City directories are a very basic but often overlooked family history resource. A city directory is a book, similar to a telephone book, which lists residents alphabetically. Their major family history use is to establish where a person lived and when they lived there. City directories have been highlighted recently due to their major role in 1930 Census research. If used correctly, city directories can offer clues about family relationships, occupations, and additional information not found in other sources. They are especially useful in filling the 10 year gap between census records.
There are usually several sections in a city directory. The most commonly used section is
the alphabetical listing of surnames. This section includes surname, given name, address,
occupation, and place of employment of persons who are of working age. Very often it will list a
wife’’s name with her husband’’s name when the wife does not work outside the home. Some
important points to remember when researching in city directories are:
√Check every year-don’t skip years
√Check every line of the surname–group together those living at the same address
√Check all surname variations–misspelled names are common
√Record when the name is missing so you know you didn’t skip that year
√Don’’t assume a person moved if they are missing for several years from a directory–people were often missed for several years and then picked up again.
It helps to make a list of the information for comparing and analyzing. Below is a list
which is simple to make and allows easy evaluation of the data.
1873- Garbelly, Dennis (Jennie), saloon, h.Eastern Ave.
1874-Garbally, Dennis (Jennie), saloon, h.1636 Eastern Ave.
Garbelley, Wm., shoemaker, h.1616 Eastern Ave.
1875-Garbelley, Wm., shoemaker, h. 88 Front, w. 121 Pearl
1876-Garbelly, Dennis, shoemaker, w. 121 Pearl
Garbelly, Wm., shoemaker, w. 121 Pearl
1878-Garbenny, Jennie, wid. Dennis, 133 Pearl
Garbelly, Dennis, jr., shoemaker, 133 Pearl
Often, the first section of a city directory will be titled "City Guide." This section has valuable information about the specific time and place. It lists churches, cemeteries, public officials, public buildings, train schedules, ward boundaries, newspapers, schools, hospitals, social organizations and often includes maps. This can provide important historical background for your ancestors as well as clues for future research.
There is usually a business section in city directories. This section is divided into
categories. Using the Garbally information from the alphabetical list, I would check in the
shoemaker category of the business section to find the employer.
SHOES & BOOTS
W.G. Rogers Mfg. Co. Boots & Shoe, 121 Pearl
I often use this section to help date photographs that have a business name imprinted on them.
Householder directories, also called criss-cross or reverse directories, may be included as part of a city directory. This section arranges streets alphabetically and numerically, giving the householder for each address or business. In many of the directories, it is noted whether the householder is the owner or renter. Householder directories can also be a separate book.
City directories do not exist for every year and every place. It is necessary to determine what years are available for the place you are researching. City directories can be found at most local libraries either in book form or on microfilm.
Many times city directories hold interesting surprises such as notations that the person moved to another city or died. That’s the thing about city directories, you never know what to expect.