Southern California Genealogical Society

Back to Basics: City Directories
By Barbara McKinlay

The very first city directory in the United States was printed in Baltimore, MD, in 1752; in 1782 and 1785, directories were then printed for Charleston, SC. Early directories may have no house numbers, and the locations may be general, but they can be very useful in pinpointing a family in a specific area. A merchant may be "next to the bridge," or John Davis may be "opposite the town hall," and finding the surname you are researching will be very exciting.

The Library of Congress and the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., hold the best collections of city directories on a national level. And, in recent years, because many of the directories were on poor-quality paper and were deteriorating rapidly, and because a limited number of columns had been printed, the American Antiquarian Society has made a major effort to put 18th and 19th century directories on microform.

Often directories can be found by querying the local library in the area where you are doing research. Write the reference librarian a letter, giving full information; usually they will photocopy the page of the directory for you. (After which, you will be sure to write and say "thank you.") Since librarians are busy people, a letter is usually better than a phone call. If that is not successful, you may be able to locate what you want in a larger library, or at the library in Salt Lake City. Big cities usually have good collections. In Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Public Library is a good source, and I believe that Cal State Northridge has an extensive collection on microform.

Many different companies printed the directories, so they will vary from year to year and place to place. Some have only the names and addresses of the people who lived in the town. Others have lists of churches, funeral homes, newspapers, etc. Some will even have an alphabetical listing of the streets with the names of the people living at each address. This can prove to be very helpful in locating an immigrant who may have come over from Europe and settled with old friends or family members.

As time went on, occupations as well as residences were shown. Some show a relative or unrelated boarder. Others may indicate whether or not people are husband and wife. Often, a directory will indicate if a woman is a widow, and may even show the initials of her deceased husband.

Until the middle of the 19th century, most laborers or transients were omitted.

If you can't find the person you are looking for, use the tried-and-true method of looking for variant spellings, and you may also want to look in the year preceding or following to see if they are there.

Also, since many census records are not indexed, directories can be a help in looking for people in the census. "The Source" has several pages of tables that show you how to use the directories to your advantage in looking up people in the census in major cities that are not indexed.

In looking at a page of a 1917 Glendale, Calif., City Directory, just look at what I found.

  1. Abbott L. Olmstead was an electrician, and lived with his wife, Anna Naomi, at 912 S. Glendale Ave.
  2. Frank H. Olmstead was a civil engineer and lived with his wife, Edith, and children, Virginia, Lois, and Edith, at 1531 N. Pacific Ave., Casa Verdugo.
  3. Mrs. O. Ormsby was a widow at 1415 Ivy St, Glendale.

These are some references that you might find useful: Remington, Gordon Lewis, "Research in Directories," "The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy"; Salt Lake City; Ancestry, 1997. Catalog of City, County, and State Directories Published in North America; N.U.; North American Directory Publishers, 1967.

[Note: A recent development is the addition of online scanned copies of city directories for genealogical use. The website has several directories available for free reference. The online auction site often lists city directories available for bidding.]

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