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From the Green Valley News, Friday 27 April 2007, page B13

Genealogy Today, by Betty Malesky

City Directories: More than Addresses

You are probably all familiar with the city directory. Historically the first residential directory in America was published in Baltimore in 1782. By the mid 1850s nearly every city in the country compiled lists of citizens’ addresses in some type of directory.

The earliest directories listed residents and their addresses. The listings were later expanded to include householders and every person in the household who was employed. With the advent of the telephone, directories began to include telephone numbers also. The first actual telephone directory was published in 1878.

The Library of Congress holds the world’s largest archived collection of over 124,000 historical U.S. telephone and city directories. Most city libraries have collections of directories for their own city and often other major cities besides. Directories were meant to be replaced annually. Because they were printed as cheaply as possible on inexpensive paper the older directories are rapidly deteriorating.

The information contained in a city directory varies, but usually includes the name, address, occupation and employer of each person listed. In the front of the directory a table of abbreviations helps you to decipher the information for each entry. An "h" may mean house, "b" boards, "n" near, "opp." opposite, etc. Abbreviations were also used to identify major employers in the city.

If you find your ancestor in one year’s city directory, don’t stop looking there. Check all available directories for the city where he/she lived. You will be able to track address changes, occupation and/or job changes, as well as comings and goings of other family members in the household. Absence of an entry for one year could simply mean an error was made or the person was missed when residents were canvassed. Permanent absence from all later years likely indicates a death or removal to another part of the country.

City directories sometimes included other useful data, such as the name of a widow’s spouse and occasionally his date of death. Many directories also offered a summary of the city’s history up to the publication date, sometimes many pages long.

In addition to city directories, rural counties and/or towns occasionally produced a directory of residents of the area, for example the Chautauqua County (New York) Directory and Gazetteer published in 1873. The gazetteer gave pertinent details about each town and village in the county, while the directory portion named male residents according to the town or village in which they lived listing also their addresses and occupations.

Occasionally, a business directory was published such as Boyd’s Business Directory of New York [state] in 1869. Boyd included an index to advertisers and subscribers in the subject area arranged by and including over 100 cities and villages in New York. This directory is online on Cornell University’s "Making of America" website at

If you haven’t made use of directories in your research, make it a point to search for them. You may be surprised what you can learn from this common source.

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