Another Look at City Directories

by Dae Powell

Of course, we all know what City Directories are, right?


They were precursors to the telephone book.  They even had advertisements in them just like today's phone books.  OK, so after the telephone books became household items, why did R. L. Polk & Co. continue to publish City Directories?  What is in them that merits their existence and continuance?  Let's examine these and other questions about City Directories.

For over 200 years, City Directories have existed.  Originally they only listed the prominent community members, followed by their services: the blacksmith, the cobbler, the barrister.  Later, they attempted to list every person living there.

Here's a Quick List of things that come immediately to mind:

  1. Excellent substitute for the missing 1890 Federal Census.
  2. Excellent "filler" between the Federal Census decades.
  3. Very helpful when there is no index available for a particular census.  You can convert the address into the appropriate enumeration district (ED) using a guide or map, or tediously search the census page by page by address. The address listed can shorten your time looking for the family on a microfilmed Census.
  4. Most city directories show the name of the head of household, the address, and yellow pages.
  5. Often city directories include place of employment, name of wife, and number of people living in a household.
  6. Looking from year to year, you can track changes in the family composition — which members were there and which were not — moved, married, passed away.
  7. Because the information was collected at the time of the event — often by actual house-to-house canvassing — it carries the same evidential weight as many “original” records.  (There is more on evidential weighting in the GENTREK presentation, Evaluating Evidence.)

I recommend a directory search, year by year, as it will often be useful at some point in time.  (It may surprise you.)  It will always confirm other records you have assembled.

While searching in city directories, remember the advice given on searching the Federal Census — consider misspellings and typos.  Don't miss a relative just because the typesetter fumbled the name.

Sometimes entire groups of people were omitted from city directories and were listed in separately.  This was often the case with African-Americans, non-English-speaking groups, or groups living in distinct ethnic neighborhoods.  So, if you can’t find your relative in the city’s primary directory, he or she may be have been in one of these groups.  If you know the ethnic background, try to locate a directory published for that specific ethnic group.  An example of this is the Dallas, Texas Negro City Directory, published in 1947-1948.

Don't stop with the head of household, either.  You might miss many other clues.  Scan the surname for others living in the same residence.  With uncommon surnames, you may find information about relatives, too.  While researching the 20th century, city directories are very helpful, since 1930 is the most current census available.

I have found instances where a person is listed twice, once at the residence and once at the place of employment, occasionally with a name variation, such as Mrs. Kaye Soto and Mrs. Robert Soto.  So if a trade or profession is given, check out the business section.

Our Quick List earlier mentioned the Federal Census.  The information in city directories can “link” to Census records.  One good example of a directory's use as a link to another record deals with the 1880 census:  Soundex  cards for the 1880 census were only created for those families which had at least one child, 10 years of age or younger.  Thus, the address information found in a city directory, circa 1880, may be the linkage you need to find one of the many unindexed families from the 1880 population schedule.

A Cross-Street Index is often found in 20th Century city directories.  Names are listed alphabetically, but this index is by address of the houses, apartments, or businesses — a street index, followed by house number and names of residents.  Use this index to find names of people living next door to an ancestor, and to obtain additional information about your ancestor.  People living next door ten years ago may still live there, and may still remember your relatives, an excellent technique to find missing, living relatives.

By the way, the cross-street index is also a great for finding people whose names have changed.  For instance, I was researching a widow living alone at a particular address in 1942 who was not in the 1943 directory . . . or so I thought.  I looked at the 1943 cross-street address listing for the same residence, and found her married, but still living in the same house with the new husband.  I learned his name, too!

If your ancestor lived in an urban area compiled in a city directory, you can determine a “candidate” year of death by noting the last appearance of the ancestor’s name in consecutive directory issues.  There are times when your male ancestor’s name appears one year and his widow’s name in the year immediately following.  Once you have a candidate year, use the directory to find possible burial places by consulting the cemetery listings.  On the other hand, you may wish to know when a family moved to or from an area.  You can learn the approximate year by checking sequential directories to see when your family first shows up or is missing in an area.

Use the commercial section of a city directory, too!  It has information on schools, churches, cemeteries, funeral homes, and other businesses.  You can learn what cemeteries and funeral homes existed when your relative died for additional research.  Those pages which include churches, organizations, clubs, and other details have revealed to me that some of my relatives were officers in local groups and a church organization.  That was really exciting for me!

City Directory Search Tips

  1. Locate the street name in the alphabetical list of streets.
  2. Check the street number every five years to track the residence and occupants.
  3. Establish a date range, then check the street number year by year to pinpoint its first appearance.
  4. In addition to surnames, compare given names.  Host GFS Marie gave an excellent presentation for GENTREK on names.
  5. Follow up with employment and organizations when possible.

City Directory Gotchas

  1. Information in city directories was usually compiled the previous year.  Therefore, the data contained in a city directory predates the directory's publication date by a year.
  2. Information was valid only when the directory was compiled.
  3. Directories list the property's occupant, who may or may not be the owner.
  4. Street names often changed.  Try to obtain maps of the period.
  5. Street numbers changed, too.
  6. Record the resident's name for each year, as well as the neighbors on either side.  If all three names or numbers change, then the street has been renumbered.  What to do?  Search the street until you find the same sequence again.

Full citations, with the names of publishers, are essential.  Many cities have more than one directory each year, printed by different firms.  How would you cite a City Directory reference in your genealogy?

Here's an example —

Source name:   Texas, Tarrant, Fort Worth — Fort Worth City Directory
Author:             R. L. Polk and Company
Title:                 Fort Worth, Texas City Directory
Publication date:  (1955)

In the entry, you would cite the page numbers.

A footnote format would be as follows:

R. L. Polk and Company (1955), Fort Worth, Texas City Directory, pp. 213-4.

Where do you find city directories?  In public libraries in the regions they cover.  In university libraries, at the LDS Family History Centers, and even some have been scanned for commercial use online.

Some interesting sites for City Directories

    Old City Directories: Sparse, but there are some goodies.

    Library of Congress: Both printed and on microfilm.

    City Directory of Dublin, Ireland 1850.

    US City Directories. Goal: identify all printed, microfilmed, and online directories, and their repositories, for the United States.

  5. City Directories at RootsWeb
    Contributed city directory pages. They have 52,037 records, as of 8-Oct-2007.

  6. Check out Online Directory Site
    Google's compilation of City Directory sites.

  7. Online Historical Directories

  8. This is a blog which keeps tab of online directory updates. It is worth visiting on a regular basis.

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has a collection of the 50 largest cities in the United States on microfilm.  You can find a particular city and directory year by searching in the FHL catalog.  Go to the FHL’s Web site at and use the keyword "city directories — (name of city)" to search for a particular city.

I've also placed a City Directory Form on ShoeString Genealogy in order to make recording entries easier for analysis.  Maybe now City Directories will rate higher on your list of resources.
That is my wish.

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