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Genealogy Basics Research Guide: City and Telephone Directories

City and Telephone Directories

City and Telephone Directories

City directories are published listings of residents or businesses and their addresses. A city directory places an individual or a business in a specific location at a particular time. A directory may list the residents or businesses alphabetically by name or by address or both. Often, only the head of a household is listed. City directories have been published at varying intervals in New York City since 1786. It was not until the mid‑19th century that city directories began including immigrants as well as established residents.

Telephone directories are published listings of telephone subscribers in a geographic area or of subscribers to services provided by a telephone company in the geographic area. The first telephone directory was published in 1878, though many people did not have telephones until after World War II. Telephone directories are usually revised annually. Subscriber names are generally listed alphabetically, together with their postal or street addresses and telephone numbers. Generally, every subscriber in the geographic coverage area is listed unless the subscriber requests exclusion of their number from the directory, often for a fee.

City Directories as a Genealogical Resource

Finding Census Records

City and telephone directories are particularly useful in connection with research in census records. For those censuses that have been indexed by name, the researcher usually does not have to know the precise address where a person was living in order to locate him or her. For censuses without name indexes, however, a census search requires a street address. Census takers and census indexers also sometimes misspell names in ways that make them difficult to find. . An alphabetized list of residents or telephone subscribers, with their addresses, can be obtained from a city or telephone directory published in a year close to the census year. Therefore, if you are unable to locate a person in census records when searching by name, you may find them instead by browsing the census records for a particular address at which they had lived.  

Finding Vital Information

Prior to 1933/34, only heads of households and other employed adults were listed in the New York City Directories.  A married housewife rarely was included. Because a widow usually was listed with her deceased husband's name (such as Mrs. Tom Jones), it is possible to use that entry as an indication of when the husband died. That clue can point to death records, obituaries, probate records, and cemetery plots.

New York City’s 1933/34 city directories were unusual for their thoroughness, their inclusion of all adults in a household (wife and adult children), and even the apartment number. After that year, telephone directories became the only analogous source.

Tracing Relatives

It is important to conduct a year‑by‑year search for a particular individual or family. Sometimes a person disappears from the directory for a year or two and then shows up again, sometimes at the same address. Careful examination of city directories can identify other individuals with the same surname. Subsequent research may show that these same‑surnamed people are relatives not known previously.

 

Online Directories

Online Historical Directories

This website contains links to historical city directories for many U.S. cities and towns. These links include both free websites and subscription database websites.

New York City City and Telephone Directories

The Brooklyn Public Library has placed copies of the 1856 Brooklyn City Directory and of the following alphabetical and business (classified) telephone directories for New York City online:

  • Alphabetical for all boroughs of New York City: 1909, 1910, 1914 (one copy incomplete, ending with company name “Richmond Produce” in the Staten Island section; another copy also incomplete, ending with last name “Roman”in the Brooklyn & Queens section & no Staten Island listings), 1915, 1917, 1920
  • Alphabetical for Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens: 1910 (incomplete, ending with the last name “Trousdale” in the Brooklyn & Queens section)
  • Alphabetical for Brooklyn: 1929-1932, 1934-1947, 1949-1967
  • Alphabetical for Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island: 1924-1926, 1927 (first part of “A” section for combined Brooklyn and Queens is missing), 1928
  • Classified business for Brooklyn: 1927-1929, 1931-1943
  • Classified business for Queens: 1927, 1928

In addition, the New York Public Library has placed copies of the 1940 telephone books for all five boroughs of New York City online.

Subscription Databases

On Ancestry.com and Fold3.com, both of which require a paid subscription (but are available at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street), you may search for names within historical city and telephone directories for many U.S. cities and towns and view images of the directory pages on which the name is found.

New York City Directories

New York Public Library: 
“A History of City Directories in the United States and New York City” with links to the library’s holdings and to other sources is available here.

These microfilms or microfiches are available at the New York Public Library Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy, Microforms Rm. 119:

NYC City Directories (Manhattan and parts of the Bronx): 1665, 1786 ‑1861, 1863-1918, 1920-1925, 1931-1934
Brooklyn City Directories: 1796, 1802/3, 1811/12, 1822‑1826, 1829‑1910, 1912-1913, 1933/4.
Trow’s Directory for Queens: 1902, 1904, 1906-1910, 1912.
Polk's NYC Directory, Boroughs of Queens and Richmond (Staten Island): 1933/4.
Staten Island Directories: 1835, 1882-84, 1886, 1888-1899, 1903, 1906, 1912-14, 1921-24, 1928/29, 1933, 1934, 1936.
In addition, the 1898 Trow’s Directory for Queens is available through the reference desk of the Milstein Division, Rm. 121.

The New York Public Library also possesses microfilmed or microfiche city directories for many U.S. cities besides New York, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, and many smaller cities. These microfilms or microfiche are available at the Milstein Division, Microforms Rm. 119.

Telephone Directories

Current paper telephone directories for the 5 boroughs of New York City are available in the General Research Division, Rose Main Reading Room, Rm. 315; in the Wallace Periodical Room, Rm. 108; and on open shelves in the Periodicals and Microforms Reading Room, Rm. 100.

An incomplete set of paper telephone directories (except in states beginning with “A”, which have been microfilmed) before 1976 for most other major U.S. cities is in the closed stacks and may be requested in the Periodicals and Microforms Reading Room, Rm. 100.  A microfiche collection of telephone books for many U.S. cities for 1976-2005 is also available in the Periodicals and Microforms Reading Room, Rm. 100.

Microfilmed telephone directories for Manhattan for 1942-1949, 1953, and 1957-1961 may be found in the Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy, Microforms Rm. 119.

The following microfilmed telephone directories from the New York City area, including many by address (reverse directories) are also available in the Periodicals and Microforms Reading Room, Rm. 100:

 

White (residential)

Yellow (business)

Address

Bronx

1929-1976/1977

1929-1975

1929-1980, 1986

Brooklyn (on reels with Manhattan up to 1943)

1925-1976/1977

1929-1979

1929-1980, 1986

Manhattan

1878-1988

1929-1976

1929-1980, 1986, 1993

(except 1948, 1960, 1963, 1964, & 1971)

Nassau

1913-1976

1929-1976

 

Queens

1933-1976

1927-1976

1929-1980, 1986

Staten Island

1927-1976

1927-1976 (combined with White)

1929-1980, 1986

Suffolk

1928-1992

1929-1975

 

Westchester

1915-1983

1956-1983

1956-1980, 1986

The Manhattan reels from 1878-1929 include various parts of the tri-state area such as Brooklyn, Bronx, Long Island, New Jersey, Westchester, and Connecticut, with each reel varying in inclusion.  There are also some combined reels for Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island covering the 1920s.

Cole’s Cross Reference Directories from 1971 through the present are also available at the Science, Business and Industry Library at 188 Madison Ave. at 34th St., New York, NY 10016.

Below are examples of the format subject headings used to find city directories in the NYPL catalog:

  • New York (N.Y.) -- Directories. 
  • New York (N.Y.) -- Commerce -- Directories. 
  • Bronx (New York, N.Y.) -- Directories.

For non-NY directories, the subject heading is usually by the town or city, but sometimes also goes by county.  For example:

  • Dayton (Ohio) -- Directories
  • Tombstone (Ariz.) -- Directories.
  • Essex County (N.J.) -- Directories.
  • Westchester County (N.Y.) -- Directories.

Credit

Original source for this page: Center for Jewish History - Courtesy of the Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute
LibGuide - Genealogy Guide: United States - http://libguides.cjh.org/genealogyguides/us

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