Monday, January 14, 2013

City Directories

Have you used City Directories as a source? I really love these because on the surface it doesn't look like you are getting much info but you really are.

So what is a city directory? Basically it is a phone book before there were phones. has been adding more and more city directories to their collections but they only have a small percentage of what is available. The best place to find city directories is in the main branch of the public library in the city you are interested in. The state archives is another great place to look.

City directories are full of abbreviations and each company that put out the directories has their own. All you need to do is look in the front of the book and there will be an explanation of the abbreviations. So what can see find out? Here are some examples from my file:


This snippet is from the 1927 Hattiesburg, Mississippi directory. What can we glean?

  • Sercia Simmons [Oliver Searcy Simmons] is assumed alive in 1927.
  • He is married and his wife's name is Calley.
  • He is a sawyer [works in a saw mill cutting lumber].
  • He works for the Hattiesburg Flooring Company.
  • He is the householder [a person who lives on a property but doesn't own it, most likely he is renting].
  • He lives at 714 E. 6th [St.], Hattiesburg. If there is no designation behind the address then it is Street. All other variations will be written out. If there is no town name then it is the town of the directory. If he lived in one of the burbs, it would have said so. For example, if he lived in the community of Petal it would have been right behind the address.


This one is from the 1882 Augusta, Georgia directory.

  • Joseph Dismuke is assumed alive in 1882.
  • He is an upholsterer.
  • He boards [rents] at 1137 D'Antignac [St.].

Does the entry mean that Joseph was not married? We don't know. This particular directory lists everyone individually. The only females that will be listed will be those that worked.


This one is from the 1902 Shreveport, Louisiana directory. At first you might think there isn't a lot of info here. We know that Ida was alive and unmarried in 1902. She was a nurse at Charity Hospital in Shreveport. If you read my blog post on The Story of Ida Perry, you can understand just how important this little bit of information is.


This is Brookhaven, Missisippi in 1914. I included this one because Brookhaven was a small town in 1914. It still only has less than 10,000 people today. Not just large cities had directories.

  • Charity G. Kees is assumed alive in 1914.
  • Kees is her married name and she was widowed by 1914.
  • She is living with Martin V. Kees [Martin happens to be her 7th son out of 10 boys. Just thought I would throw that in].
  • She lives in is house. In this case h only stands for house, not householder as was shown in the first example. That is why you need to always check the abbreviations in every book.
  • She lives at 524 E. Cherokee [St.], Brookhaven.

Directories also contain general and statistical information about the city at the time the directory was printed. This will help you put your person of interest in the context of his surroundings.

Here is a nifty website that has info on what directories are available and where they are located. It isn't 100% complete but not bad. US City Directories.

I saved the best for last. You can put the addresses you find into Google Maps and you can see exactly where your person of interest lived. If you are real lucky, there will be a street view photo and if you are real, real, real lucky it will be the same house that your person of interest actually lived in. Here is my favorite example. Remember Ida Perry from above. If you go back and read the post that I dedicated to her you will see how special she is to me. You will also see that she had tuberculosis and moved to Denver, Colorado for health reasons. She died shortly thereafter. If you type in the address of 2222 Newton Street, Denver, Colorado into Google Maps you will see a street view photo on the left. Click that and you will be able to see the house that my Ida died in on 31 Aug 1911. I got that address from her death certificate.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. These are at the top of my favorite resources. I have learned so much from them. I learned that the houses were all renumbered in Baltimore. That was good to know. I was able to tell my mom about her father's early in life jobs and homes. There is so much more. Great resource. As for Google Maps, 2 of the addresses are now in the middle of fields. Oh well.

  2. That is a good point that I failed to mention. When 911 was initiated, many addresses changed, especially in rural areas. It is possible you will look up an address and it will be one of those that was changed so it will be a lot harder for you to figure out which house is the correct one (if it still stands).

  3. Thank you for this post, great information! I have seen the directories before in Ancestry, of course, but I hadn't thought that there would be a key to reference some of the abbreviations (duh!). I have been missing valuable info. I will have to go and check these out for my relatives again.

  4. Sometimes a single entry will have several abbreviations and the entry will look like gibberish :)

  5. Love city directories. Fold3 also has a good collection for some major cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago.

    I'd add in addition to checking abbreviations for each directory, find the section with late additions and changes. In the case of your Joseph Dismuke, upholsterer, I'd check the business directory for upholsterers. You may find others surnames of interest in the same trade. Lastly, if you are very lucky, some directories compile all the households by street as well. You may need to seek out the actual directory in an archive to find this as this section is not always part of Ancestry's collection. This will show you different surnames in the same household.

    Lastly, it has also been my personal research experience in the Philly directories that individuals show up the year after their death so I backdate my 'presumed living as of' by one year.

    Where they exist, city directories are an amazing resource. Thanks Michelle for highlighting this resource.

  6. Great advice, Rorey! I have used the directories that have everyone listed by street address which is GREAT for locating neighbors but to find anyone in there you have to know where they lived. The good news is, many times if the person lived in a town or city either their exact address or at least the street name is given in the census records (later ones) and then you can find them in the directory. If the directory has BOTH types of listings then you have hit paydirt :)

  7. I LOVE City Directories and this is a great article due to your excellent examples and explanations!! As you mentioned you can see occupations which has helped me differentiate one SHACKFORD from another. I've also found that a SHACKFORD has removed to Boston (well the directory says "Rem to Boston". I've learned that a son is living in the same residence as his mother but attending college. I've also found death dates, sometimes listed one to three years after the death. So far all death dates have been verifiable and were correct. I have found addresses that were old as the person had moved to a new home three years earlier.

  8. You never know what you might find because each publisher of directories included different things and the things that were included also changed from year to year even with the same publisher. I always get a little excited when I have someone that lived in a decent sized town :)

  9. Disse er på toppen av mine favoritt ressurser. Jeg har lært så mye fra dem. Jeg lærte at husene var alle omnummerert i Baltimore. Det var godt å vite. Jeg var i stand til å fortelle mamma om farens tidlig i livet arbeidsplasser og boliger. Det er så mye mer. stor ressurs


  10. Ja, de er en stor ressurs. Jeg tror de er underused og at mange ikke vet om dem.

  11. So, here's a question. Here's a listing for my ancestor Albert in a 1940 Lincoln, NE directory:

    Womack Albert L (Emma) gro 2030 U
    h3028 do

    I discovered that "gro" stands for grocer. I think "2030 U" is the address of his work place? I gather that "h3028" is his home address? What in the world does "do" stand for?

    Link, if you're interested.,%2520Saunders,%2520Nebraska,%2520USA%26msypn%3D59270%26msypn_PInfo%3D8-%257C0%257C1652393%257C0%257C2%257C0%257C30%257C0%257C2630%257C59270%257C0%257C0%257C%26MSAV%3D1%26msbdy%3D1892%26cp%3D0%26catbucket%3Drstp%26uidh%3Debb%26pcat%3DROOT_CATEGORY%26h%3D770016472%26db%3DUSDirectories%26indiv%3D1%26ml_rpos%3D17&treeid=&personid=&hintid=&usePUB=true&_phsrc=kOG729&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true

    I am trying to figure out if Albert L Womack married Viola and then Emma, or if there are two different Albert L Womacks. Ugh.

    Really appreciate your help, if you can give it. Thanks!

    W/a Smile, Tiana

    1. do usually means "ditto" or same. However, at the front of every directory is an abbreviations key so it is best to check. I found the abbreviations key on image 13. Here is a direct link to it.

      They are using do to mean ditto :)