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Using City Directories to Research Old Buildings

Do not overlook city directories when researching an urban property. Starting in the 1840s and continuing well into the 1900s, many cities had directories that listed people at their home addresses and often included occupational information. These are not telephone directories, but a listing of who lived or worked at a particular address in the city. Most directories were arranged two ways: alphabetically by name and by street address. These entries can answer a variety of questions such as: Who lived at a specific address? Was this the occupant, the owner, or a renter? What was their occupation? Was this a residence, a business, or were both located in the same place? In cases where occupation and titles are given, one can often see the rise or fall in the fortunes of past owners by noting changes in their occupational description from year to year.

How to use a city directory
Using a directory is, essentially, a matter of working backwards. Early city directories were only indexed alphabetically by occupant but beginning in the 1890s, street indexes were included in city directories. These indexes list occupants by street address and sometimes indicate whether it is an individual dwelling or apartment. A typical entry reads "Paterson N, 435 Art A. McLeod." One now knows the house's occupant. To find out McLeod's occupation one simply checks the alphabetical listing of names where it reads "McLeod, Arthur A. (Justina K.), Clerk Supreme Court, 435 N. Paterson." This entry informs us that he was married to Justina K., had a job, and lived in a house at 435 N. Paterson. Some directories have the street address only at the end of the directory and the page number of the alphabetical listing that the occupant appears on. For example, by checking 1317 Drake one learns that the resident is mentioned on page 200. Upon turning to page 200, one finds out that John H. Keizer lived there, he was President of the Lake Wingra Creamery, Ice and Dairy Produce Company, was married to Anna E., and lived at 1317 Drake.

By starting with the most recent directory and working backwards, one can develop a complete list of occupants at a single address. Occupancy, or lack thereof, is often associated with house building or major remodeling. Sometimes this search will yield an construction date.

The researcher must be cautious in using these directories. On occasion the canvasser missed residents or tenants; they do not list every resident of the community. Also, street addresses may have been renumbered. Be sure to check the correct address. Another good source for historic street addresses are Sanborn maps.


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