Family History Research: City Directory

While researching my mom’s family, I learned about a golden nugget that led to finding lost family members – City Directories!20150408_091809_resized City Directories were published in most cities and in many small towns, because they were designed to be a reference for people from outside the community, such as traveling salesmen. They differ from Telephone Books because they offer more information, including:

  • Name of head of house
  • Occupation
  • Employer (and sometimes employer’s address)
  • Spouse’s name
  • Street address

For family research, they can be your best friend. In my family, I knew of a relative who had been a cab driver for Yellow Cab in the 1940s, but I didn’t have his first name, which made looking for a census record or birth certificate difficult. But a quick call to the library in the city in which he lived proved golden, and thanks to the 1946 City Directory, I obtained his full name, his wife’s name and their address. And, if you need to pin down when someone left an area – say if you’re looking for census records for example – not finding someone on the City Directory can be just as useful. If Uncle Ted was in Detroit in 1935 until after the war but suddenly disappears from the books in 1947, he probably left the area some time in that year or the one before it, so you know not to keep looking through census records after that time. Uncle Ted was elsewhere. To find your relative in a City Directory, contact the genealogy section of the main library of that town. Some libraries have a full department dedicated to just family research. Once you have an address, you can look into property records and other avenues of research. There are also many free transcriptions of City Directories around the web. Give your search engine a workout. has an excellent page on City Directories with more detailed information which you can find here. It’s hard to pin down when they started: some internet sites give a date as early as the 1700s; transcriptions of them begin in 1821. When they ended is just as difficult to state as it depends on the municipality. Some ended in the 1960s, some into the next decade.

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