Apart from county tax lists, city directories are among the earliest yearly listings of residents in any given location.
What information can be found in city directories?
Besides an alphabetical listing of persons residing in a town, the types of peripheral information included in the book will vary by place and determined, in part, by the size of the town or city and the year in which the directory was published. Generally speaking, directories published in the early 1900s are rich with details not only about residents, but about businesses, churches, fraternal organizations, transportation schedules, hospitals and asylums, general vitality statistics and schools.
City directories were, in effect, almost yearly town histories. The best thing about them is that they covered changes in the lives of people who rented rather than owned homes.
The main purpose of a city directory was to provide contact information for its residents and businesses.
Abbreviations for locations for often used and a key to them could be found in the front of the book:
Notice that not only was a job location identified, but ‘h’ made the distinction between work place (and occupation noted) and residence. Also noted that some homes had no house number, such as the Aldens, who lived on River Road near the Passaic city line:
So, what are some of the other bits of information found in the Passaic directory? Well, Passaic was in its heyday in the early 20th century. The Table of Contents gives an idea of what was on offer:
The Advertisement index was just as important as the Table of Contents because these businessmen paid for ads to be place and helped the company publishing the book to turn a profit. Obviously, the businesses hoped that residents would notice and remember the ads, bringing in new business.
Was you ancestor the member of any local organizations or active in the community?
The Passaic city directory (population was 28,000) had separate listings for benevolent and charitable groups, contact information for local boards and officials, musical and patriotic groups and even a listing for trades.
What might a city directory in the same time period look like for a smaller town? Brunswick, Maine had a population of about 6,800 in 1900, but it, too, had city directories.
The Table of Contents indicates much more detailed information about the town and Maine, in general, compared to the Passaic city directory published the same year.
In particular, Brunswick’s listings include students enrolled at nearby Bowdoin college along with a directory for the nearby town of Topsham.
However, the first page of listings is in much the same format as Passaic’s:
Now, how does a city directory for Los Angeles in 1900 compare? There is a prominent message right at the front of the book instructing readers to visit their office to browse city directories for places across the United States AND Canada:
Aside from the message, the information is on a bigger scale, given that there was a much bigger population – extensive business listings, street directories, churches, schools, government officials, etc.
Chicago’s 1900 City Directory had a surprise on the title page. A Los Angeles directory could be bought for $6.00 – not a small sum that equals about $210 today – but Chicago’s 1900 directory clearly stated that it could be RENTED for $7.50!!!
The Table of Contents shows a more varied listing than Los Angeles with railroad and steamship information, Military and Transportation Lines.
Don’t think that because your ancestors lived in a small town that there are no city directories available. Topsham, Maine had only 2000+ citizens in 1900, but has its directory included in that of Brunswick, the “big town.”
Typical Information Often Found in a City Directory
Name of head of household
Spouse’s name or widowed with death date
Other family members
Others in town with same surname
Local places of worship
Numerical directory of streets
Where can digitized city directories be found online?
Internet Archive – Search by city name + city directory
Besides providing lots of family clues, city directories are fun to browse and give us a sense of the daily lives of those who lived there, in other words, some social and cultural context.
Don’t overlook site-specific local library, historical society and genealogical society collections! The most important thing to remember is that zillions of city directories have survived the ages and they are being added to digital collections all the time.