Happy Archives Month! A wise researcher once said “genealogy without documentation is mythology.” During October, we will be taking a closer look at some of the wonderful genealogical resources available at the Archives and how they can help you dig deeper and possibly solve your family history research problems.
City directories first came in to use in what is now the United State in some of the east coast cities in the eighteenth century, and continue to be published today in both the US and Canada. While there were many publishers involved, the most recognized publisher is (R.L) Polk City Directories. The directories were used to help salespeople and deliverymen locate individuals for commercial and delivery purposes, and to provide advertising space for businesses, much like later telephone books.
The directories were often produced annually or every other year. Before starting your research in the city directories, review the table of contents and introductory text to better understand the organization, format and abbreviations in the book.
Included in the listing was the name of the head of household, the street address and often the occupation and employer of the head of household. This information can lead to some interesting discoveries, as well as the possibility of verifying family stories of what a great-grandfather did for a living. The listing may also include whether the individual was a boarder, renter, or owner.
In some directories, only the head of household was listed, which, from the family historian’s viewpoint, can be frustrating. As children became adults they were listed as well. When a man died, his wife was often indexed as “Smith, Mary, widow of John”. (This is a clue to a death date.)
By the mid-twentieth century these directories included a street cross-index, which is useful for determining neighbors, or who lived in the house prior to and following your ancestor. Looking through the street index listing lets the researcher see if there are relatives living in the same neighborhood. This is also helpful, if your ancestor is using a nickname. In past research, using the street address has helped this researcher discover Gaylord Everett, who was going by Gale Everett.
It is much easier to determine the address of a residence using the directories than from the census records. They give the researcher the opportunity to go to the physical address and visualize where their ancestors lived. In the absence of census records, directories are very helpful in tracking the movement of those elusive ancestors more frequently than census enumerations since they were published annually or bi-annually. Many directories include community pages which would list houses of worship, clubs, cemeteries, businesses and possibly a city map. If your ancestor lived in a small town or a big city, chances are they can be found in a city directory.
As with any mass produced item, accuracy may be an issue. In some instances, people had to pay to have their names included in a directory and ethnic and racial minorities were often excluded. Also the year on the cover is most often the publication dates, which is not necessarily the year the information was collected. But most of all, don’t be surprised if you find yourself “reading” the directory! They are full of clues, and facts that help place your ancestor in historical context.
— Robin Everett, Processing Archivist