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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Don't Miss These Genealogy Clues in City Directories

Birth and death records are not the only records available to build your family tree. City directories are nearly as awesome as census records for tracing your ancestor between their birth and death dates.

But chances are you’re not taking full advantage of these resources, which needs to change today.

What are City Directories?

Picture a telephone book, and you have a good idea of what these alphabetically arranged residence lists do.

According to FamilySearch, “City Directories were created for salesmen, merchants, and other interested in contacting residents of an area.” Some areas produced these books annually, which makes researching your ancestors easier than census records which may take place every 10 years.

Since these books were commercial in intention, you will adults, including

males and females, and additional information a merchant might find valuable. This would include:

  • An individual's address

  • Occupation

  • Spouse's name

  • Other helpful facts.

The "other helpful facts" constituent the details that you're likely overlooking and may be helpful for your genealogy research and family history writing projects.

From 1948 Denver Colorado City Directory
From 1948 Denver Colorado City Directory

Abbreviation Guides

While we love to view the entries with our ancestors' names highlighted. The first thing we want to do is make sure we understand what the entry is saying. Particularly in regards to the abbreviations in each line.

Does “r” in George Teller's entry mean renter, rear house, resides, or something else?

You will not know until you find the abbreviation cheat sheet in the book.

Typically, this appears on the page before the residents are listed, but not always.

If you’re using a farm directory, a cousin to a city directory, you’ll definitely want to pay attention to the abbreviation guides. Amy Johnson Crow discusses why in her post city directory-related blog post.

Clues to Previous Residences

Some books lack abbreviations, but you can figure out what they might mean based on the habits on the pages.

One of my favorite discoveries, that does not appear in every city directory, is clues to your ancestor’s previous residence. For example, in the Cincinnati, Ohio city directory of 1839, many entries will say (N J), (Md), or (N H).

What do you think that means?

As it turns out, these are state abbreviations for the location the person named in the city directory lived before coming to Ohio. So while this location may also be their birthplace, you will need to research further in that referenced state.

Clues to Residence Changes

City directories publishers often produced these books by canvasing an area about a year or so before printing the book. And some city directories leveraged a previous production as the starting point for the subsequent year’s publication.

Shortly before publishing the annual book, a final canvassing may have happened. At that time, publishers would add Additions, Removals, and Corrections instead of retype-setting the text.

This section provides clues as to when an ancestor moved into a location, moved out, or had any other relevant change.

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Social History

I love digging deeper into genealogy records to learn about the world in which our ancestors

lived. We can do this by paying attention to a few things that may or may not list your ancestor by name.


The formatting of city directories changes dramatically from place to place and throughout the decades.

  • For example, some books have a dedicated advertising section.

  • Some have ads along the edges of the pages listing residents.

  • In contrast, some ads don’t look like ads per se. Instead, they are enlarged font sizes of individual listings.

If your ancestor’s name appears in the ads, pay attention to what their business sells and its location. Also, make a note of who they are in business with.

Also, look for the advertisements for the businesses where your ancestor worked. You can learn a lot about the potential prosperity of the company through the advertisements produced.

If your ancestor or their business does not appear in an ad, pay attention to the wares and technology being offered while your ancestor lived in their town.

City Pages:

Often, city directories will include city and community officials in the front material of a book. This information will help you add social history to your family history story. For example, you might discover that the mayor was caught up in various scandals, or they might be a relative. Furthermore, you may find the names of church leaders and school leaders.

I particularly love when city directories offer a historical section about the town to give details about the area's highlights. This text provides excellent information for your family history writing projects.

Are You Ready to Search City Directories?

Take time to dive into City Directories on:

  • Ancestry

  • MyHeritage

  • University Special Collections

  • Genealogy Society Libraries

  • Google Books

  • Or Local Library pages

You will thank the stars when you hit the jackpot of finding your ancestors and their relatives in these books.

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