Commonly called “city directories” but for my purposes, that is a bit of a misnomer. When I talk about “city” directories, I also include rural route, agricultural, and other directories that put people in a time and place, often on an annual basis. City directories don’t often give a ton of information, but they put your ancestor in a location in years between the census.
City directories have a long history. A fantastic blog post titled “Direct Me NYC 1786: A History of City Directories in the United States and New York City,” posted by the New York Public Library indicates that the first precursors to city directories were published in England in the 1500s; the oldest surviving print directory was published in 1677 in London; and a manuscript directory A Directory for the City of New York in 1665, compiled shortly after the British colonized New Amsterdam. Read this blog post if you are interested in the history of city directories.
Cities across the U.S. had directories published. Whether or not they were well preserved is another matter. And, keep in mind, there were directories for many topics, avocations, clubs, religious organizations, and so on, that can be utilized in the absence of a traditional city directory.
I have a few “first stops” when I’m looking for a city directory in a particular location before I widen my search:
- Ancestry’s database “U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995” that currently contains directories for all states except Alaska, though not all years.
- Fold3’s city directory database
- Cyndi’s List – Directories: City, County, Address, etc.
- U.S City Directories – A list of directories by state and city and where they are located.
Do not skip reading through this useful research guide at the Library of Congress – “United States: City and Telephone Directories.”
If I don’t find what I’m looking for in the above list, then I start digging deeper. We will do that digging next week.