City Directories - Like Mamma's Chicken, Use all of it!
Cole Bio

[From the June 1999 Newsletter]
[Updated on March 17th, 1998]

City Directories - Like Mamma's Chicken,
Use all of it!

by June C. DeLalio

Experienced genealogists use city directories all the time but for newcomers, they are a wonderful discovery. Every major city in the United States and many minor cities or towns had city directories in their past. Today, we use telephone directories to find people but many years ago, before telephones, there were directories which listed the people and businesses in an area. In some areas these go back to the early 1800's but for other areas they are available for only a few scattered years.

Most of these city directories have been filmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and are available through your local Family History Center. Genealogists find them indispensable for tracing a family through the years. It enables you to track your family through the years when there was no census and tells you details about them. When a man's name disappears and the following year the wife is listed, it is a safe bet that he died during the previous year. When the entire family has disappeared and does not reappear it very often means they moved away.

City directories are important because they give clues to extended families. When you see three or four people with the same surname listed at the same address, there is a strong possibility that they are related. City directories invariably give the occupation of the person listed and sometimes also list their employer. In many areas during the 1930's they started to list the wife's name too. Therefore, if you were having a problem with several people such as a Anthony Esposito being listed, you now would be able to sort out the different families and pick out the one you want.

As mentioned above, the LDS films of city directories usually can be found up to the 1930's if such directories were available. However, you should not accept the fact that that would be the last date that city directories were published. In the city of Newark, New Jersey, the Family History Library only has filmed up to 1935 but at the Newark Public Library you can use the city directory in book form up to 1964. It would be wise to inquire in the research facilities of the town in which your family was living to find out when the last city directory was published. In these late directories I even found entries for people stating that they had moved away and where they moved to. It seemed almost unbelievable!

There is much more in a city directory than a listing of the inhabitants and businesses in that town. You often find a reverse directory, either at the end or the beginning of the film or book, where you can check who was living at a certain house and on a certain street. In some cases under the heading for the street name they will even list the Ward it was in. This is useful in trying to use an unindexed census for that state. Some city directories contain maps of the city or town which show the Ward numbers printed on them and include an index of the streets. The city directory most often will have, at the end of the list of residents, the municipal offices and depart city and its elected officials, and more importantly to genealogists, the names and addresses of churches, cemeteries, schools and organizations to which your relatives may have belonged. They often will list incidental information such as the postal rates at that time, the population of the city, the main industries, the amount and names of the parks, and other information that describes what the city was like at that time.

Another interesting item I found in one directory was a listing the events that occurred in that city, which was Newark, for two years previous. It really gave you a flavor of life in those days.

Check the table of contents page at the beginning of the directory to what items are included and where you can find them. If you just quickly go to the listing of the residents you will be missing a lot of important information to assist your research.

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