US Census Records are essential records used in genealogical research. They are a treasure trove of information; however, they come out only once every ten years leaving huge gaps. With the 1890 census having lost so many records in a fire, often there is a twenty-year gap in our family research. Don’t overlook city directories as a potential source to fill in those gaps.
Many cities and counties have had directories published over the years.
They were created for salespeople and merchants to be able to contact businesses and individuals. Every publisher had their format for information they presented, but if you find one that includes your ancestor, it can be the source for new information.
Typically, city directories give the name and address of the head of the household. Often they give the wife’s name, usually in parenthesis, and sometimes the names of adult children living at the same address. They also typically provide the occupation of the individual. Sometimes there is a reverse directory included which goes by street address and contains the names of the individuals living there. Always look for your ancestor in the name section, the business section, and, if included, the reverse directory to see who else might live at the address.
Sometimes a directory can provide an answer to a question or clarify what was happening. As an example, for many years I thought a great-grandmother of mine moved from one address to another on the same street. I thought it was odd, but not unheard of before. A city directory revealed that they renumbered the street one year. The neighbors stayed the same, but the numbers changed for all of them.
Directories often show maps, street name changes, addresses of businesses, churches, schools, cemeteries, post offices, hospitals, newspapers and the like. Some will give a history of the city as well as the names of elected officials.
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Another significant bit of information often given is if a person is a widow. That can be key to narrowing down the year of someone’s death and provides a “died before” date. In some occasions, the city directory may even list marriages, and deaths, including date, during the previous year.
Google Books is always worth a quick look to see if they have a directory you need. Go to books.google.com and then enter in the search box: City Directory [city of interest]. You may be surprised at what is available online. I noted the 1850-51 City Directory for Portland, ME, was available as a free eBook.
Probably better than Google Books is Google’s US Online Historical Directories site. A click on “Maine” shows that eight of the 16 counties have directories online and that seven Portland City Directories are available online. Five of those directories are accessible through Don’s List, which is one of my favorite online sources for information. Check them out at: (www.donlist.net).
Another excellent source for directories is the Internet Archive (www.archive.org) and has Many Maine directories. A quick search of Directory Maine yielded 257 results including directories for Lewiston, Casco Bay, Bangor, and Portland.
One of the best sources for Directories is Family Search. After logging in, select Search – Catalog. Then under titles, enter Directory and State. For “Directory Maine” there are 64 results returned. Be sure to look at the available directories closely. There is a directory for “Greater Portland” and directories for “Portland” which are separated by quite a bit. Many of the directories are still only available on microfilm at various libraries but pay attention to them as they are likely to become available online soon.
Of course, Ancestry has many directories available with a subscription. A search for “Directory” in the title with a keyword of “Maine” yielded 27 results. Several of them were city directories.
Many libraries and historical societies have city directories in their possession. It is always worth an email or telephone call to find out if a library has a city directory. Often, they will do a look-up for you without charge or for a small fee. Occasionally the directories have been microfilmed so be sure to speak with a reference librarian who knows the various collections available on microfilm. Sometime those resources may be ordered via interlibrary loan.
Scarborough Historical Society & Museum Collection
The Scarborough Museum has a small collection of city directories of Portland, including the following:
- 1942 – Thomas Henley – K11
- 1952 – Thomas Henley – K11
- 1956 – (Upstairs Archive)
- 1963 – Thomas Henley – K04
- 1965 – Thomas Henley – K12
- 1970 – Thomas Henley – K12
- 1975 – Thomas Henley – K12
- 1977 – Thomas Henley – K12
These directories are available for members to use at the museum for research. If you cannot make it to the museum, the Genealogy Volunteers will be happy to look up a couple of names for you. Just let them know the surname and the year.
Of course, if you have a Greater Portland city directory, or another directory that includes Scarborough, please consider donating it to the museum. We would be extremely pleased to add it to our collection.
Other Public Collections
The Scarborough Public Library also has many city directories including Greater Portland & Surrounding Communities from 1960 thru to the current 2019 directory.
The South Portland Historical Society also has many city directories, plus it is a great museum to visit. Check it out.
Finally, both the Maine Historical Society in Portland and the Maine State Library in Augusta have substantial collections of interest to genealogists that include many city directories. Either are great resources.
- I am a volunteer at the Scarborough Historical Society and Museum. I am using it in this article as an example of what might be available at any local historical society.