What You Might Be Missing in City Directories

City directories (and their lesser-known county/farm directory counterparts) are fantastic resources for putting people in a specific place at a specific time. They’re also easy to use. Look up a name, find the address, and — boom! — you’re done. Or are you?

The History of City Directories

City directories are different than censuses in that they are published by commercial entities, rather than the government. They were (and are) published with the intent to sell the data and to sell advertising within the directory. (The fact that we can use them for genealogy is a happy by-product.)

According to “Direct Me NYC 1786: A History of City Directories in the United States and New York City“, city directories date back to 1588 in London. The first city directory in the U.S. (sort of) was a 1752 broadside listing inhabitants in Baltimore, Maryland; the first city directory in the U.S. published as a book was of Philadelphia in 1785.

Their commercial success resulted in directories being produced for cities (and even some rural towns and counties) annually across the United States. For us genealogists, that’s a goldmine of information.

Using City and County Directories

City and county/farm directories are generally arranged alphabetically, which makes them easy to use. It also makes it easy to miss out on other sections of the book (or the digital images, as the case may be).

Key to Abbreviations

Text-speak has nothing on city directories. In order to keep printing costs down, it was important to make each entry as short as possible to reduce the number of pages. This resulted in entries like:

Yates, Schuyler, Tompkins and Seneca Counties, New York Farm Directory
American Agriculturalist Farm Directory of Yates, Schuyler, Tompkins and Seneca Counties, New York, 1914, (New York: Orange Judd, 1914), 43. Courtesy of Internet Archive.

The first line is for Herbert Roe, but what does “(Maude) 2 ch farmer (grain & truck) T 98a rd10 Gage H10” mean? There’s a key to abbreviations at the beginning of the directory that explains it all.

directory abbreviations
American Agriculturalist Farm Directory of Yates, Schuyler, Tompkins and Seneca Counties, New York, 1914, (New York: Orange Judd, 1914), 11. Courtesy of Internet Archive.

With this information, we can understand Herbert Roe’s listing. He had a wife Maude, 2 children, was a farmer, specialized in grain and ran a truck, was a tenant of 98 acres, had his mail delivered from rural delivery route 10 from the Gage post office, and was located on Highway 10.

Lists of Organizations, Churches, etc.

It wasn’t long before directory publishers realized there was value in listing the organizations in the area. These lists are usually located at the front of the directory. The 1881 Polk Directory for Indianapolis has several pages of churches, cemeteries, libraries, and various organizations, including:

Indianapolis Directory for 1881 (Indianapolis: R.L. Polk, 1881), 60. Courtesy Internet Archive.
Indianapolis Directory for 1881 (Indianapolis: R.L. Polk, 1881), 60. Courtesy Internet Archive.

If I had an ancestor who was a bricklayer or a mason in Indianapolis, I would want to start looking for any records that might still exist of the Bricklayers’ Union, No. 1 of Indiana.


The 1922 directory for Iowa City, Iowa lists James Comb as a baker at Martha Washington Doughnut Shop.

Iowa City, Iowa City Directory, 1922
Smith’s Directory of Iowa City and Johnson County, Iowa for 1922 (Dorchester, MA: Edgar Smith, 1922), 75. Courtesy of Internet Archive.

That’s a fun fact, but is there anything else we can learn? A check of the business section and the list of advertisers yielded an ad in that directory:

Martha Washington Doughnut Shop, Iowa City, Iowa, 1922
Smith’s Directory of Iowa City and Johnson County, Iowa for 1922 (Dorchester, MA: Edgar Smith, 1922), 428. Courtesy of Internet Archive.

(This blog post is making me hungry… )

While the ad doesn’t give any further information about James Comb directly, it does give us an idea about the shop where he worked.

Tip: Don’t rely on the full-text search to find ads when you’re looking at a directory online. If the ad used a fancy font, it might not be recognized accurately by the OCR (optical character recognition) software. (Which means that it won’t turn up in a full-text search.) In addition to a full-text search, go to the front of the directory and look for the section of business listings and listing of advertisers.

Even if our ancestor doesn’t have a specific place of employment listed, it’s a good idea to browse through the advertisements. How many banks were in town? How many pool halls? Was there a theater in the neighborhood? The advertisements give us an overview of the town.


City and county directories do an excellent job of placing our ancestors in a specific place at a certain time. If we dig just a little bit more, we can uncover even more, including ideas for more research and context for our ancestors.

What You Might Be Missing in City Directories

If you're stopping with just the name in a city directory or a county/farm directory, you are missing information in your genealogy research. Here are 3 things in a directory that you should look for.

Posted: August 23, 2016.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • For some years, the Cleveland, Ohio, city directory had maps of the city and surrounding area…very useful for checking out neighborhoods and proximity to other family members.

  • The Akron City directory yielded some great info for my sister and me. Our mom thought the house where she was born had been demolished because the street number on her birth certificate no longer existed. My sister and I poured over several years’ worth of the directories and discovered that the street had been renumberedat some point! Armed with the new number, and an old family photo of the house, we easily found it, and it is still there — looking very much like it did when my mom was a baby!

  • This is great – can you shed a little light on how to find city directories – is there a link by county, etc. I am so grateful for all the work you share, it is so helpful

    • Hi, Vannie! I’m glad you find the blog helpful! Regarding city and county directories, there is a good collection of digitized ones on Internet Archive (archive.org), which is a free site. Ancestry also has a huge collection of US city and county directories. If you don’t have an Ancestry subscription, check with your local public library to see if they do. It’s worth a look at Google Books (books.google.com) and the Digital Public Library of America (dp.la) as well. If you are local to where your ancestors lived, look in your public library; they often carry the city directories for their location. Good luck!

  • One small correction: “farmer (grain & truck)” means Herbert Roe was a grain and truck farmer, not that he raised grain and ran a truck. A truck farmer was one who grew small fruits and vegetables that he trucked to market himself.

  • Just a note: “Grain and Truck” doesn’t mean he farmed grain and had a truck. it means his farm was both a grain farm and a truck farm. I.e. he farmed smaller scale fruits and veggies to “truck” to town and sell.

  • Thanks for these tips! One of the things that is useful in City Directories and many other sources is getting an actual street address. Too often we ignore the address because traditionally our genealogy software only cared about city or town. However, a street address of a home or business enriches the overall “picture” of that ancestor in your family history. Especially with great tools like Google Maps and Google Street View knowing an address can really help you “connect” with that ancestor!

  • Hello! I know this article was created a long time ago, but I was just wondering:
    Is there any reason someone’s name wouldn’t be in the city directory even though they lived in the city in question? Can you choose to have your info withheld from the directory as with phone books? Or is it something mandatory that you have no say in? I appreciate your time.

    • Directories were compiled by publishers who sent people around to gather the information. There wouldn’t be any requirement for someone to answer. Other reasons that they might not appear in a directory would be if their household got missed (like in a boarding house or tenement) or if they moved frequently.