Friday, June 8, 2012

City Directories: A Gem for Researchers

Advertisement for A. Dillenbeck & Company grocers from 1885 city directory.

City directories provide a snapshot of a community in a given year. Directories can be a goldmine of information for people conducting genealogical and biographical research, tracing the history of their house, exploring the history of a neighborhood or ethnic community, charting city growth, examining economic changes, or generally seeking to understand local history.

This advertisement for Eddie Bergeron's Garage on State Street from the 1931 city directory features a photograph of the "Miss Schenectady" tow truck. Photographs began being used in directory advertisements around the turn of the century.  

While the content included in city directories has varied over the years, the basic kinds of information that they include is generally the same. The alphabetical section generally includes names of adults, their home and business addresses, and occupations. Occupational information helps researchers in tracing a person's work history, determine whether workers lived close to their jobs, and identify common occupations and employers.

Page from alphabetical section of 1841 city directory. The names of African-American residents are italicized, making it easier to identify members of Schenectady's black community during that time.

City directories also include information about businesses (including advertisements), city government, public buildings, religious institutions, schools, religious and ethnic organizations, and clubs. Directories include lists of extant streets and where streets run from and to. Directories also provide information about the nature of a person's residence - whether the residents of a property owned their home, rented, or boarded.

Advertisement for the Westinghouse Company in 1982 city directory. Directories include many advertisements for local businesses and industries.  
Directories focused primarily on the city itself, although some directories include lists of rural residents. If a directory includes rural areas, the listings are in a separate section near the end of the volume, arranged by town name; the rural directories are a bit simpler, usually only listing the names of residents and occasionally an occupation. In the twentieth century, the city directory usually included the village of Scotia in a separate section at the end of the volume. Suburban directories, which included Glenville, Rotterdam, and Niskayuna, were issued sporadically throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Beginning in the 1890s, city directories began to include street maps. These maps, issued each year along with a new edition of the directory, show new streets and the growth of the city year by year, and provide a representation of newly-developed areas that might not be represented by other maps, such as Sanborn fire insurance maps.

Schenectady city directories added another useful feature in 1930; in addition to the alphabetical listing of names, a directory arranged by street number is included. This allows researchers to identify neighbors and communities at a glance. The cross-street location information is also helps to determine whether a person listed as living in one address, then at another, moved or if the street name and/or number changed.

Page from the portion of the 1931 city directory arranged by street number.

Before 1940, women's names were included in city directories only if they were single, widowed, or employed. Beginning in 1940, wives were listed parenthetically following their husband's name. This is a boon for researchers seeking the name of a man's wife who didn't work outside the home -- most married women during the period -- but this practice also omitted information about the occupation of employed wives.

Our library has consistent holdings of directories from 1860 through 1968. A complete list of directories in our holdings can be found here. The list of city directories includes information about other localities included in the directory and whether we have a paper copy or microfilm copy. The earliest Schenectady city directory in our holdings dates from 1841, and the most recent is dated 1984. If you are interested in the history of Schenectady from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, directories can be a valuable research tool. Please feel free to call or email the librarian or visit our library to learn more about the information contained in city directories and how to use them.

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