Using U.S. City Directories

Basics of using U.S. city directories in genealogy research

city directories

City directories were similar to old phone books. A city directory would include names and addresses for people in a particular place, along with other information. The initial goal for these directories was to help salesman find potential customers by checking a list of local residents. City directories were kept in larger cities in the United States as far back as 1785, though in most places they weren't kept until later years.

Since city directories were typically created yearly, it's a great way to track your ancestors and track information about places they may have moved, their occupations, if they married someone else, etc.

Possible Information Found in U.S. City Directories

  • Names

  • Addresses

  • Occupations

  • Spouse names

  • Marital status

  • Adult children

  • Staff members at local schools and universities

  • Social service staff at fire and police departments

  • City and county officials (court and federal officers)

  • Street guides and ward boundaries

  • Summary of local history

  • Population count of local area

  • Local churches and names of clergy

  • Hospitals, orphanages and homes

  • Lodges and social organizations

  • Newspapers, ads and publications

  • Business directory

Tips for Using City Directories

  • Check the table of abbreviations: Each directory may vary in format, but often have a list of abbreviations at the front or back (i.e. "h" for home, "pl" for place, etc)
  • Note that the information collected in the directory was one year BEFORE the year listed on the front or back. (i.e a 1901 directory is telling where your ancestor lived in 1900).
  • Try searching by surname only. Formatting varies and can be more difficult if you search with first and last name together. Also browse the other people with the same surname for family connections.
  • Search by address. Often family members or friends lived together at the same address.
  • Check in a larger town/city. Sometimes if you can't find the town listed, it might have been a smaller town that was included in the larger city or town nearby.
  • Check business listings and advertisements. Your ancestor's occupation (if known) may be here and provide you with additional information. Your ancestor may alsi have advertised their business in the directory, and it could be listed in the index.

Need help finding more records? Try our genealogical records directory which has more than 1.3 million sources to help you more easily locate the available records.

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