City Directories in Genealogical Research

Abrams Collection Genealogy Higlights
Winter 2005
Volume 7, Number 1

Every genealogist has an ancestor that proves to be particularly elusive. City directories can help family history researchers find success in tracking down these "lost relatives." Since many of them are published annually, city directories can give historical perspective on a family's residence within a particular community. They can also identify when and where they moved into a city, list a spouse's name, a resident's occupation and/or place of work, and even narrow the possible date ranges of an ancestor's death. City directories can also serve as an effective substitute for the 1890 U.S. Census. In addition, they have perhaps their greatest value with more contemporary ancestors, especially those who lived after the 1930 census. However, city directories generally contain entries only for those ancestors who lived in the urban areas of the United States, as directories usually do not exist for rural areas and some smaller communities.

Two popular companies that publish city directories in Michigan are the R. L. Polk & Company and Bresser's Cross-Index Directory Company. Dating back to the 1870s, the Polk directories are a standard alphabetical listing of the city's residents, and also include a section both by street address and a business directory. First appearing in the 1970s, the Bresser's criss-cross directories are arranged by both street address and telephone number. Although without an alphabetical listing, the Bresser's directories generally include more than the city limits proper, detailing the more outlying areas that the Polk directories do not. Researchers are encouraged to examine the directory's title page to see the communities included in each volume.

This publication is a list of notable city directory resources available at the Library of Michigan. Some titles may be located by searching ANSWER, the Library's online catalog. Clicking on the links in this publication will take you directly to the ANSWER record for that item. The easiest way to locate city directory resources in ANSWER is with a keyword search using the phrases city directories or business gazetteer, followed by the name of the city or state you are looking for. When searching by keyword, it is not necessary to capitalize proper nouns.

Michigan City Directories

The Library of Michigan maintains a large collection of Michigan city directories, dating back to the early to mid-1800s. Please note that many of these historic directories are not found in ANSWER, although some are housed in the Rare Book Room on the Library's 4th floor. In addition, the Library continues to receive all of the newly published Michigan directories, including Polk and Bresser's.

Many of the Michigan directories, especially Detroit, are also available on microfilm, as part of the United States City Directories collection detailed below. If interested in our exact holdings for a particular Michigan community, please ask a staff member for further assistance.

Although some of these cities may have earlier published directories, here is an overview of the Library's holdings in hardcopy for a number of notable Michigan cities:

Ann Arbor1878-Present
Battle Creek1883-Present
Bay City1870-Present
Benton Harbor1907-Present
Grand Rapids1859-Present
Port Huron1871-Present
Sault Ste. Marie1902-Present
Traverse City1901-Present

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City Directories on Microfilm

A * indicates that the Library has pre-1861 holdings, with the earliest year varying city to city. Please note that a directory may not be available for every year and that many city directories were not published during World War II.

Here is a summary of the Library's microfilm holdings for a number of U.S. cities:

Ann Arbor1882-1960
Baltimore1861-1881 *
Boston1861-1881 *
Buffalo, NY1861-1881 *
Chicago1861-1935 *
Cincinnati1861-1935 *
Cleveland1861-1935 *
Columbus, OH1861-1935 *
Denver1861-1935 *
Detroit1861-1935 *
Grand Rapids1861-1935 *
Indianapolis1861-1935 *
Kansas City, MO1861-1881 *
Memphis, TN1861-1881 *
Milwaukee1861-1935 *
New Orleans1861-1881 *
New York City1861-1881 *
Philadelphia1861-1901 *
Pittsburgh1861-1901 *
St. Louis1861-1901 *
St. Paul, MN1861-1881 *
San Antonio1861-1901
San Francisco1861-1901 *
Washington, D.C.1861-1881

United States City Directories. New Haven, CT: Research Publications, 196-.
Segment I, Through 1860.
Genealogy Microfiche E 154.5 .C579 1960z
Segment II, 1861-1881.
Genealogy Microfilm E 154.5 .C58 1970z
Segment III, 1882-1902.
Genealogy Microfilm E 154.5 .C581 1970z
Segment IV, 1902-1935.
Genealogy Microfilm E 154.5 .C582
Segment V, 1936-1960.
Genealogy Microfilm E 154.5 .C583

City Directories of the United States, 1860-1901: Guide to the Microfilm Collection. Woodbridge, CT: Research Publications, 1983.
Genealogy E 154.5 .C6 1983
A catalog of the directories available for Segments I, II, and III in the microfilm collection United States City Directories.

In addition to the microfilm holdings detailed above, a number of city directories and business gazetteers can be found in HeritageQuest Online, Ancestry Library Edition, and on UMI microfiche for cities across the United States, including Bangor, Maine; Bay City, Mich.; Chester, Penn.; Denver; Phoenix; and St. Paul, Minn. Here are a few examples from the UMI microfiche collection:

Charles F. Clark's Annual the City of Detroit, for 1862-'3. Detroit: C.F. Clark, 1862.
Genealogy Microfiche LH10245

R.L. Polk & Co.'s Baltimore City Directory for 1899. Baltimore: R.L. Polk & Co., 1899.
Genealogy Microfiche LH10505

R.L. Polk & Co.'s Battle Creek City Directory, for....1916. Detroit: R.L. Polk & Co., 1916.
Genealogy Microfiche LH10204

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Genealogical Resources

Dexter, John Haven. First Boston City Directory (1789): Including Extensive Annotations by John Haven Dexter. Edited by Ann S. Lainart. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1989.
Genealogy F 73.25 .D49 1989

Guide to 1930 Pennsylvania City and County Directories. Philadelphia: Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania, 2002.
Genealogy F 148 .G85 2002

Hollowak, Thomas L. Polonians Listed in Baltimore City Directories, 1875-1895. Baltimore: Historyk Press, 1992.
Genealogy F 189 .B19 P735 1992

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Business Directories/Gazetteers

Similar to city directories, business gazetteers are valuable resources for those researchers with ancestors who were business owners, and can also be used to research the business or company itself. This includes identifying the approximate years of operation, the location, what products or services were manufactured, and the names of the CEO and other executive officers.

With an emphasis on Michigan, the Library does have a number of other states, too; many state business gazetteers are also available at HeritageQuest Online.

Indiana State Gazetteer and Business Directory. Indianapolis: R.L. Polk & Co., 1880-.
Genealogy F 524.7 I53

Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory for... 34 vols. Detroit, 1856-1932.
Michigan HC 107 .M5 S752z

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Internet Resources

Ancestry Library Edition
Available at the Library of Michigan, this subscription database's city directory resources are located under the "Directories & Memberships" heading.

City Directories of the United States of America
This work-in-progress site identifies city directories from across the United States and where they are available.

Cyndi's List: City Directories

HeritageQuest Online
A number of digitized historic city directories are part of this subscription database available to all Michigan residents through MeL, the Michigan eLibrary, at

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Updated 08/02/2011