Wednesday, December 7, 2016

City Directories: the Who, the How and the Why

By engraved by John C. Moss - [1],
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/
w/index.php?curid=44967267
If you want to learn about a city, a great source is the city directory. Even after doing some research with Chicago city directories, I realized that I didn’t know much about directories. I had three main questions:
  1. why were directories created
  2. who gave the information found in the directories
  3. who collected the information
I went to Familysearch.org and found the origin of directories:
“Directories were created for salesman, merchants and others interested in contacting residents of an area.” 
I read several web articles about directories in search of answers to the next two questions. A book I found on books.google, Critical Toponymies: The contested Politics of Place Naming, edited by Lawrence D. Bert and Jani Vuolteenaho revealed a great deal on the subject. Chapter 10 in the book, “Indexing the Great Ledger of the Community: Urban House Numbering, City Directories, and the Production of Spatial Legibility”  by Dr. Reuben Rose-Redwood  presents the history of city directories. On p. 208, Dr. Rose-Redwood answers the question of how the data is found:
“Although some directory compilers utilized tax assessment records to produce their directories, the majority of publishers hired a team of men to ‘canvass’ the city door-to-door, or did so themselves.”
  On the subject of who actually provided the information to the canvassers, the author gives us a glimpse into the sociology of the 1800s: 
“Although servants, women, and children were generally excluded from the city directory, they were ironically the main sources of the information that filled its pages.” p. 208
Heads of household were most likely in the workplace when canvassers were on the job. We can see the status of women clearly in this record of households, the humble city directory. Women were usually only listed if they were widows. 

Something I found very interesting about the process of collecting data for the directories is the fact that many people were very reluctant to answer the canvassers’ questions. Dr. Rose-Redwood addressed the reasons for this lack of cooperation from many members of the public in a quote from the Mobile Directory or Stranger’s Guide 1839, n.p.:
“Sometimes people would refuse to give their names fearing it would cause them to be taxed, or stand a draft in the militia, or for the jury.” p. 209
 In his book, Basics of Genealogy Reference: ALibrarian’s GuideJack Simpson  quotes R.H. Donnelly, editor of the Chicago city directory for 1892, who gives two other reasons behind people’s objections to parting with personal information:
“Others want their names left out on all manner of pleas. Divorce cases cause many people to request that their names be suppressed. This year, particularly, there were many who said they did not want their names to appear on account of the World’s Fair. They say they don’t want their cousins to find them in 1892.” p. 46
From these accounts, it is amazing so many households appear in the directories! The directory canvasser unfortunately did not have the government behind him as did the census taker!

https://www.census.gov/history/
www/sights_sounds/photos/
1850_photos.php#, The Census Taker

For more information on how city directories can help you in your research, a very helpful web article is City Directories  by Bryan L. Mulcahy, Reference Librarian for Fort Myers-Lee County, FLLibrary. Mr. Mulcahy discusses how directories are organized. But most helpful is the section where he alerts the researcher as to what can be gleaned from a directory and what one might infer from a particular listing.

With this background on city directories, we come to my experience with directory research. In a separate post, I will unveil the details of my project using the Chicago city directories from 1844-1880 as a source to track my target ancestor (paternal great grandfather John Carney/Kearney and great grandmother Mary Duffy) and seven cohort families. This is another effort to go through the back door, to coax data about my ancestor out of the few records I can find. In brief, I found a way to go beyond what one can normally get from a city directory: individual names, addresses, and occupations for one year. My strategy is this:
  1. Create a list of the families associated with your target ancestor.
  2. Decide on a span of years to use to track the whereabouts of these people.
  3. Create a spreadsheet to track addresses, changes in spelling of surnames, and occupations over time for your ancestor and the cohort families.
  4. Consult the target city directories for the years in your range and use the data to fill in the spreadsheet.
Below is a brief snapshot of the much larger spreadsheet. It shows a few of the cohort families who lived on the Near North Side for the period of 1844-1856. 

Carney/Kearney, Duffy and Cohorts in Chicago City Directories 1844-1856

Year
Last Name
Surname Spelling Variation
First Name
Occupation
Street #
Street
1844
Carney

William
sailor

Michigan bt Rush and Pine
1845
Carney

William
tailor

Mich Av bt State and 1st sts
1849-1850
Ward

Ebenezer
ship carpenter

Illinois, east of Pine
1849-1850
Ward

H.P.
clerk, Gurnee, Hayden & Co.s
86
Dearborn
1849-1850
Duffy

Mrs. Mary
laundress

Dearborn bt North Water and Kinzie
1849-1850
Carney

David
sailor

Michigan bt Dearborn and Wolcott
1851
Carney

William
tanner

Indiana east of Pine
1851
Duffy

Mrs. Mary


Dearborn bt North Water and Kinzie
1851
Ward

John
laborer

Ohio and LaSalle corner
1851
Duffy

James
mason

Ohio bt Pine and Sand
1852-1853
Duffy

Mrs. Mary


Dearborn bt Kinzie and N. Water
1852-1853
Duffy
Duffey
John


Dearborn bt Superior and Huron
1852-1853
Duffy
Duffey
Michael


Ohio bt Dearborn and Wolcott
1852-1853
Duffy
Duffey
James
mason

Ohio bt Pine and Sand
1853-1854
Carney

William

11
Indiana
1853-1854
Kreis
Kres
Carl
laborer
154
Indiana
1853-1854
Ward

George
ship carpenter

Indiana near Market
1853-1854
Ward

Ephraim Jr.
attorney
102
Ohio
1854-1855
Duffy

William
constable
22
Indiana
1854-1855
Ward

Ephraim A.
attorney
102
Ohio
1855-1856
Duffy

Mrs. C.

98
Illinois
1855-1856
Ward

George
ship carpenter

Indiana near Market
1855-1856
Sweeney

Mrs. Mary

94
Michigan Avenue
1855-1856
Duffy

James
plasterer
20
Ohio
1855-1856
Ward

Ephraim
attorney
104
Ohio


An observation that jumps out from a quick look at the data above is the absence of street numbers in the 1840s and early 1850s. Chicago was still a young city. The first Chicago city directory was published in 1844* and as Dr. Rose-Redwood states on p.203 of his essay:
"...the introduction of house numbering into American urban life was directly tied to the development of city directory publishing in the United States."
I hope this post has provided the reader with more insight into the history of the city directory and some ideas on how to mine the data contained in these publications.

*In 1839 Robert Fergus compiled and published a small run of a city directory. About 50 of the 500 copies were bought. It was forgotten until 1876 when the Fergus Printing Company added to the original and re-published it as an historical artifact. (This information came from the introduction to the re-published 1839 City of Chicago Directory in1876. Copies can be ordered at Amazon.com.)

categories: genealogy tools

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