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City Directories as a Research Resource
Column published: 01 October 2006.
By: Shirley Gage Hodges   Biography & Archived Articles

City directories are research tools that are especially helpful for family historians. They are superb genealogical research tools. If you have ever consulted city directories, you know how wonderful they are as resources for tracing a family's history. If you haven't used them, you are about to discover a gold mine.

A city directory is a book published about a city that includes the names and occupations of the residents, and a directory of all the businesses in that city. There are some places that still publish city directories, although it's certainly not as common as it used to be.

Directories were published annually from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. The city directory functioned as an earlier, comprehensive version of the telephone book of our time. Beyond providing an alphabetical listing of names, city directories typically noted an individual's occupation, work place, or business, and sometimes religion, race, and gender.

You may find some interesting genealogical information about your ancestors, and you might discover some clues to help in your research. The most important use of a city directory is to place your ancestor in a specific place at a single point in time. Census records can help you here every ten years, and some state censuses can help for that in-between period. Because city directories were published annually, they can be especially useful in locating ancestors, discovering facts about their lives, and finding leads to other genealogical records. The directories allow a researcher to follow a person every year, even as he or she moves about the city, and to trace kinfolk with the same surname. City directories can help you fill in the gaps. This is especially true in the critical period between 1880 and 1900 when the 1890 census was almost completely destroyed by fire.

Most directories listed heads of households, usually male, unless a widow replaced her husband. City directories also listed the members of a city's civic and religious organizations, clubs, and associations as well as the names of local public officials. With this information, the family historian can attempt to reconstruct the history of their ancestor and construct a time line. The information we get from this source can help us see how they fit into their social group, or neighborhood.

There are several types of information that we can find in directories:
  • A street directory, used to locate the exact block for an address.
  • A business directory that lists companies. These lists often include not only an organization's address, but also the names of its officers or chief employees.
  • Advertisements for local products and services. These are wonderful if your ancestor happened to own a business in the area.
  • Appendices that may include all types of information such as religious, educational, and charitable institutions, societies, clubs, banks, government offices, hospitals, cemeteries, asylums, orphanages, transportation schedules, and postal rates.
City directories can be very helpful in locating female ancestors. Finding female ancestors in census indexes is almost impossible, unless the woman was a head of household. City directories often include listings for women who owned their own businesses, as well as women who were widows and heads of households.

The information gotten from the city directory can lead you to many other sources. If a family lived at the same address for several years, they may have owned the property. You can use the address from city directories to search real-estate records forLand Recordsand other documents which can contain information about family relationships, death dates, addresses, occupations, financial details, and more.

If you haven't been using city or county directories in your research I hope you will consider using these wonderful resources.

Suggested Web pages: Shirley Hodges, biography & genealogy lectures; email:

Editor's Note: Shirley Hodges is the author of the popular Guide to United States Census, 1790-1930

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