Overview of Directories

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This article is part of a series.
Overview of Directories
Locating Directories
City Directories
Using Census Records with Directories
City Directories and World War I Draft Registration Cards
Using Death and Probate Records with Directories
Using Church Records with Directories
Using Naturalization and Land Records with Directories
Telephone Directories
Directories on Microform
Professional Directories
Organizational Directories
Religious Directories
Post Office and Street Directories
List of Useful Directory References

This article originally appeared in "Directories" by Gordon L. Remington, FASG, FUGA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

A directory is a book containing one or more alphabetical lists of the inhabitants of any locality, with their addresses and occupations; also a similar compilation dealing with the members of a particular profession, trade, or association, as a Clerical or Medical Directory, etc.1


While a directory can often in itself be a source of interesting genealogical and biographical information, its chief value lies in its use as an aid to locating a person in place and time. One type of directory groups people by a common residence. A second groups them by a common association or attribute. In addition, many directories list organizations rather than individuals and are sometimes called registers, catalogs, annuals, yearbooks, or guides. Whatever its title, contents, or method, a directory always lists and locates members of a group. This chapter gives a history of directories, describes the limitations and resources of seven kinds of directories, and provides numerous examples of how to use them.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites J. Brown’s The Directory or List of Principal Traders in London (1732) as the earliest use of the word directory as defined at the beginning of this chapter. Lists of inhabitants or associates are extant from at least two hundred years earlier. Dorothea N. Spear, in the introduction to her Bibliography of American Directories Through 1860, gives a concise account of the history of directories in the United States:

Although as early as 1665 in New York a grouping of residents by streets was shown in the Records of the Dutch Magistrates, the first directory-type listing of the inhabitants of an American city of which we have knowledge is a Baltimore broadside. It is entitled The Following Lists of Families, And Other Persons Residing in the Town of Baltimore, Was Taken in the Year 1752, By a Lady of Respectability, and is believed to have been printed between 1830 and 1840 by Joseph Townsend (1756–1841) from the original manuscript in the Maryland Historical Society. Next came the two Charleston directory lists of 1782 and 1785 printed in the South Carolina and Georgia Almanack for those years, owned by the Charleston Library Society and reprinted in 1951. Philadelphia has the honor of having produced the first separately printed directories in this country, two rivals issued in 1785, the earlier being MacPherson’s Directory for the City and Suburbs of Philadelphia, first issued on 16 November 1785, and the second, The Philadelphia Directory, by Francis White, first issued on 29 November 1785. The John MacPherson edition is to be found in the Philadelphia Free Library and in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, while the White volume is owned by the Philadelphia libraries and the American Antiquarian Society . . . . New York quickly followed Philadelphia with The New-York Directory of 1786, by David Franks, which was frequently reprinted in later years. The New York Historical Society and the New York Public Library own original copies of this directory. Following the lead of the most progressive cities, many others throughout the country began to issue directories in rapid succession . . . The compilation of the early directories was usually a side issue rather than the principal line of the compiler’s work. Therefore it is natural to find that some of the authors combined the listing with their duties as letter carriers, postmasters, county constables, school principals, teachers, and brokers. Often the modest compiler’s own name and address were not even included in the alphabetical listing. The majority of these publications, however, were issued by newspaper offices. From the mid-nineteenth century we find separate directory publishers such as the well-known firms of George Adams and of Damrell & Moore of Boston, C. S. Williams of Cincinnati, and the John F. Trow and John Doggett Companies of New York, William H. Boyd, who had offices in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, and many others. Boyd advertised in 1859 that he owned the largest collection of directories in the world and was prepared to publish the directory of any city or state. We know that he issued directories for many of the eastern and mid-western cities. Then came the R. L. Polk Company of New York and Detroit, with numerous branch offices. It presumably became the largest directory publisher and so continues today. The price of directories ranged from twenty-five cents to four dollars by the end of the 1850s, whereas the comprehensive Polk publications of today cost us fifty dollars a copy. It is true that the earliest attempts were quite crude, often with the names sorted only under each letter but not completely alphabetized. In the early volumes there were no house numbers, so the locations given were quite general; sometimes the millers and merchants were located merely “next the bridge” or “opposite the town hall.”2

Originally, the two basic types of directories (residence and attribute) were more or less combined. The business orientation of the early directories influenced their development and content. Just as the census was designed primarily for congressional apportionment and not for genealogical purposes, the directory is limited as a genealogical source by the intent of its compilers.

The early English directories listed “principal traders” and “gentleman of accompte.” It is doubtful that the “Lady of Respectability” who compiled the List of Families, and Other Persons in Baltimore, 1752, included in her list those families and “other persons” who weren’t “respectable.” Although such economic and class distinctions became less apparent later, it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that directories regularly included common laborers, and even then they usually left out transient residents.

As cities grew in the nineteenth century, directories became more detailed. They included special sections devoted to businesses, organizations, churches, and even steamship lists along with the list of general inhabitants. These special sections eventually evolved into nongeographic directories by the late 1800s. The directories considered in this chapter are:

  1. City directories
  2. Telephone directories
  3. County and regional business directories
  4. Professional directories
  5. Organizational directories
  6. Religious directories
  7. Post office and street directories

Finding a directory, the first step in using one, is also the most difficult step, particularly for researchers far from major record centers. Before attempting to locate a directory, you should be aware that the directory you want might not exist. It may be that a directory was never published for a particular place or group in the year of interest or that no copies of a directory known to have existed have survived. The law that requires copyrighted material be deposited in the Library of Congress dates only from 1870. Some directories were originally published for short-term use and were disposed of when they became obsolete. In addition, libraries may gradually dispose of their directory collections due to lack of space or low demand.

Another major consequence of publication for short-term use is low-quality paper. Individual pages may deteriorate badly. A binding can always be replaced, but when segments of the printed page tear off and are swept up at the end of the day by the library custodian, they are gone forever. Microform reproduction has helped to preserve older directories, but in many cases, image reduction and poor exposure make the microfilm or microfiche copies hard to read. Gale Research Company, of Detroit, Michigan, publishes the most comprehensive guides to existing directories. These are Directories in Print; City and State Directories in Print; and International Directories in Print. These periodic publications, which succeed the Directory of Directories first published by Information Enterprises in 1980, are available at most public and university libraries. The current editions will, however, cover only those directories in print as of their own respective dates of publication. Their chief value for genealogical research is to provide current addresses and telephone numbers of publishing companies with directory libraries and the names and addresses of organizations for which directories may have been published in the past.


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