|Shelf of directories at Los Angeles Public Library|
City directories were first printed in London as early as 1595 and Paris in 1691. The first city directory in the United States was published in 1785 in Philadelphia. By the mid to late 1800s they became more commonplace in the United States. The book Development and Growth of City Directories by A.V. Williams, available on Google Books, provides information about city, including European cities, directories and when they first started being printed and by whom.
City directories provide an alphabetical list of names of those in a community and were often published annually. At the very least, city directories provide an address for a person but they may also supply a woman’s marital status (listing her as a widow) and an occupation. They serve as a great way to reconstruct her community with information about local churches, organizations, businesses, and community members. Make sure that you read the beginning of the directory you are searching for a key to abbreviations used as well as any historical information provided.
For my paternal great-grandmother, the city directory provides her occupation when the US census simply lists her with the all too common female description "housewife."
Use city directories to follow your female ancestor through time. But be aware that you may not find a woman in a city directory if only the head of household is named or if she is still living with her parents. Don’t assume that a disappearance from the directory means she died. Remember that moving or remarriage may cause her to not be listed in the directory or not in the place where you expect her to be. City directories can be a hit or miss proposition for female ancestors.
So now that you want to look up some female ancestors in city directories, where do you go? City directories can be found online and off. For an index of directories, check out Online Historical Directories created and maintained by geneablogger Miriam Robbins of the AnceStories blog. Here you will find links to free and fee based websites with directories for the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada.
Portal websites may also provide you with links to directories online. Consult Cyndi’s List and Linkpendium, a directory of over 10 million genealogy links, for listings for directories.
Search free digitized book websites like Google Books, Internet Archive, and Hathi Trust. For the website Internet Archive, various options for finding city directories exist including the Genealogy Collection found by clicking from the homepage on Texts>Additional Collections>Genealogy.
Ancestry.com has a large city directory collection for the United States (U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989) and for Canada (Canada, City and Area Directories, 1819-1906 ) both found in their collection entitled Schools, Directories & Church Histories . Many other websites, whether genealogical or historical in nature, have city directories. It’s a good idea to use a search engine to find additional city directories for your area of interest.
City directories can be found offline in public, academic, and genealogically related libraries like FamilySearch. Search the individual library’s online catalog or use the website WorldCat.
FamilySearch Wiki - United States Directories
FamilySearch Wiki - City Directories
Shea, Ammon. The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses but No One Reads. New York: Perigee Book, 2010.