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Historical "City" Directories can help you with your Genealogy

With census records being only every ten (10) years, it can be difficult to track where a family was, if they left, when they left, etc. using directories to track your family is extremely helpful with your genealogy research and can lead to finding the right documents, in the right county. For this reason, when trying to create a family tree, it can be hard to piece together your family story with only census records. Using directories can help solve more family history questions.

City directories were created for contacting residents, and taxpayer directories tracked who paid taxes. The city and county directories of local residents were generally published annually and may have included: addresses, occupation, spouses, others who lived in the same house, including children.

How can "City" Directories help you with Genealogy?

They can give insight into where a person lived, that you can then map exactly where they lived by overlaying the information on a historical or present day map to see the changes that have happened over time.

It can give an indication if a family was living with other family members. If the directory lists all the people in the house, it can give an indication to when a person left, died, or got married. It also gave occupation information, which can help you to answer, what they did for a living, especially if they changed jobs. This could lead you to an advertisement about the business in the directory, giving you an indication about the place that they worked.

Old City Directory

Find Family History Clues through the Extra Pages

Some directories also listed organizations, schools, churches, etc. Many publications included street maps and voting maps. Be sure to check the omitted pages for updates that were made during the printing and too late to include in the usually areas that you would expect to find your ancestor.

When a directory was published, keep in mind that is was probably at least a few months old, if not a year. The data was usually collected from in-person interviews or mail-in surveys. Since most data was self-reported, you can expect that it was fairly accurate. Keep in mind that if a person is missing from one year, check the next, as they may be omitted because they were not home when interviews were being conducted, or they missed the mail-in deadline.

City directories can help you have a more rounded family tree.Genealogy is more than just collecting dates and places and putting them in a database. Make your history come to life by including all the possible information that is offered to you. Make it colorful and meaningful to you and everyone that you share your information with.

Below is a case study on how we used city directories to track a person and what we learned about them.

World War II Draft Registration

1936 city directory

Shows the address of John in 1942 and married to a new wife, Ethel.

1920 census
1920 Family Census

What we know came from a 1920 Federal Census, which shows a family of 5 people:

  • A husband, John Bell; a wife named Yvonne; and 3 children. Children were 4, 3, and infant.
  • We could not find a 1930 or 1940 census to help track where the family went to.
  • We did not just give up on discovering what happened to these people.  We used city directories to help with the mystery.

Using City Directories to Follow John Bell:

1936 city directory

We were then able to track the family from a 1936 City Directory and find:
  • It shows the father and 2 of the children living at 1015 Front Ave.
  • We learned what his current occupation is.
  • The children are now age twenty and nineteen at the time of the publication.
  • This led us to create a task to find out what happened to the wife and youngest child.

1939 city directory

Then we consulted the 1938 City Directory:
  • It shows only the father, and reveals that he moved.
  • This led us to create a task to find out what happened to the two girls. Most likely they got married, or moved away.

1940 residents directory

The 1940 City Directory shows:
  • John is living at the same address, as the previous directory.
  • Shows that he is now married to another wife. From this information, we can deduce he probably got married in 1938 or 1939. Looking for a marriage certificate can lead to more historical data.

1940 Street Locator Directory

1940 Street Locator Directory shows:
  • There is another person living at the same address with John. Could this be the father of the new bride? Further investigation and checking on marriage certificates can verify this. Looking at census records for Orville Elder with a child named Ethel can also help to verify this.

1947 Taxpayer Directory

The 1947 Taxpayers Directory shows:
  • John moved to a new address, Rd2.

1949 Residents Directory

The 1949 Residents Directory shows:
  • Another new address
  • He is still married to the same woman

What was learned from Directories?

  • From 1936 to 1949, he lived in four (4) different homes. We were able to track the family movement that we can now plot on a map.
  • About 1938 or 1939 he got remarried.
  • His two daughters left home about 1938 to 1939.
  • In 1940 we were able to consult two (2) different directories and found that a man and his new wife’s name.
  • It reveals that in 1949 he is still living at age 63, so we know he died after 1949.
  • It helped us to consult earlier census records to find if the maiden of his second wife was indeed the same as the other man living with John.
  • It helped us to discover important dates such as: when to look for a marriage certificate, to try and discover some more family history.
  • None of the above information could have been found from census records alone.

Where to find directories for your genealogy research?

Start with the local library of the area you are researching. Many universities and state archives, have copies. Also try using your browser, type in the city name + city directory + the year you are seeking. Also your Family History Center has access to many directories.