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Skillbuilding: Analyzing City Directories


From OnBoard - Newsletter of the BCG
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Kathleen W. Hinckley, "Analyzing City Directories," OnBoard 2 (May 1996): 16.

City directories are similar to telephone directories. If used skillfully, however, they can reveal a great deal more. By way of example, compare the following entries for directories published five years apart in the same urban area:

1894

1899

Richey Eliza J Mrs, tailoress,
    r3329 Larimer
Richey Franklin A,
    r3329 Larimer
Richey George W, laundryman Superior Hand Laundry,
    r1926 Curtis
Richey Lafayette DeM, trunkmkr G W Fuller,
    r3567 Downing av
Richey Wilbur W, mgr Charles Smart,
    r624 25th av
Richey William J, paper hanger,
    r800 11th av W
Richey WH, cigars, r28,
    1643 Champa
Richey Alpha J, washer New Home Laundry
    r1426 28th
Richey Eliza J Mrs, tailoress
    r3567 Downing av
Richey Frank A, conductor,
    r3567 Downing av
Richey Lafayette D, fireman B&MRR,
    r3920 Gallup av
Richey Mary J Mrs, ironer New Home Laundry,
    r1426 28th
Richey Wilbur W, bkkpr Western Bank
    Arapahoe nw cor 17th
Richey W H, asst B R Hall
    1625 Stout

 

Analyze Residential Patterns

When the data is regrouped by residences and compared across multiple years, relationships can be spotlighted that are not evident in any single year. For example:

1894  
3329 Larimer Richey Eliza J Mrs
Richey Franklin A
1926 Curtis Richey George W
3567 Downing Richey Lafayette DeM
1899  
1426 28th: Richey Alpha J.
Richey Mary J Mrs.
3567 Downing Richey Eliza J
Richey Frank A
3920 Gallup Richey Lafayette D

If a researcher merely extracted the data for Lafayette D Richey and took no note of other Richeys, then a good clue to kinships would be missed. Although Lafayette is not in the household with Frank and Eliza J Richey in any year, all lived at 3567 Downing in one year or the other. There is surely a connection.

Compare Given Names

The rendition of a name may vary from year to year. Frank A Richey of 1899 is listed as Franklin A Richey in 1894. Lafayette D Richey of 1899 is Lafayette DeM in 1894, giving the researcher new clues or better identifiers.

Study Employees

Once individuals have been located in a city directory, it is important to follow up with research on their employers. In 1899, for example:

  • Lafayette is "fireman B&MRR." Business listings in the directory identify B&MRR as the Burlington & Missouri Railroad.

  • W. H. Richey is "asst B R Hall." Going to the Hall listings in the city directory, one finds this man identified as an undertaker and embalmer.

This occupational data can open up new sources of records (railroad, funeral home, etc.) and can help to prove relationships or separate the identities of persons with the same names or initials.

Identify Neighbors
& Glean Ownership Data

Most directories also have cross indexing by streets-i.e., householder or crisscross directories. Streets are listed alphabetically and numerically, with family head or business named for each address. Checking these will identify neighbors. Crisscross directories also reveal whether the resident is a tenant or homeowner. In the latter case, real-estate records will be a follow-up source.

Check General Matter

City directories also list names and addresses of asylums, cemeteries, churches, fraternal organizations, hospitals, insurance companies, newspapers, railroads, and schools. City maps, with ward boundaries, are sometimes included. When the names of a street changed, the next year's directory listed the change-an important aid when trying to prove that a family is the same family despite a different address.

Sometimes an addenda lists persons whose entries were "too late for insertion" or lists deaths in an epidemic year. Directories for smaller communities often give individual dates of death and names children with years of birth.

Cite Directory Fully

Full citations, including the names of publishers, can be critical. Some cities have more than one directory per year, published by different companies.

In short, directories offer a wide range of vital clues to the researcher who carefully studies them - line by line, page by page, and year by year!

Kathleen W. Hinckley, CGRS

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG's educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.



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