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A History of City Directories in the United States and New York City
Before the telephone directory, there was the city directory, a book that listed the names, addresses, professions, and in some cases ethnicity, of people in a particular town or city. Many of these directories have been digitized for your perusal, or are available on microfilm, all at the New York Public Library.
In New York City, city directories were printed between 1786 and 1934: the first telephone books began to appear in the late 1870s. Both forms of directory are interesting to researchers, historians and genealogists alike, for a number of reasons, not least because, like a census, directories tie an individual to a certain location at a particular point in time. Historical city directories are even more useful as a research tools than early telephone directories, because they are more inclusive: you don't need a telephone to be in a city directory. In addition to this, city directories offer up many more historical details. This post describes the history of city directories, how they might be useful to your research, and where you will find them at the New York Public Library.
Writing in the Bibliography of American Directories through 1860, Dorothea Spear suggests that the first directory was The Companyes of all the Craftes or Mysteries of London, a manuscript compiled by the Treasury of the Receipt of the Exchequer, in 1588. Edward Salisbury, writing in 1893, suggested that the list was compiled because the then Mayor of London, Sir Richard Gresham, was alarmed by the City's lack of preparedness for domestic or international conflict. He wanted to be able to estimate the cost of providing armor and armaments to all of the Freemen of London, and to compel them to arm themselves. To do this, a directory would be compiled with "all the names of the members of the City "occupations' or livery companies, in order that the names and addresses of the freemen would be on record. Salisbury argues that an Act of Parliament, passed at Westminster on 16th January, 1641-2, provided for "the appointment of "commissioners to see that the inhabitants of cities and boroughs were properly provided with arms, etc," and that the directory of City Companies enabled the commissioners to ensure that "at least the liverymen and freemen of those Companies were no longer "ill provided with harness [arms and armor]."" (p.40-41).
The first print directory, eight pages long, is thought to be The Names of all Suche Gentlemen of Acompte as Were Residing within the Citie of London, Liberties and Suburbs, printed in 1595. The first substantial directory was The Inhabitants of London in 1638, which lists the names of individuals in 93 out of the 107 parishes in the City of London, although this directory is again in manuscript form. The oldest surviving printed directory is A Collection of the Names of Merchants Living In and about The City of London, printed for Samuel Lee in that city, in 1677. Lee's directory appeared some 12 years after the manuscript directory A Directory for the City of New York in 1665, compiled shortly after the British colonized New Amsterdam; the first known directory in what was to become the United States of America.
1752 saw the creation of the "first [printed] directory-type listing of inhabitants of an American city" (Spear, p.5), a broadside listing of English families in Baltimore, Maryland titled The Following List of Families and Other Persons Residing in the Town of Baltimore, Was Taken in the Year 1752, by a Lady of Respectability. An article from the August 28th, 1849 edition of the Baltimore Sun, suggests that the broadside may have been printed later (it lists events from 1756, which tends to support this assumption), and was actually only ever a manuscript, in the possession of one Joseph Townsend. The directory, nevertheless, describes Baltimore in colonial times, when the town, founded some 20 odd years before, had only 25 houses (see below for a c.1860 rendering from the Library's Digital Gallery).
The Baltimore directory does not identify the Lady of Respectability, but researching the mostly male names listed reveals a few candidates. Baltimore County Families, 1659-1759 / Robert Barnes describes the men listed in the directory, and gives the names of female family members, one of whom may be the author. Perhaps the Lady of Respectability was Sarah (Gill) Rogers, married by 1736, died 1792, wife of first listed landowner William Rogers (1691-1761)? Maybe it was her sister-in-law Henrietta Maria (Jones) Rogers, born 1728, wife of Nicholas Rogers (1721-1758)? Dr. William Lyons, presumably the town doctor, was married to a Miss Grahame, and Bryan Philpot's wife Mary, or Mrs. Nicholas Buxton Gay the former Ms. Ann Lux, married in 1750, and the wife of another landowner Alexander Lawson (1710-1761), the former Dorothy Smith, are further candidates. The author may have been the midwife, Mrs. Hughes, or Nancy Low, the only two women actually listed in the directory. That information appears lost to time.
A tragic aside: we do know a little about Dorothy Lawson, we know that she lost three daughters, who fell through the ice, along with several other people, and drowned Christmas Eve, 1752. The children's demise was reported in newspapers as far away as Boston, often with a cautionary footnote about walking on frozen ponds attached: the names of the unfortunate daughters were not listed. City directories, as we have seen, record a mostly male history.
Asides from the South Carolina and Georgia Almanacks 1782 and '85, which included very limited directory lists for Charleston, the first separately printed directory for anywhere in the United States, was Macpherson's Directory for the City and Suburbs of Philadelphia, published November 16th, 1785. Philadelphia was then inundated with directories, as 13 days later, Francis White published the United States second ever city directory, the inferior Philadelphia Directory of November 29th.
The First City Directory in the United States
It is probably no coincidence that it is just two years after the end of the Revolutionary War that the first city directories in the United States begin to appear. It might be argued that directories began to appear not just because they were practical reference tools, but also because the citizens of the new country desired to identify themselves, by name: this seems especially relevant in New York City, post the British evacuation in November, 1783. Students of American Literature might ponder that question. Perhaps also, it is no coincidence that the first directory was produced by an individual caught up in the fight for independence, a man of action, and letters.
Captain John Macpherson (1726-1792) leaves a not inconsiderable legacy. Born in Edinburgh, the nephew of Lachlan Macpherson, the 17th Chief of the Clan Macpherson, he served as a privateer for the British, during the Seven Years War (1754-1763), commanding the warship Britannia. For his services he lost an arm, but gained a fortune, which he used to build a mansion, named Mount Pleasant, which stands today, a historic building in Philadelphia, Pa.. During the Revolutionary War Macpherson sided with the patriots, paying for the construction of five man-o-war battleships, which he donated to the Pennsylvania Navy, and he applied to the Continental Congress for command of the Continental Navy, though his application was not successful. He next submitted a plan to George Washington, to destroy the British Navy in Boston harbor, with the Congress's approval, but his plan was rejected. Macpherson later claimed to have infiltrated Hessian lines at Trenton, from where he sent back information vital to Washington's success there. The war was to claim his eldest son John, who died fighting in Quebec.
After the war Macpherson spent the rest of his life involved in a startling variety of projects. He lectured on astronomy and natural sciences; set himself up as a broker, buying and selling almost anything, including ships, produce, and, sadly, slaves; he wrote plays and pamphlets, patented a number of inventions (none very useful), and published the first US trade paper, the Price-Current. Macpherson seems to have not been an unassuming character, becoming embroiled in a number of heated debates with other prominent Philadelphians, getting so excited that he was at one point institutionalized for 3 months, charged with insanity: his wife seems to have successfully campaigned to clear his name.
On April 14th, 1785, the Pennsylvania Packet announced that
Mr. Macpherson has undertaken to number the houses, and publish a directory of the names of the inhabitants of this city. This, if properly executed, as we have no doubt it will, must prove of the utmost utility; and we recommend the undertaking to the encouragement of the public, as we recommend expedition to Mr. Macpherson. The charge for numbering each house, and furnishing a directory, is so low as half a dollar.
As with most public spirited enterprises, the price of the directory rose, for non-subscribers, to one dollar, because, as Macpherson announced in July, 1785, the directory would be "at least three times as large as he had expected; and his expense four times as much." As with many of the early compilers of city directories, like his New York contemporary, David Franks, Macpherson was not a publisher or printer by trade, rather he was a man of enterprise. It was not until the turn of the century that printers and publishers like David Longworth, John Doggett, and then John F. Trow would produce city directories.
Macpherson's directory is arranged alphabetically, and contains approximately 6,400 entries, arranged last name first, with street address and, where available, a house number. In addition, the directory contains a street directory showing the numbers of houses that were empty, or "inhabited by people that would not give their names." For its period, it is a very good directory. Francis White's Philadelphia Directory by comparison, is very sloppy, only arranged by the first letter (for instance, all names beginning with F are clumped together, but not in any order), with few, if any street numbers.
New York's City Directories
The first directory in New York City was The New-York Directory, published by David Carroll Franks in 1786: you can see versions of it at Google Books, or the Internet Archive, and you can read more about the directory itself here. Franks is a fairly obscure figure. He was born in Ireland, probably Dublin, in 1759, possibly to Thomas and Margery Franks. Franks Snr. is described in Franks' city directory as an "eminent attorney in Dublin," and Franks followed his father into the same profession, setting up first as a conveyancer and accountant, then as Attorney at Law, sometime after his arrival in New York, in the mid-1780s. The Daily Advertiser of May 28, 1786, lists the firm of Franks, & Co. as practicing at 24 Water Street, and his lodgings were at 66 Broadway, the address from which he issued his city directory.
Unfortunately, it seems that Franks' time in New York was not a great success. Despite publishing a second directory, in 1787, and advertising for subscriptions for a book, The American System of Arithmetic, and Book-Keeping, and his being listed as an attorney, witnessing two wills in 1786, (Abstracts of Wills on File in the Surrogate's Office, City of New York), Franks' book went unpublished, and his career faltered. By January 1788 he is described in the New-York Journal as an "insolvent debtor," his estate up for auction to pay off creditors. Then, Franks disappears. He does not feature in the 1789 New York City Directory, published by Hodge, Allan, and Campbell, nor is he listed as resident in New York City in the first United States Federal Census, of 1790, he does appear in the Index of Marriages and Deaths in New York Weekly museum, 1788-1817, nor in lists of vital or probate records. It should be noted, that compared to Macpherson's Philadelphia directory, Franks' effort is, sadly, a rather poor directory: names are arranged by first letter, sometimes by the first name, sometimes the second, and as noted, with many fewer entries, only 856 names from a population of over 24,000 people.
There was no New York City directory for 1788. The printers Hodge, Allen, and Campbell published directories, between 1789 and 1792, as did William Duncan, between 1792 and 1795. There then followed 45 editions of the The American Almanack, New-York Register, and City Directory, published by David and Thomas Longworth, between 1796 and 1843. The 1800 edition lists 10,200 people resident in New York City. Jackson's Encyclopedia of New York describe the directory as a listing of the "names, occupations, and addresses of the city's heads of households (mostly men), [...] homemakers (mostly widows, and women who owned businesses), and business partnerships, as well as lists of judges, politicians, ministers, and fraternal organizations." (p.257), and this stands as a good description in general of city directories throughout the 19th-century. Longworth's directories listed approximately one in five New Yorkers, against Franks' one in thirty, and were the first to include advertisements.
Publisher John Doggett Jnr. produced nine editions of Doggett's New-York City Directory, between 1841 and 1849, with additional editions published through 1851 in conjunction with the publisher Charles R. Rode. They are a fine directory, well printed, and full of useful historical information. One of the more interesting features of Doggett's 1845 & 1846 directory (containing the names of some 61,333 New Yorkers), is an entry titled "Removals, So far ascertained by the Great Fire, July 19th, 1845," an inventory of people caught up in the fire, by name and address, that includes information about what buildings were destroyed, and who was made homeless. The directory also features colored pages of advertisements, tipped into the directory, and was priced at 18 shillings.
Perhaps the most useful of Doggett's directories, is the New York City Street Directory, for 1851, priced $5, which, sadly for genealogists, and building historians alike, was the only edition produced. Sad because this directory is a rare example of a nineteenth century street directory, that lists people by address, and then name. If you want to know who lived in your house in 1851, or if you need a directory to help you search the 1850 Federal census by address, then this is an invaluable resource. Printed on long-lasting cotton paper, this directory is, unlike many of the wood pulp directories of later years, still in daily use in the Milstein Division. It should also be noted that the earliest example of a street directory for New York City available in the Milstein Division is Elliot's Improved New York Double Directory, from 1812. Published by William Elliot, this directory is actually two directories, one searchable by name, the other by address. Street, or address directories were not to become commonplace in New York until the late 1920s. Elliot's street directory is available on microfilm, or digitized through the database Early American Imprints, the location of many of the directories so far mentioned.
Born in Andover, Massachusetts, John Fowler Trow (1810-1886) was president of the Trow City Directory Company. His company published New York City directories beginning in 1852, for over 60 years, and his directories were the first to feature advertisements in the borders of their pages, an innovation brought on by a fall in advertising revenue during the Civil War. Trow died in 1886, shortly after the 100th anniversary of the publication of Franks' directory. The New York Times marked the occasion by comparing Trow's latest directory with the first. The Times noted that the 1886 Trow New York City Directory comprised 2,166 pages, and listed the names of 313,992 New Yorkers, from a population of 1,569,950 (again one fifth of the population).
Trow also published a seperate street directory, a directory of business partnerships, and a business directory. These were consolidated into a single directory in 1915, when Detroit directory publisher Ralph R. Polk, bought out Trow's publishing, though the directory continued to be issued under the name of Trow. With the advent of the telephone, and the telephone directory, the publication of New York City directories became sporadic, with patchy coverage through the 1920s, until the last directory, published by the Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee, appeared for the years 1933/34, in 1932. City directories continued to be published in places around the United States until as late as the 1960s.
City directories were intended to be used for a year, and then discarded. In the 21st century, these ephemeral tomes have become an invaluable primary resource, material that contains first-hand evidence of historical events, and of people and places. As such, directories are a boon to all sorts of research topic: below are just a few suggestions as to how city directories might be useful.
City directories help a family historian locate people in a place and time. They are also useful for:
- Searching censuses by address: if you are having difficulty finding a name listed, you might try to search the census by an address found in a city directory?
- Searching years between censuses: perhaps your ancestor lived in a city between censuses?
- Acting as a census substitute: the 1890 census was mostly lost in a fire in the 1920s: a city directory may be the only record of your ancestor at that time.
- Identifying a date of death: if you're finding it hard to locate a date of death, then browse through city directories: if your male ancestor's spouse is suddenly listed as a widow, then you'll have a fair idea of the date of death.
- Who else lived at an address: you can use a street directory to discover who else lived with your ancestor.
- Life changes – e.g. career changes over years: one year your ancestor is a plumber, the next he owns a hardware store.
- Verify other documents, e.g. the address on a WW1 Draft Card. Often in genealogy information in one document gains credibility when confirmed by information in another.
- Pointers to other documents / areas of research, e.g. the location of probate records, or property deeds. If you know where your ancestor was living, you might use that information to search of other records.
- Identifying the location of churches, schools, and fraternal organizations that your ancestor may have attended.
Researching a historic narrative
Perhaps you are researching a chapter for a novel set in the late eighteenth century, and you want your narrative to appear realistic. You are writing a scene where your character needs to get from New York to Philadelphia, in the summer of 1790. A city directory can help you make that scene historically accurate. In The New-York directory, and register, for the year 1790 we learn that
The New York and Philadelphia diligence [a stage coach also carrying mail] leaves the house of Mr. Smith at Paules-Hooke, every morning, from the 1st of May to the 1st of September, at nine o'clock; and from the 1st of November to the 1st of May, at ten o'clock every morning, except Saturday and Sunday. [...] The fare [...] is three dollars [...] 14lb baggage allowed gratis to each passenger. (pp.3-4)
You can even tell if it would have been light when the passenger began his journey, as most early city directories include the times for sunrise and sunset for the year.
Considering one might think of directories as purely textual, they can be a surprisingly rich source of images. City directories often contain, for instance, images of buildings, ostensibly places of business; shops, factories, and so forth. An illustration of the building was often included in advertisements, so that readers might not only learn the address of a business, but also what it looked like: a common feature of early advertising. Many of these buildings, especially in an area like New York City, are now long gone, and an image in a city directory may be the only one available.
City directories, and associated business directories, are also rich source of early advertising images, from simple text heavy ads describing in great detail services offered, through illustrations of goods and stores, to the early use of photography to sell a product.
Many early city directories double up as gazetteers, describing in great detail how a city worked, listing the names and addresses of local government institutions, the location of schools, hospitals, fraternal organizations, and churches, and the times for sunrise and sunset, stage coach and steam boat arrivals and departures, and street directories. Early directories often include a map, sometimes quite elaborate fold-out affairs. Shown below is Doggett's New York Business Directory (1846), with a particularly splendid example.
Business, Street and Elite Directories
In addition to the plethora of United States city directories available in one form or another from the New York Public Library, mention should also be made of the variant types of directory that appeared over the years. Some examples are:
Early city directories often included the names, addresses and professions of people, or perhaps combined separate business and residential listings. One of the first specialized business directories to arrange entries by the services offered, is The New Trade Directory for New‐York, anno 1800, available through the onsite database America's Historical Imprints. Two popular business directories for New York in the 19th and early 20th centuries were Trow Business Directory of the Boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx, City of New York (1848/49‐1909) and Phillips Classified Directory of Greater New York [...] (1879‐1958). Brooklyn, pre-unification, was covered by, amongst others, Lain and Healy’s Brooklyn and Long Island Business Directory (1874‐1894).
Directories that list people by address, rather than name, in New York City, are few and far between until the late 1920s. Doggett's New York City Street Directory, for 1851 and Elliot's Improved New York Double Directory (1812), are two, but they are not the only 19th-century directories searchable by address...
Elite directories, the Social Register being the most well know, list the names and addresses of the social elite, polite society, or the upper stratum: the elite. Regardless of what that actually means, some elite directories, such as the Brooklyn Blue Book, or Phillip's Elite Directory (1874-1908) are searchable by address, and as such are wonderful resources for establishing who lived at a given address. The 1891-92 edition of the latter features a red leather cover, pink pages, and gold trim, design details that perhaps suggest the directory's intended audience, implied by the title: Phillip's Elite Directory of Private Families and Ladies Visiting and Shopping Guide for New York City.
City Directories Available at the New York Public Library
Searching the catalog
City Directories can be found the catalog using the following subject terms:
[city] ([state]) – Commerce – Directories
e.g. New York (N.Y.) – Commerce – Directories
Elite directories: Social registers or keyword “elite directories.”
Digitized City Directories
Most United States city directories are available in one form or another, here at the New York Public library. Onsite, you can access digitized directories at the following databases.
Available onsite in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, this database features city directories, one for each year, for 30 major US cities, starting in 1785, and includes a selection of smaller city directories for locations in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. The directories are searchable by name, and browsable by year, and are a mix of city and business directories.
This popular genealogy database includes a selection of city directories, searchable by name, and by state, city, and date.
An invaluable resource for accessing late 18th- and early 19th-century American city directories. Though not indexed, these directories are generally small enough to be searched by browsing.
In addition to these resources, numerous city directories have been digitized by Google Books, and the Internet Archive, and by a number of libraries, museums, genealogy groups, and historical societies.
City Directories on Microfilm
Most city directories published in the United States, including some of the earliest efforts, Baltimore's The Following List of Families for instance, are available on microfiche and film in the Milstein Division (telephone directories are available from the Microform Reading Room). The two most important collections are:
City directories, from the earliest to 1860. Compiled from the collections of nearly 100 libraries in the United States, described in detail in Spear's Bibliography of American Directories through 1860 , and comprised of 6,292 microfiche.
City directories for most United States cities, from 1861 to 1965. Includes some business directories.
Primary Source Media has a very useful online page for searching exactly which cities and towns have microfilmed directories. Directories for smaller towns are often included / combined with bigger city directories: a search of this site will reveal where: simply set the Collection Titles to City Directories, and enter the location in the keyword search box.
Free City Directories Online
There are a number of city directories available free online, digitized by institutions like libraries, historical societies, museums and universities. Below is a selection.
New York County (Manhattan).
Frank’s The New York directory, 1786 : http://archive.org/details/cu31924080795390
Longworth's American almanack, 1797: http://archive.org/details/longworthsameric18256long
Longworth's American almanack, 1808: http://bit.ly/12nQRRW
Longworth's American almanack, 1816: http://archive.org/details/longworthsameric1839newy
Longworth's American almanack, 1827: http://bit.ly/W9rcsX
Longworth's American almanack, 1834: http://bit.ly/SjZ60q
Longworth's American almanack, 1837: http://bit.ly/W9qQTh
Doggett’s, 1845: http://bit.ly/nczXbF
Trow’s, 1865: http://bit.ly/UY8ohJ
Trow’s, 1872: http://bit.ly/TZhlX0
Brooklyn City Directories
Covering the years 1856-1908, digitized by Brooklyn Public Library: http://www.brooklynpubliclibrary.org/brooklyn-collection/digitized-brooklyn-city-directories
Some other digitized city directories
Below is a selection of city directories from the United States and elsewhere.
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Philadelphia City Directories Online, 1837-1867: http://bit.ly/YhE7NM
Colorado Springs, 1879-1922: http://ppgs.org/content/colorado-springs-city-directories
Historic Pittsburgh, City Directories, 1815-1945: http://bit.ly/Zdvchz
Oshkosh Online City Directories, 1857-1922: http://www.oshkoshpubliclibrary.org/citydirs.html
Cincinnati, Norwood, and Hamilton County city directories [1819-1941]: http://bit.ly/hO0ldv
Houston Public Library: Houston Area Digital Archives: city directories [e.g.1899]: http://bit.ly/UElwoH
University of North Carolina Library: Digital NC: Directory of Moore County : http://bit.ly/R2kpSF
Vancouver Public Library: British Columbia City Directories, 1860-1952: http://www.vpl.ca/bccd/index.php
Indiana University: Indiana city directories, 1858-1980: http://ulib.iupui.edu/digitalscholarship/collections/icd
Scottish Post Office Directories, 1773-1911: http://digital.nls.uk/directories/index.html
- Directories / Gordon L. Remmington from The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy / Eds. Szucs, Loretto Dennis & Luebking, Sandra Hargreaves (2006)
- Bibliography of American Directories through 1860 / Dorothea N. Spears (1960)
- City Directories of the United States Pre-1860-1901: Guide to the Microfilm Collection / Research Publications (1983)