Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Where did your ancestors live" -- An Introduction to City Directories

A Collection of the Names of the Merchants Living In and about the City of London, 1677,
New York Public Library:
One nearly constant feature of American life has been the mail order catalog and the city directory. Because of the availability of online searches and organization lists, the venerable telephone book has passed from common usage. But beginning in the 1700s or even much earlier, books that listed the names, addresses and ethnicity of all of the businesses and people in a town or city became very common. It was natural, when telephones were invented, to add the telephone number of residents.

These extensive directories are extremely valuable to locate and track the movements of your ancestors. Collections of old directories may be found in many archives, museums and libraries around the country. In addition, these types of directories were also published in many cities around the world. The image above shows the cover of a city directory from the City of London in 1677.

Here is a quote from the New York Public Library in an article entitled, "A History of City Directories in the United States and New York City" about the value of city directories to genealogists:
In New York City, city directories were printed between 1786 and 1934: the first telephone books began to appear in the late 1870s. Both forms of directory are interesting to researchers, historians and genealogists alike, for a number of reasons, not least because, like a census, directories tie an individual to a certain location at a particular point in time. Historical city directories are even more useful as a research tools than early telephone directories, because they are more inclusive: you don't need a telephone to be in a city directory. In addition to this, city directories offer up many more historical details. This post describes the history of city directories, how they might be useful to your research, and where you will find them at the New York Public Library.
Here is a list of useful references for finding city directories:

I have found collections of old city directories in some unexpected places. They even show up occasionally in used bookshops and thrift store sales of old books. There are hundreds of additional links on this subject. Just do a Google search on the terms "city directories historical" and you will find many, many more entries. 


  1. James,

    I want to let you know that three of your blog posts are listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

  2. Thank you for listing my Online Historical Directories in your post. If your readers are looking for a particular directory from an area that does not appear on my website, I encourage them to email me at I have many, many more bookmarked which I have not yet placed online. It's a slow process that I do in my "spare" time!