The amateur genealogist often forgets to use old city directories. These valuable tools contain drawings of land tracts, businesses, ports and government buildings. Reviewing the directories of your ancestors' cities will give you insight into their everyday lives.
The History of Old City Directories
Since the 1700s, old town directories have been used in the United States. City administrators created maps to give others a birds-eye view of the city. City planners used directories to make decisions about zoning, assigning commissioners, and taxation. These directories are like today's phonebooks. They provided information about residents and businesses. Data collectors known as census takers updated statistical information regularly. This data was the basis for updates and remapping of the city directories.
How to Use Old Directories
Many cities have their directories online and allow digital access to these important files. While not all these systems are alike, there are some basic search functions that most city directories have. Find the information you want by searching by the resident's name or address. You can also search an address by year or decade to monitor changes in residence. The street address would read, "123 Mayberry Street." A name search would look like "Patrick J" putting the surname first then the initial of the first name second. After entering either the name or address, hit the search button. Start with the most recent directory and work your way backwards.
Useful Information Found in Directories
Directory information can reveal significant facts about the everyday life of your ancestors.
- Residential patterns - Track family migration patterns and see where growth took place.
- Surname changes - Study directories by year or decade to reveal a family name change.
- Relationships - Understand ancestor relationships better by mapping where your ancestors lived, worked and worshipped.
- Neighbors of your family - Track down neighbors who may have interesting stories to share about your family.
- Property owners - Research the architect of an old building by using city directories.
Popular City Directory Websites
Connect to hundreds of old directories by accessing popular websites:
US City Directories
City Directories of the United States of America has city directories from every state and some countries including Africa and Wales. You can search in multiple cities at once by holding down the CTRL key, highlighting your selections. You can also search biographies, census, and church records.
The Library of Congress
At the Library of Congress, begin your search by selecting a state, then a city to research. View microfilms of old directories online. The Library of Congress has records dating back to 1861 and the most recent is dated 1960. There may be gaps in the data because some communities were inconsistent in collecting data.
Other Sources of Information
Not every city has an old city directory. In these cases, you will need to track down other sources for your information. There are several sources you can try for more information:
- City library microfilm - Libraries allow you to view microfilm at no charge.
- Research publications - Monthly publications or periodicals related to your city of interest can be helpful.
- Paper copies of originals - Request copies of the original directories from the city's administration office.
- Societies - Joining a historical society will give you a forum to research and ask questions about the town directory. Also, societies sometimes offer access to historical documents not available to the public.
A city directory is a living map of your family's history. Plan a trip to the old city and take a private tour to view the sights and sounds of the area. Visit local landmarks and geography of the area. Many of the businesses and homes of your relative's time period may be gone, but what you find instead may surprise you.