Tuesday, February 05, 2019

City Directories for Genealogy Research

by Mary Beth Newbill, Central Library, Southern History Department

If there was one source that could be used as a census substitute, proof of employment, evidence of marital history, or as a neighborhood analysis you would be crazy not to use it, right? Good news! City directories can do all this and more. If you’re not already consulting them regularly for your genealogy or local history research, run to the Central Library’s Southern History Department and check out our nearly comprehensive collection of Birmingham directories.

I often tell patrons that city directories are like telephone books, only with much more information. While both city directories and phone books list residents alphabetically by last name and give their addresses and phone numbers, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Phone books don’t offer any additional information and, by definition, were not published until the widespread adoption of the telephone. City directories, on the other hand, were first published in the late 1700s. The earliest directory for Birmingham is 1883. Cities such as Mobile, Huntsville, and Montgomery have directories beginning in the early 19th century, well before the invention of the telephone.

A typical city directory entry lists the person’s name, marital status (or name of their spouse, either living or deceased), occupation or employer, and their address. Younger children are not listed, but if older children are living in the household, they may have their own listing. If they are in school, their occupation will be listed as “student.” While each individual listing is helpful, the ability to trace a person or family over several decades increases their value exponentially.

Follow the examples below to see how one family changes over time, using just three city directories. Each new entry offers clues and leads to different sources such as marriage licenses, census records, death certificates, and tombstone listings that can be used to create a fuller picture of this family.

The first entry is for Anton Spraul in 1897. He worked as a brick mason and lived at 3503 Avenue G. He was unmarried.


Here is an entry from 1910 showing Anton A. Spraul now married to Carrie J.


The final entry from 1935 shows Carrie J. Spraul as the widow of Anton Spraul. Her son Vincent lives at the same address.


Birmingham city directories are available in the Southern History Department at the Central Library. Directories for Birmingham and many other cities nationwide have been digitized and can be accessed using the library’s subscription to Ancestry.com. Also check out the holdings at the Alabama Department of Archives and History and the Library of Congress.

It’s hard to do justice to city directories in just one post. Keep an eye out for a future post about how you can use them to research a business, the history of your house, and more! In the meantime, here is a great article from the New York Public Library about the history of and uses for city directories.

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