Using City Directories in Your Genealogical Research

I was pleased to see that the first “round” of digitized Vernon City Directories, part of the initiative to digitize all of the Vernon city directories via a partnership of Ontario Ancestors, Familysearch.org and Library and Archives Canada, was posted recently with an access link on the Ontario Ancestors website. Note that this link takes you to one of our partner’s websites, familysearch.org. If you have not already done so you will need to sign up for a familysearch.org free account. The “B” city directories are available on the site so far.

Before you immerse yourself in research in city directories, you may wish to read the article History of Directory Publishing on the Library and Archives Canada website. Some specific information from this article could be relevant to your research:
-Residents of Aboriginal villages were seldom included
-Women were seldom included – only single, working women and widows – in the directories of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Henry Vernon noted in the preface to the 1901 Hamilton directory that “In the Alphabetical, the names and addresses and occupations of the ladies are now inserted for the first time.”1
-Inhabitants of rural areas were included in the county directories created between 1810 and 1910. You are more likely to find these county directories for Ontario and not so much for other provinces. City directories will not help you locate your rural ancestors.

Cautions in Using County and City Directories
There are some caveats about using directories. Note the publication dates or the dates in the titles. By the time that a directory was published for a given year, the information could be dated and your family member could already have left that particular city sometime during that year. Don’t let the year of the directory “fix” the time period that you use to search for other records. This situation is compounded when the city directory is for a two year period.

Who provided the information? I remember canvassers collecting the information in the 1970s and in the event that residents were not home a slip was left for the residents to complete. In the same way that census information could be corrupted depending upon whether the person giving the information actually knew it, city directory information could be corrupted as well. I recall receiving the slips when I was living in a small town. At the time I was not into genealogical research and I had no concept of the value of the information that I was providing. If my memory serves me correctly there was a least one occasion when I did not return the information slip. I was probably not alone in this inaction.

One of the challenges of city directories is knowing if a person is your ancestor or relative if no other family members are listed. Sometimes a check of the street index will provide the name of the person who owns the house or commercial building. You win when children still living at home with their mother and father were working for a living. Note that they are not listed as a family unit but alphabetically again by their given name and could be scattered through the specific surname listing. One of the Bolton families I am researching was captured in the 1890 Toronto City Directory. I have replaced the ditto marks in the original with the family surname.Note that I have them somewhat out of order so I could list the father first:
Bolton, John P, bkpr Edward Lawson, h 630 Ontario
Bolton Lambert W., pntr, b 630 Ontario
Bolton Miss Louisa, tchr College St. school, b 630 Ontario
Bolton, Norman E, slsmn White & Petter b 630 Ontario2

Having used city directories frequently in my research I was able to interpret this information readily. If you are new to city directory research look to see if there is an explanation of the abbreviations near the front of the book. In this particular city directory, the abbreviations are explained on page 13.
bkpr=bookkeeper h=home pntr=painter b=boards tchr=teacher
slsmn=salesman

Since there are many ads in this directory there may be one for Edward Lawson or for White & Petter which could be added to any family history that you are compiling. You may even want to do a search on the address, 630 Ontario, to see whether anyone else is living there like a married daughter.

Proving Family Stories by Using Directory Entries
One of the ways I like to use city directories is to find proof of family stories. I was told via letter that my first cousin once removed, Alma Neta Campbell, travelled from Yorkton, Saskatchewan to Winnipeg, Manitoba in order to go to a business school. The Henderson’s City of Winnipeg Directory for 1927 captured her:
Campbell, Alma, studt, r 33 Balmoral Pl
studt=student r=residence Pl=Place

Since I was at the Manitoba Legislative Library when I found the above mentioned record I spent a delightful afternoon tracking Alma Neta, then going under the name Neta, and her husband Roderick MacKenzie, in the City of Winnipeg directories from 1942 to 1974. I found that she had worked as an assistant for a chiropractor, a manager of a Milk Bar, a clerk with the Kiwanis Club, an employee of Eatons and as a stenographer for the Merton Corporation. By 1962 Roderick had retired and then they both disappeared from the city directories after 1974. That gave me a date after which I felt that I could look for a death record. The letter reference above provided information about her marriage to Roderick but the writer of it had lost contact with her and knew nothing about her death. I didn’t want my readers to think that I had pulled Roderick’s relationship to Neta out of the air. It helps to have some knowledge of family background before you research in city directories.

Digitized county and city directories are appearing in various repositories across Canada. Rather that provide a long list of websites I suggest that researchers Google digitized city directories with a geographical location added into the search.

Alan Campbell
Ambassador
Ontario Ancestors [The Ontario Genealogical Society] © 2019

1. Henry Vernon, Vernon’s City of Hamilton, Twenty-eighth Annual, Street, Alphabetical, General, Miscellaneous and Classified Business Directory for the Year 1901 (Hamilton: Henry Vernon, 1901), preface.

2. Alma Campbell entry, Henderson’s City of Winnipeg Directory 1927 (Winnipeg, Manitoba: Henderson’s Directories Ltd.) Peel Bibliography, fiche 7, p. 655, transcribed by the author at the Manitoba Legislative Library, Winnipeg, June 2005.

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