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What is a city directory?
Before the modern phone book, many cities and towns published alphabetical directories of their residents. These publications contain lists of names and addresses of most adults and businesses in the town. They often contain the names of husband and wife, and in some cases even include references to spouses no longer living, such as "Brown, Ellen, widow of Samuel."
Most directories list a resident's occupation and employer as well. In such cases, one could map out the commutes for the employees of a particular establishment.
Some examples of the important and unique information found in city directories are given in "The wealth of information" section below.
How to use city directories
City directories at Fold3 are featured in two categories: Miscellaneous, which include small town directories in five of the six New England states. And the primary category "City Directories," which includes directories for thirty large metropolitan centers in twenty states. While all city directories share many of the same features, the directories for large cities are primarily covered in this description.
City directories are organized on Fold3 as follows:
- alphabetically by state,
- then alphabetically by city,
- then chronologically by year of publication,
- then alphabetically by last name, with only the name listed at the top of each page showing in the browse menu.
If you are looking for a particular name, use the search mode. But failing that, browse to the state and town in which you're looking for someone. Then search within the browse menu, or simply browse through the list of names printed at the top of each page until you find the correct page to review. It's a little like flipping through a phone book, glancing only at the names in the top corner until you get to the section of the alphabet you're looking for.
Check supplementary listings
Shown above is an image of a page of "supplementary" names. These are names added after the directory was ready to go to press. "Names too late for regular insertion, changes in location, etc." It is always a good idea to check these pages for people you expect to find in the directory but aren't able to.
When doing a search, there are times when the name you enter in the search box takes you to a page where that name is not highlighted. For example, if you search for "Dilling" within city directories, two of the results you see include one for Edmund Coulson in the Berlin, Massachusetts, 1911 directory, and another for Charles W. Campbell in the Bolton, Massachusetts, 1911 directory.
Coulson and Campbell are the names listed at the top of each pertinent page, and therefore the correct headers of the pages you need to look at (like the names in the top corners of the phone book). Zoom in on the page images and pan down to Dilling (after all, D follows C in an alphabetical listing). You'll find in the Berlin directory, that Antoine Dilling removed to Clinton and that Mrs. Elizabeth Dilling lives on McPherson Road. In Bolton, you'll find Anton Dilling residing on Balville Street.
For help in deciphering abbreviations, see the article below on "Abbreviations used in city directories."
Organization of records
You'll notice that some of the city directories have a title page listing other towns included in the publication. At Fold3, the towns have been divided under each particular town's heading. As an example, in the Newton, New Hampshire, 1912-13 city directory, the cover page states that it includes Newton, Kingston, East Kingston, and Plaistow, all adjacent towns in Rockingham County. Yet those towns won't be found in that menu under "Newton." They've been separated out. Instead, you'll want to look under "Kingston," "East Kingston," and "Plaistow" as they appear in the browse menu for New Hampshire cities.
If you see a town noted on one directory's cover, look through the browse index for that town's subsection, as it has already been broken out by Fold3 so you can more easily locate the town information you seek.
There are instances where a business directory of one city will be included in another city's residence directory. As an example of this, see the Salem, Massachusetts, 1861 directory with listings for businesses in Danvers.
Abbreviations used in city directories
Abbreviations in city directories are fairly easy to figure out, and pretty standard across the country. You will usually find a list of abbreviations included with the directory, typically toward the front of the publication.
Shown here, are examples of lists of abbreviations used in two different city directories - Newport, New Hampshire, in 1909; and Bangor, Maine, in 1871-72.
Although some publishers or communities have unique designations for their lists, you can usually count on the following to describe the location of a residence:
- h. - house
- bds. - boards
- opp. - opposite
- r. -rear
- c. or cor. - corner
- blk. - block
- wf. - wharf [you're unlikely to encounter this abbreviation in, say, a Phoenix directory]
- n. - near
- sq. - square
- pl. - place
- ct. - court
- av. - avenue
- bet. - between
Note that "st." is usually not used to designate "street." When a street name is not followed by abbreviations for avenue, court, place, etc., it is safe to assume that it is a "street."
Particular to the Bangor directory are such abbreviations as "E. M. sq." for "East Market Square," "H. & E. iron works" for "Hinckley & Egery iron works," and "M.C.R.R." for "Maine Central Railroad."
In the Newport directory, there is a unique listing of "sum. res." for "summer residence." In addition, there are abbreviations included for occupations, most of which are standard in other 20th-century city directories. These include:
- agt. - agent
- carp. - carpenter
- lab. - laborer
- pres. - president
- prop. - proprietor
- sec. - secretary
The wealth of information
City directories contain terrific clues for anyone researching a particular person or family. You'll not only find addresses, relationships, and employment, but also death information and relocation information.
Each listing is a snapshot of a community. View the attached images for clues to people's interests and lives.
- Chase Pascal E dog fancier h Stow road
- Bigelow George, watchman, 69, died April 14, 1901
Sarah W., 70, died October 16, 1901
- Bishop Etta M., widow of Fred A., house 24 Emmons
William, moved to East Boston, Mass.
- On the same page is Charles A. Blaisell, a reporter for the Milford Journal, and Gilbert M. Billings, the publisher and proprietor of the Milford Gazette.
- Ransom Harold L., student (Dartmouth), home Union ct