The novice book buyer, collector and seller can easily dismiss these rather unattractive books with advertisements printed on the covers and crammed with mundane and seemingly boring information about a particular city in a particular year.
The heyday of city directories was from the late 1800s through the late 1900s. However, in his book The Development and Growth of City Directories, published in 1913, A. V. Williams says the first city directory appeared in London in 1640.
A look inside a city directory reveals valuable information. For example, the 1932 City Directory of Schenectady, NY lists every adult resident of the city in alphabetical order. But that’s not all. It also records their street address, their occupation and the company they worked for. It tells you if someone was a homemaker, student, widow or retiree. It tells you if people were homeowners, often lists their children and gives their phone number if they had one.
In the above directory, you will find a listing for the famous scientist, Charles Proteus Steinmetz. Of course, one can find all kinds of information about Steinmetz elsewhere. But what if your ancestor or the person you are doing historical research on was poor and unknown? He or she would have left less of a paper trail than the more well off. City directories are one means of tracking a person down and finding some information about him or her. They are also useful in verifying genealogical information gathered from other sources (e.g. the census).
In another section of a city directory, every street in the city is listed in alphabetical order, followed by every house in numerical order, a list of who lived in the house, who owned it and, if it was a commercial address, the name of the business located there.
A city directory also contains a business directory, much like the yellow pages of a phone book. Some businesses purchased ads in the directories and in some directories you will find photographs of buildings or even an aerial photograph of the city. These photographs can be difficult to obtain elsewhere, particularly if a building was demolished. Many directories include valuable fold-out maps of the city. Unfortunately, sometimes the maps are missing.
When you gather together all of the information presented in a city directory for a given year, you have the ability to re-create that city. This is not only useful for historians, but also for writers. I was able to supply two Amsterdam, NY city directories for a writer who was writing a murder mystery based on a crime and trial that took place in the 1930s. Even though he was writing fiction, he wanted the historical context and content to be accurate.
There were numerous companies in the United States which collected data and published city directories. In 1913 the Association of American Directory Publishers had 40 members. Competition between these companies could be fierce. The Association’s newsletter, the Directory Bulletin, which began publication in 1901, is filled with stories of feuding companies, pirated directories and con men collecting money in advance but not producing directories.
City directories are not just important for individual collectors but are a must for local historical societies, museums, libraries and archives. They contain information unobtainable or difficult to obtain elsewhere. Some of the above institutions understand the value of these directories and try to purchase as many of them as they can. There is added value in having the ability to examine a run of these books, rather than a single year in isolation. You can track the growth of a community or its decline. You can track ancestors or people you are researching for historical purposes over the entire time they lived in a particular city. You can see their work history, when they changed residences, whether they owned a house or rented, who lived with them and when they moved from the city.
Every city directory is a time capsule or snapshot of a community during a particular year. When city directories were published, they were meant to be ephemeral. When a new directory was issued, the old was meant to be discarded. Historians, genealogists, writers and others have benefited from those people who found it difficult to throw them away. City directories are anything but ephemeral; they are invaluable permanent links to our past.