Tracing your family tree back in time isn’t the only thing family history is about. It’s also learning more about those who have been closest to you whether that’s a parent, a special grandparent or an aunt.
But until the 1950 federal census is made publicly available in 2022, how can you learn more about them and their lives?
This month we’ve released a collection of more than 2,500 city directories from around the U.S., all ranging from the mid 1940s through 1960, with the majority between 1948 and 1955.
These more contemporary records can serve as a great starting point for learning more about the family you grew up with and loved. Follow these tips and you’ll soon be an expert at using city directories.
City Directories—What are They?
The first city directories were released in the 1700s, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that they became popular. By the early 1900s many rural and urban areas had city directories.
Directories were like pre-cursors to the modern-day phonebook and were usually published annually. They were created for the business community so that they could get a better idea of their customer base and also as a venue for them to advertise.
City directories contain the following types of information about individuals:
1. Name of the householder
2. Name of wife if the householder is a male
3. Name of adult children who were working or going to school
4. The occupation of each listed individual
5. The home address of each listed individual
6. The work address of listed each individual
7. Special designations for widows, university students, and those enrolled in the army
A sample page from a city directory will give you a quick idea of the type of information they contain and how they are organized. This is a page from a 1950-era city directory for Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Zoom in for a closer look at some of the individual entries on the page, to see what they reveal.
A Typical Entry
The first entry reads, “Linton Howard (Dorothy) slsmn h803 S Edith”.
This may seem like gibberish, but knowing a few things about how the entries are structured can help you decipher it.
All the entries are alphabetical, by last name, so this is an entry for Howard Linton. Wives are usually listed beside their husbands, in parenthesis.
Any abbreviations used in the city directory are listed on the first few pages, typically right before the alphabetical listing begins.
From the abbreviation key we learn that Howard’s occupation, salesman, is abbreviated “slsmn.” The letter “h” indicates “householder” and is followed by Howard’s home address: 803 S Edith.
Reading Between the Lines
Note the next two entries on this page. The next one is for a “Mrs. Lenora Linton.” According to this directory she operates the Dorothy Gray Beauty Shop. She is listed as a householder for the address 117 N Orchard Garden Road.
Below that is an entry for a “William Linton.” His wife’s name, Lenora, is listed in parenthesis beside his. He is listed as a householder at address 117 Orchard Garden Road.
Did you notice that the two have the same address, except for the “N”? It is likely a typo. William’s wife, Lenora, is probably the same Lenora from the previous entry. Employed, married women are usually listed twice—once with their husbands and once in conjunction with their place of employment.
Death and Marriage Dates
Another useful purpose of the city directory is helping you determine someone’s approximate year of death, especially if you have multiple directories from one city.
Take note of the last entry on the page, for a woman by the name of Anne L. Liser. The notation “wid Geo G” is in parenthesis beside her name. This indicates that she is a widow of the late “George G.”
If you were to look in the previous year’s directory and see that George was still living, it would give you an approximate year of his death. Likewise, if a man is listed with a wife one year but not the next, divorce or death may be a possible explanation.
Take that one step further and you can see how a directory can be used to determine an approximate date of marriage.
If a man appears living at home in one directory but the next year his name is followed by a woman’s name in parenthesis, it would indicate that he was married during the previous year.
Here’s an example from another spot on the page. In 1949, David Lloyd is listed as a student at the University of New Mexico. In the following year’s directory, he shows up at a new address, with a wife, indicating they were married during the previous year.
In 1949, David Lloyd appears as a single student at the University of New Mexico.
In 1950 he appears as a married man. His wife, Cherril, is listed beside him in parenthesis.
Other Information You Can Glean from City Directories
So far you’ve learned that city directories contain information about all the adult residents in a town, such as their name, occupation and home and work addresses.
You’ve also learned that you can use city directories to determine approximate death and marriage dates.
But that’s not all they’re good for. They’re also useful for determining things like whether a family moved during a particular year and what their community was like. Be creative and you might discover the following:
1. When and where a family moved.
In the same way that using multiple city directories might teach you whether someone died or married between years, it can also teach you whether someone moved.
Because city directories were often kept annually you can consult consecutive years to determine whether a family stayed in one spot for a long time or moved to another city.
If the family shows up for several years and then suddenly disappears, you can assume they’ve relocated. Try a global search of the other city directories to see if they appear in another city the next year.
2. What Your Ancestor’s Community Was Like.
City directories often contain a vivid portrait of what your ancestor’s town was like at the time. The front or back of directories often contains a description of the community, such as population, geography, major industries, churches, schools, town officials and more. Occasionally there are photographs of major town landmarks.
By studying not only the page your ancestor is listed on, but the entire directory, you can often gain lots of additional background information to help you understand what your ancestor’s life was like.
3. The nearest church or cemetery.
In addition to an alphabetical listing of names, many directories also contain historical maps and a street-by-street directory of all the houses, businesses, churches and schools in the area. Because your ancestor’s address is also listed, you can sometimes use directories to locate a nearby church, school or cemetery that you might want to consult for additional records or information.
4. What types of products and services were advertised at the time.
Because city directories were originally created with businesses in mind, they contained lots of advertisements. By perusing your ancestor’s city directory you can see what companies existed and what types of services or products were being advertised. This can be interesting if your ancestor worked at one of the businesses. It is also entertaining just to see what was on the cutting edge for your ancestors, whether that was hair dye or typewriters.