Using City Directories in Your Research

    I’ve returned to my blog after a long hiatus. Actually, I was finishing up work on family history books for my mother’s family. I had been working on these books for the past few years and I am relieved to have finally finished. Don’t get me wrong. Working on these books was very rewarding. I uncovered a lot of information about my ancestors and it took a while to put all that research into one book.

    Finding the details of your ancestor’s life is what makes a family history worth reading versus just having names, birth dates and death dates. The more information that you can mine the more your story will come to life. 

    In today’s blog post I would like to discuss the importance of using city directories, which are often overlooked by new family researchers. These directories are an important tool for locating relatives, confirming death information and adding interesting details to your ancestor’s lives. More specifically, I will focus on how these directories can provide details on the lives of ancestors when other sources are not available. Now, newspapers are a great way to find information as well, but not all of our ancestors received press coverage.

    For example, Maggie Axt Altenbrant was my second great grandmother. Our family didn’t have much information about her other than she was Freda Altenbrant’s mother and that Maggie died when she was about 34 years old. Freda, barely a teenager, was the oldest child and had to take care of her four younger siblings after her mother’s death. 

    According to the 1892 Camden, New Jersey City Directory Maggie was operating a confectionary business at Federal above 21st Street and by 1893 Maggie was listed as a housekeeper at the same address. Maggie’s husband, Henry, was gainfully employed and Maggie’s mother and stepfather were quite wealthy. I am guessing that Maggie didn’t have to work. She also had four young children at the time (the fifth child was born later). It seems that Maggie operated a confectionary business because she wanted to do so. I find it interesting that she was an entrepreneur in the early 1890s. This is information that I would not have were it not for the Camden City Directory and it gives us a little more detail about the life of Maggie.

    Here is another example: John Martin was my third great grandfather. He was born sometime around 1831 and immigrated to America from Ireland sometime around 1850 during the Potato Famine. Very little is known about John and the little bit of information that we have on him is derived from his census reports. His 1860 census report revealed that he was living in the 22nd Ward of Philadelphia (Germantown) with his wife and several children and working as a gardener. By 1870, John was employed as a laborer and in 1880 he was working as a sugar refiner. Changing jobs every ten years doesn’t seem so unreasonable, does it? There is no 1890 census report for the state of Pennsylvania due to a fire at the Commerce Department Building in January of 1921. I tracked John and his children in the Philadelphia City Directories from 1881 through the early 1900s. And guess what? John changed occupations practically every single year throughout the 1880s. In 1883 he was a gardener, a laborer in 1884, a barber in 1885 and a cutter (stone) in 1886. This gives us a lot more information about John and his situation. He was probably very poor and needed to change jobs frequently or perhaps he got bored easily and was on the constant lookout for new challenges. Either way, the Philadelphia City Directories has provided us with more information than we would have had using the census reports alone. 

    Another example is my second great grandmother, Anna R. Fairbrothers Orem. Anna was married with several children according to her 1880 US census report and her occupation was listed as “keeping house”. We know that she was a busy mom living in the city of Camden, but that is about all. Here is where the city directories are helpful once again. The 1887 Camden City Directory listed Anna as a dressmaker living at Pleasant near 2nd in the Cramer Hill section of the city. This one little detail has provided me with more of a story about Anna for the family history books.

    Now, let’s discuss where to locate these directories. Ancestry.com has directories available for many cities and towns, but you have to find which years are available for your desired location. Internet Archive is another fantastic resource for city directories, and it is free!  Just visit https://archive.org/.  For example, Ancestry’s collection of Philadelphia City Directories starts with the year 1861, but Internet Archive’s collection of city directories for Philadelphia starts with the year 1795. My advice is to do an internet search for your city. Let’s say I want to find directories for the city of Baltimore. I just type in “Baltimore City Directories” in a Google search and the list of available sources appears. Many of these sources are free of charge.

    I hope this article has inspired you to look for information on your ancestors in different ways. 

    In the meantime, please feel free to contact me with any comments or upcoming blog suggestions at mail@dawnharvey.com






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