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Discovering City Directories (Part 1 of 2)

One of the most misunderstood and misused sources of information for family genealogists are city directories. You'll soon discover that this source can sometimes produce invaluable information which might not be available in any of the other records.

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Prepared by: Bob Brooke
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One of the most misunderstood and misused sources of information for family genealogists are city directories. You'll soon discover that this source can sometimes produce invaluable information which might not be available in any of the other records. And often city directories came before the recording of other vital records.

The first city directory in the United States, appearing in 1786, listed 846 citizens of the City of New York and was the forerunner of the telephone directory but contained more information. Today's city directories supply more information than ever before. R. L. Polk & Co. (www.citydirectory.com), which publishes nearly 1,000 of these directories, is the leading publisher of city directories today.

The basic city directory format has changed little over the years. Even today, directories list the name, occupation, spouse and home address of the person listed. Often they include

the name of the company that employs the person and may even include separate entries for adult children living at home. In older directories, when a person died, the listing then changed to the wife, listed by her first name as a "widow of" the deceased.

The front section of a city directory contains valuable information, such as special lists of names received too late for normal insertion in the directory and a list of persons who refused to supply any information. Be sure not to skip this section, for it may save you time later. You'll also find a lit of abbreviations for occupations, locations, and products used in the directory.

Some directories even include a list of doctors and nurses. However, in those from the 19th century, the term nurse and midwife are often used interchangeably. Some directories have street maps which contain approximate political subdivisions while others have lists of streets and avenues and give house numbers falling between two parallel streets.

Because surnames often have a variety of spellings, some directories advise that you check all the possible spellings for the family name you're searching for. For instance, Smith can also be listed under Smyth or Smyth. Likewise, you might find the name Shafer listed under as many as five variations—Schaffer, Schaefer, Shaefer, Scheffer, or Scheffer.

And unlike searching the primary genealogical sources–birth, marriage, and death certificates—researching in an old city directory is much like looking at history. Included alongside the rich and famous are many ordinary people. In the 1870 edition of the New York City Directory, you'll find listings for both Cornelius Vanderbilt, the millionaire, and Cornelius Vanderbilt the janitor. And within the occupational listings you'll discover everything from cooper to currier to poulterer, rockman, sawyer, and wheelright.

Next month, I'll explore how to research city directories.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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