Monday, June 23, 2014

Methodology Monday with city directories

City directory research can be time-consuming, but the truth is I rarely spend enough time on them. This morning's stint reminded me that they are deceptively easy to use -- deceptive in that it's easy for us to leave some of their information ungathered. (It also reminded me why I sometimes prefer physical directories to the on-line versions.) Eight suggestions:

(1) Especially in the 19th century, different publishers may have issued multiple directories in the same year. Make sure to see them all.

(2) Look at every edition. Not only do some years contain obvious mistakes (obvious if we know the context), some years also contain unique pieces of information. More importantly, seeing them all allows the series of still shots of our research target to merge into a motion picture of his or her life.

(3) Check for known associates or relatives of interest and work them the same way as the research target.

(4) If one person is at 444 E. 44th Street and another is at 666 S. Presidential Avenue, check the directory's map or street listing or both. They might be right around the corner from one another.

(5) If previous research or the directory itself has provided the name of an employer or a business or a partner, look them up in the business portion of the directory. Where are they? Who's in charge? Do they relocate or disappear over time? . . . And check to see if there is a "vertical file" or clippings file on them.

(6) For cities and towns of the right size at the right time, don't overlook the criss-cross directory (which lists addresses in order, number by number and street by street). Not only does this make neighbors easier to detect, these listings may indicate who was thought to be the owner, whether they had a telephone (still an issue in the 1950s!), and who the various tenants were.

(7) Again, for cities and towns of the right size at the right time, don't overlook the appended directories for twin cities, small towns, suburbs, and farmers (AKA rural taxpayers, often with the acreage and/or assessed amount listed). Our people might be a few steps outside the city limits.

(8) Don't be too sure that a place was too small to have a directory. Size is relative -- especially a century and more ago, when most small towns really believed they had a future as economic centers. You may need to go there to be sure. Even towns that have some directories digitized or on microfilm usually have additional years that have not been picked up, for whatever reason. Worse yet, some small-city directories have been grouped randomly together on unlabeled reels of microfilm identified only by the state name. I have provided indexes to these reels for Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan. But don't believe for a minute that those towns didn't produce additional directories. A lot of local, niche, and small-market publishers saw this as a business opportunity.

I haven't made up a form for all this stuff (similar to forms some people use to make sure they don't overlook items in deeds), and it wouldn't always help. Sometimes we learn of a new associate or employer, the research turns back on itself, and we have to go back through. City directories are the records that just won't quit.

Harold Henderson, "Methodology Monday with city directories," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 24 June  2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Lisa Gorrell said...

City Directories are one of my favorite resources. I agree, I prefer to read hard copies but am so glad for the collection.

Some tips that I have:
--I always look up the employer to find out what the company did or manufacture.
--I found some cities had two different companies make directories in the same year, so it's good to check both.
--When searching online, it is so important to go to the beginning to the book to find the title page, look at any pages on last minute entries, see if a history of the community is provided, and check the directory's purpose--this often gives the actual date range of the directory.
--Also check alternate spellings! The directory often gave other possible spellings in a "see xxx"

Sonja Hunter said...

I love directories also. If you have people with the same name and aren't sure which one is yours, if you have a directory that includes spouses' names you can follow the family. In some cases I have actually found every member of the household (even children) included in the directory.
And if your family lived in one of the rural areas, but the male land owner has died, look anyway because the estate may be listed if the rest of the family still lives on the property.
You can also look to see which schools, churches, etc. are nearby or see how far someone had to travel to attend society meetings (masons, GAR post, etc.).

Leon Zimlich said...

Directories for smaller communities are sometimes included within those for the larger towns nearby.

Colleen G. Brown Pasquale said...

City directories are full of information! They often have maps and info about the town. They might also have an advertisement for the place an ancestor worked.

MissPeggy said...

I might add that it can be quite helpful to also see if there are county directories. Since my families were mostly rural, they have benefited me more than the city directories.