April 23rd, 2014

Sifting Through City Directories to Find Your Urban Ancestor

The United States grew rapidly from a colonial society of farms and villages to a nation of massive urban centers. Many new immigrants congregated in seaports along the Atlantic coast, and the largest of those towns often became centers of commerce and government. The wealth of these cities attracted a constant influx of immigrants, as many became hubs of industry such as shipbuilding, manufacturing, or milling. If your ancestor went to where the money was, you might be able to find out about them in a city directory.

Placing an ancestor in a particular time or place is invaluable to a genealogist, and city directories can accomplish that. There is much more information they can provide however, and they shouldn’t be overlooked as a go-to genealogical resource. They can inform us of where our ancestor worked, where they worked, and sometimes even identify vital events like death or marriage, as well as migrations. City directories also give valuable insight into a community, sometimes providing information about the schools, hospitals, churches, cemeteries, associations, clubs, societies, and organizations in particular neighbourhoods.

Those of us conducting research in urban areas are fortunate to have such a valuable, extra resource, especially one that can be so forthcoming with genealogical data. Some of the particular information you can find in them are;

  • Name and occupation of head of household
  • Name of spouse (usually listed in parentheses after the name of husband)
  • Names of children, usually only those working outside the home
  • Street name and house number of residence
  • Occupation of head of household
  • Work address

Where to Locate City Directories

Most state archives and libraries have original directories as well as city directories on microfilm. State and local historical and genealogical societies are also an excellent place to look, especially those that have libraries and cover a particular location. National and major regional libraries such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. also have large collections of city directories. The American Antiquarian Society also maintains vast collections of microfilmed city directories, for many locations across the United States.

More and more city directories are being digitized and made available online every day; the Library of Congress collection for instance now contains over 12,000 directories from across America. Two other website that are useful are Online Historical Directories which contains a listing of every available online historical directory in the United States as well as some international listings, and US City Directories which identifies printed, microfilmed, and online United States city directories and their repositories.

For city directories in the United Kingdom, the University of Leicester in England, offers an excellent collection of digitized local and trade directories for England and Wales for the period 1750–1919 on their website, the Historical Directories Searchable Library.