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Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Sep 21, 2012

Look Up Your Ancestors: Using City Directories

by Aubrey Fredrickson

City Directories are "among the most important sources of information about urban areas and their inhabitants." (A quote from the "Library of Congress" website) Were any of your ancestors inhabitants of urban areas? The phrase "urban area" doesn't just refer to big cities. City directories were also often published for smaller cities. That means that city directories could be quite important to your research. If you've never examined these valuable records, your ancestors might just be waiting for you to look them up. In this article we will discuss why city directories are so valuable to genealogical research and how to go about finding them, as well as some other useful tips.

How can city directories help my research?
If you're unfamiliar with city directories, you might think they're just like a phone book. In some ways that is true. A city directory is an alphabetical listing of people (generally the male head of house) and their addresses. However, they may have much more to offer a genealogist than you may think at first sight. City Directories have evolved over time from simple lists of households and businesses to detailed records of individuals within their community. Often city directories include additional information like spouse's name, occupation, and other affiliations.

First, city directories can be used to locate an ancestor during a gap in census records. If you've ever been frustrated because most of the 1890 US census was destroyed in a fire, consider the possibility that your ancestor may be listed in a city directory taken in that year. Or in the years between census records. If you've lost track of an ancestor between census years, you may be able to find him in a directory. For example, if you look at the image to the right you will see a listing from a 1931 Bloomfield, New Jersey directory for James Trivett. This listing tells us that James removed to Orange. If you had lost track of James' family after the 1930 census, you would now know to look for them in a different city.

If you run into that familiar problem of trying to differentiate between two or more people of the same names, a city directory might be able to help you there as well. Since the purpose of a published city directory is to allow the user to locate specific individuals, they made a point of listing identifying information such as middle initials and occupations.

You might even be able to find clues to family relationships in a directory by examining other individuals of the same surname. Admittedly, if you're researching an ancestor who had a common surname, such as Smith or Brown, this might not be the best research method. But if your ancestor had a less common surname, it is definitely worth taking a look. By examining all of the individuals named Trivett in the Newark, New Jersey area for a span of about twenty years, I was able to piece together a fairly good hypothesis of who was related to whom and how. I may not be able to prove all those relationships by the information provided in the directories alone, but it gives me some very solid links to research.

What about our female ancestors? Trying to track down the women in our family tree can sometimes be quite a challenge. Can city directories help us there? To a limited degree, yes. As noted above, it was generally only the male head of household who was listed in the directory. There are exceptions to that rule, though. If you look at the image to the right, you'll notice that for both George W. and James Trivett, a second name is included in parenthesis. This name is the householder's spouse. You may also see a woman's name if she was a widow or a single adult who was gainfully employed.

These are just a few ways that city directories can help your research. There are definitely more, and a few of them will be listed later in this article. Hopefully, you're beginning to see how useful these plentiful records can be, though.

Where can I find city directories?
The best place to find city directories is usually a library or historical society in the city or state where your ancestors lived. Fortunately, more and more directories are being published online, which makes finding and accessing them much easier. However, many still exist only as paper or microfilm. Below I will list some of the best places to either search directories online or to find where the actual records are kept.

  • Ancestry.com - Ancestry has the most extensive collection of city directories that I was able to find online. You can search by name, location, or pretty much any other term that might appear on a directory. Some of the directories that I viewed had not yet been indexed the directory itself is in alphabetical order so if you find a city directory for the place in which you are interested you would be able to view the images and find the name alphabetically. (Ancestry is a subscription based service.)
  • DistantCousin.com - This site maintains a free archive of city directories. The collection is fairly random, so you probably won't be able to trace your ancestors through consecutive city directories here, but it's definitely worth a look. You can search by state and surname or browse through the collection by location.
  • Cyndi's List - This site maintains a list of links to websites that host city directories. There are 227 links listed for US directories. One thing to keep in mind is that the links are listed alphabetically, according to the title of the webpage, so they might not be in the order you would expect.
  • Online Historical Directories Website - A database of links to directories that have been put online. You can browse the database by location, which makes it easy to find what you're looking for. There is also a notation for each link to tell you if you can access the directory for free or if it is part of a subscription database.
  • Family History Books - This database of more than 40,000 digitized genealogy and family history publications is part of the FamilySearch.org website. A search returned 327 records that have the phrase "city directory" in the title.
  • Google Books - You can find a lot of digitized books through this search engine. When I searched for "city directory," I got over a million results. I doubt that all of those are actually directories, but it does look like there's a lot there.
  • USCityDirectories.com - This website is a great resource if you want to find where the actual city directory is held. There is also an option on many directories that will allow you to order a copy (basically one of the professional genealogists at Genealogy Research Associates will perform a search of the specified record for you and send you the results). That's great news if you can't find the directory online and live too far away from the repository to do the search yourself.
  • The Library of Congress - Here you can browse by location to see what city directories are held in the Microform Reading Room of the Library of Congress. The records are not available on interlibrary loan and the staff doesn't do searches, but there is a list of researchers in the DC area you can contact to do a search for you for a fee.
These sources are a great place to start your search for city directories, but if you're not finding a directory for your ancestor's city, don't give up just yet. As I mentioned in the beginning of this section, the best place to look for directories is at a library or historical society in the city or state where your ancestor lived. If nothing else, someone at one of these locations may be able to help you determine if any city directories were published in that area.

A final word on locating city directories online. While a few of the sites I listed above do maintain lists of where to find directories online, none of them has every online directory listed. In addition to looking through those sites, I would suggest doing a Google search for the phrase "city directory" and the name of the city you are interested in.

City Directories and Collateral Kin
In the book review section of this issue of our newsletter you will find a review of The Family Tree Problem Solver by Marsha Hoffman Rising. I want to take just a moment to talk about something she often refers to in that book--researching collateral lines. What does that mean and why would you want to do it? To put it in a nutshell, researching collateral lines means focusing on relationships rather than surnames. Instead of just going back through the direct line of your family tree, you study the branches (aunts, uncles, siblings, etc.) as well. She even suggests that studying your ancestor's neighbors can be useful.

Sound like a lot of work? It certainly could be and Rising does point out that this is necessary only for the most difficult of genealogical problems (69). But when you're up against that brick wall with no where to go, researching your ancestor's family, friends, and neighborhood might produce additional avenues of research. Here are just a few ways that city directories might help out in the search for collateral lines:

  • Some directories list not only the occupation of the individual, but actually state the name or address of the business where they were employed. Studying business relationships could lead to family relationships as well.
  • You can use the city directory to look for churches and cemeteries near where your ancestor lived. If you can find a church your ancestor attended, you've found a new source of records.
  • Some directories, especially later ones, will actually have two listings, one in alphabetical order by last name and one in geographical order by address. Look around at your ancestor's neighbors for possible family connections. Did his wife's family live nearby? What about that family that always seems to live next door, even after your ancestor moved to a new neighborhood? Perhaps they're related somehow.
How can city directories help you find your ancestor in a census record?
Let's talk for a moment about that ancestor who seems to have been kidnapped by aliens whenever the census taker came by. There are many reasons why you may not be able to find someone in a census record, even if they actually were listed. Sometimes a name has been misspelled or was accidentally left out of the index. In cases like that, you may be able to locate the individual or family by their address.

How do you find their address? Check for the address in a city directory published in or around the census year. Then use the address in Steve Morse's tool for obtaining EDs to identify which enumeration district your ancestor was in and where in the census that ED would be listed. Once you know that, you can generally narrow your search down to just a few pages of the census record, rather than hunting through an entire state or city.

Other City Directory Resources
As an additional help here are some links to several other good articles on the internet about using city directories in family history research:

Article written by Aubrey Fredrickson

Copyright ©: 2012 Fficiency Software, Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author.

Newsletters

Select Newsletter by Issue or Topic:

Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Sep 21, 2012

Look Up Your Ancestors: Using City Directories

by Aubrey Fredrickson

City Directories are "among the most important sources of information about urban areas and their inhabitants." (A quote from the "Library of Congress" website) Were any of your ancestors inhabitants of urban areas? The phrase "urban area" doesn't just refer to big cities. City directories were also often published for smaller cities. That means that city directories could be quite important to your research. If you've never examined these valuable records, your ancestors might just be waiting for you to look them up. In this article we will discuss why city directories are so valuable to genealogical research and how to go about finding them, as well as some other useful tips.

How can city directories help my research?
If you're unfamiliar with city directories, you might think they're just like a phone book. In some ways that is true. A city directory is an alphabetical listing of people (generally the male head of house) and their addresses. However, they may have much more to offer a genealogist than you may think at first sight. City Directories have evolved over time from simple lists of households and businesses to detailed records of individuals within their community. Often city directories include additional information like spouse's name, occupation, and other affiliations.

First, city directories can be used to locate an ancestor during a gap in census records. If you've ever been frustrated because most of the 1890 US census was destroyed in a fire, consider the possibility that your ancestor may be listed in a city directory taken in that year. Or in the years between census records. If you've lost track of an ancestor between census years, you may be able to find him in a directory. For example, if you look at the image to the right you will see a listing from a 1931 Bloomfield, New Jersey directory for James Trivett. This listing tells us that James removed to Orange. If you had lost track of James' family after the 1930 census, you would now know to look for them in a different city.

If you run into that familiar problem of trying to differentiate between two or more people of the same names, a city directory might be able to help you there as well. Since the purpose of a published city directory is to allow the user to locate specific individuals, they made a point of listing identifying information such as middle initials and occupations.

You might even be able to find clues to family relationships in a directory by examining other individuals of the same surname. Admittedly, if you're researching an ancestor who had a common surname, such as Smith or Brown, this might not be the best research method. But if your ancestor had a less common surname, it is definitely worth taking a look. By examining all of the individuals named Trivett in the Newark, New Jersey area for a span of about twenty years, I was able to piece together a fairly good hypothesis of who was related to whom and how. I may not be able to prove all those relationships by the information provided in the directories alone, but it gives me some very solid links to research.

What about our female ancestors? Trying to track down the women in our family tree can sometimes be quite a challenge. Can city directories help us there? To a limited degree, yes. As noted above, it was generally only the male head of household who was listed in the directory. There are exceptions to that rule, though. If you look at the image to the right, you'll notice that for both George W. and James Trivett, a second name is included in parenthesis. This name is the householder's spouse. You may also see a woman's name if she was a widow or a single adult who was gainfully employed.

These are just a few ways that city directories can help your research. There are definitely more, and a few of them will be listed later in this article. Hopefully, you're beginning to see how useful these plentiful records can be, though.

Where can I find city directories?
The best place to find city directories is usually a library or historical society in the city or state where your ancestors lived. Fortunately, more and more directories are being published online, which makes finding and accessing them much easier. However, many still exist only as paper or microfilm. Below I will list some of the best places to either search directories online or to find where the actual records are kept.

  • Ancestry.com - Ancestry has the most extensive collection of city directories that I was able to find online. You can search by name, location, or pretty much any other term that might appear on a directory. Some of the directories that I viewed had not yet been indexed the directory itself is in alphabetical order so if you find a city directory for the place in which you are interested you would be able to view the images and find the name alphabetically. (Ancestry is a subscription based service.)
  • DistantCousin.com - This site maintains a free archive of city directories. The collection is fairly random, so you probably won't be able to trace your ancestors through consecutive city directories here, but it's definitely worth a look. You can search by state and surname or browse through the collection by location.
  • Cyndi's List - This site maintains a list of links to websites that host city directories. There are 227 links listed for US directories. One thing to keep in mind is that the links are listed alphabetically, according to the title of the webpage, so they might not be in the order you would expect.
  • Online Historical Directories Website - A database of links to directories that have been put online. You can browse the database by location, which makes it easy to find what you're looking for. There is also a notation for each link to tell you if you can access the directory for free or if it is part of a subscription database.
  • Family History Books - This database of more than 40,000 digitized genealogy and family history publications is part of the FamilySearch.org website. A search returned 327 records that have the phrase "city directory" in the title.
  • Google Books - You can find a lot of digitized books through this search engine. When I searched for "city directory," I got over a million results. I doubt that all of those are actually directories, but it does look like there's a lot there.
  • USCityDirectories.com - This website is a great resource if you want to find where the actual city directory is held. There is also an option on many directories that will allow you to order a copy (basically one of the professional genealogists at Genealogy Research Associates will perform a search of the specified record for you and send you the results). That's great news if you can't find the directory online and live too far away from the repository to do the search yourself.
  • The Library of Congress - Here you can browse by location to see what city directories are held in the Microform Reading Room of the Library of Congress. The records are not available on interlibrary loan and the staff doesn't do searches, but there is a list of researchers in the DC area you can contact to do a search for you for a fee.
These sources are a great place to start your search for city directories, but if you're not finding a directory for your ancestor's city, don't give up just yet. As I mentioned in the beginning of this section, the best place to look for directories is at a library or historical society in the city or state where your ancestor lived. If nothing else, someone at one of these locations may be able to help you determine if any city directories were published in that area.

A final word on locating city directories online. While a few of the sites I listed above do maintain lists of where to find directories online, none of them has every online directory listed. In addition to looking through those sites, I would suggest doing a Google search for the phrase "city directory" and the name of the city you are interested in.

City Directories and Collateral Kin
In the book review section of this issue of our newsletter you will find a review of The Family Tree Problem Solver by Marsha Hoffman Rising. I want to take just a moment to talk about something she often refers to in that book--researching collateral lines. What does that mean and why would you want to do it? To put it in a nutshell, researching collateral lines means focusing on relationships rather than surnames. Instead of just going back through the direct line of your family tree, you study the branches (aunts, uncles, siblings, etc.) as well. She even suggests that studying your ancestor's neighbors can be useful.

Sound like a lot of work? It certainly could be and Rising does point out that this is necessary only for the most difficult of genealogical problems (69). But when you're up against that brick wall with no where to go, researching your ancestor's family, friends, and neighborhood might produce additional avenues of research. Here are just a few ways that city directories might help out in the search for collateral lines:

  • Some directories list not only the occupation of the individual, but actually state the name or address of the business where they were employed. Studying business relationships could lead to family relationships as well.
  • You can use the city directory to look for churches and cemeteries near where your ancestor lived. If you can find a church your ancestor attended, you've found a new source of records.
  • Some directories, especially later ones, will actually have two listings, one in alphabetical order by last name and one in geographical order by address. Look around at your ancestor's neighbors for possible family connections. Did his wife's family live nearby? What about that family that always seems to live next door, even after your ancestor moved to a new neighborhood? Perhaps they're related somehow.
How can city directories help you find your ancestor in a census record?
Let's talk for a moment about that ancestor who seems to have been kidnapped by aliens whenever the census taker came by. There are many reasons why you may not be able to find someone in a census record, even if they actually were listed. Sometimes a name has been misspelled or was accidentally left out of the index. In cases like that, you may be able to locate the individual or family by their address.

How do you find their address? Check for the address in a city directory published in or around the census year. Then use the address in Steve Morse's tool for obtaining EDs to identify which enumeration district your ancestor was in and where in the census that ED would be listed. Once you know that, you can generally narrow your search down to just a few pages of the census record, rather than hunting through an entire state or city.

Other City Directory Resources
As an additional help here are some links to several other good articles on the internet about using city directories in family history research:

Article written by Aubrey Fredrickson

Copyright ©: 2012 Fficiency Software, Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author.

Newsletters

Select Newsletter by Issue or Topic:

Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Sep 21, 2012

Look Up Your Ancestors: Using City Directories

by Aubrey Fredrickson

City Directories are "among the most important sources of information about urban areas and their inhabitants." (A quote from the "Library of Congress" website) Were any of your ancestors inhabitants of urban areas? The phrase "urban area" doesn't just refer to big cities. City directories were also often published for smaller cities. That means that city directories could be quite important to your research. If you've never examined these valuable records, your ancestors might just be waiting for you to look them up. In this article we will discuss why city directories are so valuable to genealogical research and how to go about finding them, as well as some other useful tips.

How can city directories help my research?
If you're unfamiliar with city directories, you might think they're just like a phone book. In some ways that is true. A city directory is an alphabetical listing of people (generally the male head of house) and their addresses. However, they may have much more to offer a genealogist than you may think at first sight. City Directories have evolved over time from simple lists of households and businesses to detailed records of individuals within their community. Often city directories include additional information like spouse's name, occupation, and other affiliations.

First, city directories can be used to locate an ancestor during a gap in census records. If you've ever been frustrated because most of the 1890 US census was destroyed in a fire, consider the possibility that your ancestor may be listed in a city directory taken in that year. Or in the years between census records. If you've lost track of an ancestor between census years, you may be able to find him in a directory. For example, if you look at the image to the right you will see a listing from a 1931 Bloomfield, New Jersey directory for James Trivett. This listing tells us that James removed to Orange. If you had lost track of James' family after the 1930 census, you would now know to look for them in a different city.

If you run into that familiar problem of trying to differentiate between two or more people of the same names, a city directory might be able to help you there as well. Since the purpose of a published city directory is to allow the user to locate specific individuals, they made a point of listing identifying information such as middle initials and occupations.

You might even be able to find clues to family relationships in a directory by examining other individuals of the same surname. Admittedly, if you're researching an ancestor who had a common surname, such as Smith or Brown, this might not be the best research method. But if your ancestor had a less common surname, it is definitely worth taking a look. By examining all of the individuals named Trivett in the Newark, New Jersey area for a span of about twenty years, I was able to piece together a fairly good hypothesis of who was related to whom and how. I may not be able to prove all those relationships by the information provided in the directories alone, but it gives me some very solid links to research.

What about our female ancestors? Trying to track down the women in our family tree can sometimes be quite a challenge. Can city directories help us there? To a limited degree, yes. As noted above, it was generally only the male head of household who was listed in the directory. There are exceptions to that rule, though. If you look at the image to the right, you'll notice that for both George W. and James Trivett, a second name is included in parenthesis. This name is the householder's spouse. You may also see a woman's name if she was a widow or a single adult who was gainfully employed.

These are just a few ways that city directories can help your research. There are definitely more, and a few of them will be listed later in this article. Hopefully, you're beginning to see how useful these plentiful records can be, though.

Where can I find city directories?
The best place to find city directories is usually a library or historical society in the city or state where your ancestors lived. Fortunately, more and more directories are being published online, which makes finding and accessing them much easier. However, many still exist only as paper or microfilm. Below I will list some of the best places to either search directories online or to find where the actual records are kept.

  • Ancestry.com - Ancestry has the most extensive collection of city directories that I was able to find online. You can search by name, location, or pretty much any other term that might appear on a directory. Some of the directories that I viewed had not yet been indexed the directory itself is in alphabetical order so if you find a city directory for the place in which you are interested you would be able to view the images and find the name alphabetically. (Ancestry is a subscription based service.)
  • DistantCousin.com - This site maintains a free archive of city directories. The collection is fairly random, so you probably won't be able to trace your ancestors through consecutive city directories here, but it's definitely worth a look. You can search by state and surname or browse through the collection by location.
  • Cyndi's List - This site maintains a list of links to websites that host city directories. There are 227 links listed for US directories. One thing to keep in mind is that the links are listed alphabetically, according to the title of the webpage, so they might not be in the order you would expect.
  • Online Historical Directories Website - A database of links to directories that have been put online. You can browse the database by location, which makes it easy to find what you're looking for. There is also a notation for each link to tell you if you can access the directory for free or if it is part of a subscription database.
  • Family History Books - This database of more than 40,000 digitized genealogy and family history publications is part of the FamilySearch.org website. A search returned 327 records that have the phrase "city directory" in the title.
  • Google Books - You can find a lot of digitized books through this search engine. When I searched for "city directory," I got over a million results. I doubt that all of those are actually directories, but it does look like there's a lot there.
  • USCityDirectories.com - This website is a great resource if you want to find where the actual city directory is held. There is also an option on many directories that will allow you to order a copy (basically one of the professional genealogists at Genealogy Research Associates will perform a search of the specified record for you and send you the results). That's great news if you can't find the directory online and live too far away from the repository to do the search yourself.
  • The Library of Congress - Here you can browse by location to see what city directories are held in the Microform Reading Room of the Library of Congress. The records are not available on interlibrary loan and the staff doesn't do searches, but there is a list of researchers in the DC area you can contact to do a search for you for a fee.
These sources are a great place to start your search for city directories, but if you're not finding a directory for your ancestor's city, don't give up just yet. As I mentioned in the beginning of this section, the best place to look for directories is at a library or historical society in the city or state where your ancestor lived. If nothing else, someone at one of these locations may be able to help you determine if any city directories were published in that area.

A final word on locating city directories online. While a few of the sites I listed above do maintain lists of where to find directories online, none of them has every online directory listed. In addition to looking through those sites, I would suggest doing a Google search for the phrase "city directory" and the name of the city you are interested in.

City Directories and Collateral Kin
In the book review section of this issue of our newsletter you will find a review of The Family Tree Problem Solver by Marsha Hoffman Rising. I want to take just a moment to talk about something she often refers to in that book--researching collateral lines. What does that mean and why would you want to do it? To put it in a nutshell, researching collateral lines means focusing on relationships rather than surnames. Instead of just going back through the direct line of your family tree, you study the branches (aunts, uncles, siblings, etc.) as well. She even suggests that studying your ancestor's neighbors can be useful.

Sound like a lot of work? It certainly could be and Rising does point out that this is necessary only for the most difficult of genealogical problems (69). But when you're up against that brick wall with no where to go, researching your ancestor's family, friends, and neighborhood might produce additional avenues of research. Here are just a few ways that city directories might help out in the search for collateral lines:

  • Some directories list not only the occupation of the individual, but actually state the name or address of the business where they were employed. Studying business relationships could lead to family relationships as well.
  • You can use the city directory to look for churches and cemeteries near where your ancestor lived. If you can find a church your ancestor attended, you've found a new source of records.
  • Some directories, especially later ones, will actually have two listings, one in alphabetical order by last name and one in geographical order by address. Look around at your ancestor's neighbors for possible family connections. Did his wife's family live nearby? What about that family that always seems to live next door, even after your ancestor moved to a new neighborhood? Perhaps they're related somehow.
How can city directories help you find your ancestor in a census record?
Let's talk for a moment about that ancestor who seems to have been kidnapped by aliens whenever the census taker came by. There are many reasons why you may not be able to find someone in a census record, even if they actually were listed. Sometimes a name has been misspelled or was accidentally left out of the index. In cases like that, you may be able to locate the individual or family by their address.

How do you find their address? Check for the address in a city directory published in or around the census year. Then use the address in Steve Morse's tool for obtaining EDs to identify which enumeration district your ancestor was in and where in the census that ED would be listed. Once you know that, you can generally narrow your search down to just a few pages of the census record, rather than hunting through an entire state or city.

Other City Directory Resources
As an additional help here are some links to several other good articles on the internet about using city directories in family history research:

Article written by Aubrey Fredrickson

Copyright ©: 2012 Fficiency Software, Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the author.

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