A couple of weeks ago, I presented “Reading Between the Lines of the City Directory” for the Chicago Genealogical Society’s monthly meeting. I was pleased that they enjoyed it enough to post a video collage. This included photographs from the meeting interspersed with video clips of my presentation. If you haven’t seen it already, you might want to check it out:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxVP4TFKD0s&feature=youtu.be

While the talk is relevant to city directory research anywhere in the United States, many of my examples draw from Chicago directories. Besides looking up people’s names in the directories, you may also use them to learn about the city where those people lived. I especially love to see the pictures of buildings. For example, here is the J. Tear City and Ship Smith Shop (you must be careful when you say that really fast):

chicago-city-directory-1855-6-p-unknown-photo-of-business.jpgChicago City Directory and Business Advertiser (Chicago: Robert Fergus, Book and Job Printer, 1855), general information section; digital image, “City Directories for Chicago, Illinois” Fold3 (http://www.fold3.com :  accessed June 2017).

I’ll show you a couple of examples here that demonstrate how to use city directories in your research.

George Teeling of Chicago married a widow, Mrs. Mary Skeehan, in 1855. I had no idea who Mary’s former husband was. Obviously, I knew his last name. The Great Chicago Fire in 1871 destroyed many resources. There were no civil death records available. The Chicago Genealogical Society had published a book of early burials in Chicago. No candidate was found in that work.[1] The family was Catholic and, while the Catholic records do survive, the churches at that time did not maintain funeral records. Chicago city directories, however, are available. I searched for the surname Skeehan (or similar spelling) in the 1855 directory and found:

1855 skahan

This suggests that in 1855, Mary was already widowed and lived in a house on Polk between Halsted and Desplaines. It also suggests that her deceased husband’s name was James.[2] But when did he die? I turned to the 1854 directory and found:

1854 skahan

Now I know that James died sometime between the 1854 and 1855 canvasses of this area.[3] This is the closest that I have come to a death date for James. I’ll take it! You might also be asking how I know this is the correct Mrs. James Skeehan. I turned to later directories and found that George Teeling first appeared in a Chicago directory in 1859. His address was 206 W. Polk Street.[4] That address is between Halsted and Desplaines.[5] This adds evidence that Mrs. Mary Skeehan of the 1855 directory was also George’s wife.

I once worked on a case where my client wished to know the name of a great aunt’s husband. The client knew in what city the aunt had lived in the early 1950s and the name of the street, but not the address. Fortunately, city directories exist for the city in question. At that time, a wife’s name was usually listed with the husband’s in the directory. A reverse directory was also available at the back of each city directory. A reverse directory is ordered by street address and shows the head of household for that address. This enables one to quickly find the names of neighbors.

Armed with this information, it only took forty-five minutes to find the husband’s name. Starting in the reverse directory, I reviewed each household on the street in question. I looked up the head of household’s name in the normal directory to determine his wife’s name. I found only one candidate. I then used obituaries and other resources to verify that it was the correct person.

These are just a couple of ways that city directories can impact your research. If you want to explore this topic further, I have an Ancestry Academy course about this topic, “The City Directory: Your Guide to the Past.”

Here are some resources for finding city directories:

Online sources for City Directories

Brick and Mortar Locations

Related Reading Material

  • Remington, Gordon Lewis. “Research in Directories.” Loretto Dennis Szucs & Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, editors. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. revised edition. Salt Lake City: Ancestry Incorporated, 1997. Chap. 11, pp. 384-410.
  • Kathleen W. Hinckley. “Analyzing City Directories,” OnBoard (May 1996): 16.

I hope you find this information helpful. Happy Hunting!

[1] Chicago Cemetery Records, 1847–1863 (Chicago: Chicago Genealogical Society, 2008).

[2] Chicago City Directory and Business Advertiser (Chicago: Robert Fergus, Book and Job Printer, 1855), 132; digital image, “City Directories for Chicago, Illinois” Fold3 (http://www.fold3.com :  accessed June 2017).

[3] Hall & Co’s Chicago City Directory and Business Advertiser for 1854-55 (Chicago: Robert Fergus, 1854), 259; digital image, “City Directories for Chicago, Illinois” Fold3 (http://www.fold3.com :  accessed June 2017).

[4] D.B. Cooke and Co.’s Chicago City Directory for 1859-60 (Chicago: D.B. Cook & Co., 1859), 408; digital image, “City Directories for Chicago, Illinois” Fold3 (http://www.fold3.com :  accessed June 2017).

[5] Chicago City Directory for the Year Ending May 1, 1860 (Chicago: Smith and DuMoulin, 1860), 27; digital image, “City Directories for Chicago, Illinois” Fold3 (http://www.fold3.com :  accessed June 2017).

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