Recently, I discovered proof of a thrilling family story in a very unexpected place. I had looked for this proof on death and marriage records, in the federal and state census, in newspapers, and just about everywhere else I could think of that might contain the specific piece of information I needed.
Just when I thought I had exhausted all reasonable possibilities it turned up suddenly in a location I had only stumbled on by accident. A city directory.
Even though I have yet been unable to locate this ancestor in the 1900 census, I was able to find him in a 1900 city directory for the town he lived in. He was only 18 when the directory was recorded but his listed occupation finally lent credence to an old family tale I had begun to think was nothing more than fiction. How had I overlooked this for so long?
I’ll admit, I’ve known about city directories (as well as town and county directories) for a long time. I have even used them once or twice in my family history research. But I had never made them a regular part of my routine. I see now that I had been overlooking a very important source of genealogical information. The more I learn about these valuable records, the more I am convinced that they should be one of the first places we turn to for clues about our ancestors’ lives.
Not only can a city directory be a wonderful way to verify your ancestor’s location at a certain date but they can add crucial personal details to your records, especially for those years when a census or vital record event didn’t take place (which, of course, is most years.)
If you can locate your ancestor in a directory you may find their exact address (which is very useful for census research and many other purposes), their spouse’s name and their occupation or business. You may also discover whether they have recently moved (and to where), or passed away, since these details were sometimes recorded as well.
Because some locations created directories yearly, this can provide a wealth of new information about your ancestors in a convenient timeline.
Unfortunately there is no guarantee your ancestor can be found in a city directory. Not all cities, towns or counties had directories, and some published them for only a few years. Many, sadly, have been lost to history. Still, it is well worth your time to see if you can discover your ancestors in this underused resource. You’ll find several free places to get started below.
Tips for Searching a City Directory:
Like a phone book, names are generally listed in alphabetical order (first name and then middle initial if available). The surname is often only found once, at the top of each page. Given this, exacting searches for “First Name Last Name” may not produce the results you’re looking for. Instead, search for the last name only and then browse until you find the first name you are in search of — or search for a first and last name without quotes. It is important to note that women were often not listed since many directories only focused on posting the head of the family. If listed, they will often appear with their husband.
The best way to search a directory is to locate the one for the location your ancestor lived and then browse it to find the surname and given name. This reduces the chance of missing your target person due to transcription errors or search mistakes.
The information from many directories was complied the year before they were published (ie a 1900 directory may represent your ancestor’s life in 1899) so keep this in mind. You can sometimes find information about when the information was collected and published in the opening pages.
Always take the time to scroll up and down the page and review others with the same surname. You will very often discover parents, siblings and other relatives here. Also consider searching the directory for those listed at the same address. Once you identify new people you can use the information you find to track down more details about these individuals. This is a great way to locate elusive ancestors.
Here are Some Great Places to Find Directories for Genealogy Research for Free:
The Digital Public Library of America: This online library/archive contains many free city directories. Read our article about using this valuable family history resource here.
Online Historical Directories Website: Lists links to city directories on many different sites by country, state and sometimes county. Many, but not all, links are free.
Library of Congress: This link will take you directly to a search for city directories, but you can enter more specific searches easily. Look to the left for filtering options. All free.
Local Library and Historical or Genealogical Societies: Many historical and genealogical societies and libraries offer city, town or county directories on their website or in-house — if not, they can often tell you where to find them. Use your favorite search engine to locate a society for the area you’re interested in.
Ancestry: Not free, but if you happen to have a paid subscription to this site already they do have a nice selection of city directories to check out. Here’s the link to the search for that collection.
Image: “Background photo for Hightstown project. The present home of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Solomon and family, 133 Avenue D, New York City. This family is included in the first unit of thirty-five families to be resettled at Hightstown in July, 1936. For four very small rooms in tenement they pay eighteen dollars monthly.” July, 1936. Library of Congress
By Melanie Mayo, Family History Daily Editor. Originally published July 2015. Updated Nov 2017.