Old City Directories – Before the Internet

The following article was written by my good friend, William Dollarhide. Enjoy…

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 42: If you took family group sheets to the last wedding you attended, you are probably an addicted genealogist.

The Internet has caused the death of many printed genealogical sources, including the annual printed city directories for most cities of America. Instead of printed directories each year, the same name lists are now published online – and there are many ways of accessing those name lists. The previous article, “Online Resources for Finding Living Relatives (Part 1 and Part 2),” identified many of the websites where white pages, yellow pages, and current city directories are found. But, the old city directories, those published before the Internet, and those still sitting in a library somewhere, are in many cases a long way away from being digitized and included on the Internet for research. There are exceptions – with Ancestry.com having posted many directories on their site. Miriam Robbins has an excellent site with links to many online directories. See: https://sites.google.com/site/onlinedirectorysite/

Old city directories are some of the most underused genealogical sources available. Yet, the old directories exist for virtually every community in America, and often to the earliest time of settlement of a community. Some of the privately published directories for a city date back over a hundred and fifty years, and some collections are nearly complete for every year in which a directory was published. Surprisingly, those that exist are quite easy to find. They are usually located in the public library serving a particular city.

When I first started in genealogy, I was living in Seattle, where I soon discovered the wonderful collection of city directories at the main Seattle Public Library. Their collection of city directories, with some gaps in the early years, dates back to 1877. (The city was founded in 1853). From about 1885 forward, the collection is complete for every year, with an annual city directory for Seattle and its environs. Each directory listed the name of a resident, an address, and sometimes more information, such as a person’s occupation. In some years, there was more than one directory from competing directory companies, and adding to the resources are Seattle telephone directories for over 60 years. The city directories provide an unmatched source for finding the exact place a person lived, and often an alternate source to identify residents for a particular time period. City directories can act as a substitute to the lost 1890 census, for example.

Virtually every city in America with a public library has a collection of city directories for that city. It was profitable for the directory companies to publish annual name lists until the population of a city exceeded one million people. After that, directories for the larger cities became regionalized into neighborhoods, suburbs, or downgraded to include just businesses or trade organizations. For example, New York City’s directories go back to the 1730s, and they are very complete through 1933, the last year a full every-name city directory was produced for Manhattan. The New York Public Library has an outstanding collection of the old city directories for all five boroughs of New York City. Similarly, Boston’s city directories at the Boston Public Library begin with directories from the 1720s.

There have been many different directory publishers, but the largest publisher of old city directories was the R. L. Polk Company, producing directories for every major city in the U.S. since 1870. The company still exists, but its business is now information services related to the automotive industry (CARFAX is a Polk operation). During the 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s, the R. L. Polk Company had offices in the 50 largest cities of America, where a free library of the current city directories for that city area could be visited in person. Before the Internet, the Polk directories were the primary People-Finder service in America. Today, however, the older city directories are almost exclusively limited to public libraries, college libraries, and archives nearest to the city in question.

The Cross-Street Index
A feature found in most twentieth-century city directories is a cross-street index. The main listing of names in the book is an alphabetical listing by the names of the residents. But in the back of the book is an index according to the address of the houses, apartments, or businesses —a street index, followed by the house number and names of residents at that address. Using this feature, a city directory can be used to find the names of people living next door to a relative, providing more resources for finding information about people. People living next door ten years ago, for example, may still live there, and may still remember your relatives. This is a technique that can be used to find lost relatives.

The cross-street index is also a resource to find people whose names may have changed. For example, say a woman living alone at a particular address in 1938 disappears in the 1939 directory. But, by going to the 1939 cross-street address listing for the same address, it may be discovered that the woman remarried, is still living in the same house, and you find the new husband’s name!

Genealogy in City Directories
Since the information in city directories is far more revealing than just a name and address, a typical city directory can be a genealogical gold mine. Here is an example I found in a city directory for the town of Whatcom (now Bellingham), Washington for the year 1893:

  • Clancy, Annie (wid Patrick), res bet R R tracks nr B B & E round house.
  • Clancy, John, lab B B I Co mill
  • Clancy, Mary, clk Montague & Mchugh, bds Mrs Annie Clancy
  • Clancy, Michael, lab B B I Co mill
  • Clancy, Wm., lab B B I Co mill

The five entries above read like a family group sheet! First, the directory informs us that Annie Clancy was a widow, and her deceased husband’s name was Patrick Clancy. The Mary Clancy boarding with Annie Clancy appears to be a daughter, and the three men who all work at the same place look like sons of Annie as well.

Another later example from a 1955 city directory for Waterbury, Connecticut shows some interesting entries for the name Culotta:

  • Culotta, Augustine r 29 Crescent
  • Culotta, Charles G slsman r 29 Crescent
  • Culotta, John died June 6 1954 age 65
  • Culotta, Joseph P slsman r 29 Crescent
  • Culotta, Mariano h 42 Cooke
  • Culotta, Mary M wid John h 29 Crescent
  • Culotta, Rose M slswoman Hartford r 29 Crescent
  • Culotta, Thomas C student r 29 Crescent

The Waterbury entries tell us quite a bit about this family. First, note that an age and exact date of death for John Culotta is given, and that his widow was Mary M. Culotta, who owned a house at 29 Crescent Street in Waterbury. Also living at that address were Augustine; Charles and Joseph P. Culotta, both salesmen; Rose Culotta, a saleswoman working in Hartford; and Thomas, a student; all of whom appear to be children of John and Mary Culotta. The “r” indicates a residence/renter; while an “h” indicates a homeowner. All of the people named Culotta in 1955 in Waterbury, Connecticut lived in the same house except Mariano Culotta, who owned a house at 42 Cooke Street. But with no other people with that name in Waterbury, one could guess that Mariano was probably related to the others.

The above example directory entries demonstrate that genealogy can be found in city directories, and sometimes a surprising amount of detail will be revealed. Unlike a phone book, a city directory has more details about a person. These examples are not unique. Although I selected these examples because of the extra details they revealed, they are still fairly typical of virtually every city directory that has been published for cities and towns across the country. In some of the directories, the information may be limited to just a name, but in most of them, more details are given. Very possible items may include an age, occupation, home ownership, and names of employers.

Old City Directories on Microfilm
City directories for the 50 largest cities in America, most dating back before 1860, have been collected together and microfilmed. The collection was done by Research Publications, Inc., New Haven, CT, and they are available for sale to the public. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has this complete collection, and a particular city and directory year can be found by searching for that city in the FHL catalog. Use the FHL’s website at familysearch.org and use the keyword “city directories — (name of city)” to search for a particular city directory.

Old City Directories in Libraries
You can find a website online for just about any library in the world – go to www.worldcat.org/ a portal to the collections and services of more than 10,000 libraries worldwide. At a library’s website, a search of their online catalog may be possible, and this is the place to determine what city directories that library may hold. If the information can not be learned online, a letter or email to a reference librarian in the public library for the city of interest should tell you if city directories exist for certain years. If you write, include a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE). Another way to get an address, go to your own library and ask to see the American Library Directory, published by the R. R. Bowker Co., New York. Every library in America has this directory, which lists the addresses, email, and phone numbers for all American libraries, whether public, private, special collections, college, or archives.

Although most libraries will not conduct any research for you, they should at least respond with the period of time covered by the directories. If the library will not look in a particular city directory for a name, then contact a local genealogical society and see if a volunteer is available to go to the library and do some looking for you. Most genealogical societies will do this, and there is usually a small donation to the society expected. American genealogical societies are listed in detail in The Genealogist’s Address Book, 6th Edition, by Elizabeth Petty Bentley (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.).

Old City Directories on the Internet
www.Ancestry.com and www.WorldVitalRecords.com are the two main Internet services that are involved in acquiring databases of digitized directories. But there are many more smaller one-city or one-county directories found at the many county genealogy sites on the Internet. Rather than a direct Google search for the old directories, it may be easier to find one by first finding a website related to one county of the U.S. – the Google keywords to do this are USGenWeb (name of county) (state) or RootsWeb (name of county) (state). There is a USGenWeb or RootsWeb site for virtually every county in the U.S. If you can reach a home page for a local website of interest, you should be able to search for online databases available at that site. This is the place to learn if any old directories have been transcribed, digitized, or perhaps find those with scanned images online. Most of the city directories online, however, are merely extracts of the name lists from the old directories, usually done by volunteers of a local genealogical society.

In the previous article, “Peculiarities of the First Federal Censuses,” we mentioned Clement Biddle, the US Marshal for Pennsylvania in 1790, who was famous for borrowing the census name lists from Philadelphia and turning them into a privately published city directory in 1791. A complete facsimile of that early directory is online. Click here for a look at Clement Biddle’s 1791 Philadelphia Directory. This is fairly typical of the earliest city directories for American cities, and in most cases, the earliest historical documents online are full color images of the originals.

11 thoughts on “Old City Directories – Before the Internet

  1. Bill AGLL filmed the Spokane directories from 1916 to in the 1980s and sold microfiche of these directories. Did they film other cities? And are they still available either on microfiche or maybe a CD today? I bought some and would like to buy some other years.


  2. Internet technology has really changed the way that all sorts of information is stored and disseminated. Thanks for sharing these resources for genealogy – I hope that they contain some clues for my family tree.


  3. I am but a novice to genealogical research, but I must say that is a fantastically helpful article! I wondered about city directories and this gives me a concise history and the status of the use of directories in their various locations and formats. A wonderful and most helpful article!

  4. The Waterbury Directory of 1955 page 213 gives abbreviations. “h” means “head of household” and does not indicate ownership. “r” means “resides with householder.” Most directories use h” and “r” the same way.

  5. One other nifty feature that makes the old directories even more useful IS the internet – because you can skip searching by name and search by the address instead.

    If Joe Brown lived at 123 Main with his second wife Mary and her three kids, a search for 123 Main may reveal Joe Brown, Mary Brown, then Michael, Bob and Susan Smith all under one roof. Those kids could have been overlooked if not for the fact they shared an address.

    You can also use this trick to see who owned a home before or after the person in question, as houses often are inherited. I discovered my wife’s grandfather’s house was also her maternal great-grandfather’s house as well.

  6. Very helpful article. My big question is: How long would it normally take to print a directory from the time the info was gathered/compiled? I have an ancestor living on Melrose St Boston in the 1880 directory (published for the year commencing 1 July 1880) and living on Winchester St Boston in the 1880 Federal census taken 4 Jun 1880. I’m inclined to think that it would have taken some time to gather, compile and print the directory, so she would have been on Melrose first and then moved to Winchester where the census has her as of 4 Jun. Is this correct thinking? Also, did people specifically request or pay to be listed in directories or did agents collect the info much the same as a census enumerator? Thanks for any help you can give me.

  7. Does anyone know what time of year polk directories were published? Did it ever vary? It would be enormously helpful to know this, but I can’t seem to find an answer to that question anywhere. One person on the internet said the month of publication should be listed in the directory, but it most certainly isn’t. At least not on the one’s I’ve looked at and I’ve looked at a lot of them.

  8. When working for St Louis title co.inthe 50’s,the RL Polk directories were very useful in many title searches.

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