of Brooklyn included a preface from the publisher, who strongly recommended that owners of his guide attach it to their counters with chains to deter those who might “borrow” the book, rather than purchase one. The preface also often includes tidbits on what is going on in the city and this volume mentions the long-awaited Brooklyn Bridge, which would open in 1883. Look for this section to learn what was happening in your ancestor’s city.

Other introductory material I found included a page of “Names too late for insertion in regular order,” and a list of abbreviations used in the directory. 

Historic Maps and Street Directories
Being a map geek, I was thrilled to see the “new” map for the year 1879.
(also see the previous page for more of the city). It shows the various ferry lines to Manhattan, ward numbers and boundaries, cemeteries, parks, and other features.

The street directory can help you to pinpoint exactly where your ancestor lived on the block. Streets and avenues are listed alphabetically and each listing gives the start and ending point, as well as the house numbers for the intersections. For example, one of my ancestors lived at 117 Tillary. The street directory tells me that the on the corners of Tillary and Lawrence are on the left house number 113 and 112 on the right. This way I can tell that they lived near this intersection. When I locate it on the map, it reveals that they are in the fourth ward. You’ll find the numbered streets follow the named streets in this directory, although that’s not always the case.

Municipal Register
If your ancestor served in public office you may find him or her listed in the municipal register along with those serving on the boards of charitable institutions, or social and fraternal organizations. Churches are listed, along with clergy; cemeteries with the management. 

My ancestor Edwin Dyer, was police captain of the twelfth precinct, so I was interested to learn that the station was located on Fulton at the corner of Schenectady Ave.

Courts were also listed, schools and principals, ferry companies and the routes they ran, as well as orphanages and asylums.

Even advertisements can be helpful. The descendants of Dr. Geo. W. Holman, “Inventor of that Modern Marvel of Medical Science, Holman’s Fever and Ague and Liver Pad” will be thrilled to find an image of the good doctor accompanying his ad.

Many were just fun to read. I ran across an interesting advertisement for Taggart’s Storage Warehouses that got me thinking. The images of high society ladies and gentleman in Victorian clothing were accompanied by captions like “I am going to leave for the country soon; but, I really don’t know what to do with my furniture. Why! My Dear, Send it to Taggart’s Storage Warehouses.” In another scene, a gentleman tells his friend, “Yes, my dear fellow, we are all going to Europe for two years,” and of course he’ll be sending his furniture to Taggart’s as well.

While this probably wasn’t a scene played out by many of my ancestors, there are a few that were relatively well off. My infamous Kellys appear to have made some money in real estate, and they continue to evade me in several censuses. Could it be that like these society ladies, they retired to the country in the summer? Maybe I should be looking at some of the fashionable summer retreats for them. The social pages of local newspapers can sometimes give you hints as to the arrival and departure of society families. (The Taggart’s ad is above. Click on the image to enlarge it.)

To Sum Up
While I may not pay much attention to the directories that find their way into our home each year, last night’s journey will definitely have me returning to this collection. These directories provide us with a snapshot (sometimes literally) of the cities in which our ancestors lived.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.


7 thoughts on “Anatomy of a City Directory, by Juliana Smith

  1. I love the ads. Some will go on my family history pages. “Maybe they had a stove like this in the boarding house my great grandparents had!” Helps envision how they lived.

    I was able to go backwards and find Sam who lived across town from his future bride, my great aunt, whom he finally met somewhere, were married and he joined my family in the boarding house. Nothing like a love story to entice readers to read this thing I’m trying to write.

  2. I adore directories! And I love traveling to the areas where the folks lived and obtaining pix of the homes and businesses to include in my book on my Smiths.

    One of my favorites was a man in Racine, Wisconsin around 1893. When I looked for the building (yay! Still standing!), it was labeled “Klinkert.”

    I did a little research, and it turns out Mr. Klinkert was a brewer, and leased out saloons to only sell HIS beer. My fellow was running the saloon downstairs, and the family lived upstairs.

    I also found two of the homes my great grandparents (and grandfather and great aunt) lived in in Minneapolis. You never know what kind of goodies you’ll find.

  3. In case anybody was wondering, OCR means Optical Character recognition. There are one or two producers of software for this. If you use it, please take care to go through the new script word by word, as it is not foolproof and very often errors are created. It is, however, much better than it was, say 25 years ago.

  4. I love city directories. I covered this topic at the Mesa, Arizona Family History Expo last month. I’ve a presentation on city directories on my web site (under presentations). Jasia has a multi-part series on city directories on her blog,, which is excellent, too.

    Don’t overlook this important, public resource!

    Happy Dae.

  5. The City directories have all kinds of ads from products available and price. Types of services like life insurance and bank information. You get very interesting information on the cost of things at the time of the city directory for the ads in them. Great to get your family first but all is very entertaining.

    I found full information on my uncle by marriage business as a pharmacist and all the other items such as ice cream and hobby store at his pharmacy. I found my paternal aunt and her husbands iron works with all the information of what they did and contact information. A true gold mine in my case.

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