What is in a City Directory?

Even before the rise of the telephone and the need for telephone books, enterprising printers and publishers sold city directories. Worcester’s city directories started as slender volumes before expanding into weighty tomes. From their origin, the books contained valuable information including the names, address, professions, and places of work in the city.

The city directories, however, were much more than simply a list of urban residents. As the genre matured, publishers included ever more valuable information to entice people to purchase their books. Therefore, city directories can tell you more than who lived where, it can also help you answer such questions:

  • How much did an elementary school team made in 1889?
  • What kinds of fire engines were used across the city in 1898?
  • What kinds of men served as officers in fraternal associations?
  • Where in the city were dining establishments and theatres for a night on the town in 1915?
  • How did Worcester regulate urban animals over the years?
  • What patent medicines were advertised over the years to cure all kinds of ailments?


City directories help a family historian locate people in a place and time. They are also useful for:

  • Searching years between censuses to find an ancestor who lived in a city between the census decades.
  • Cross-referencing with censuses, using street addresses found in city directories can help you locate difficult to find individuals in the census tracts by street.
  • Substituting an 1890 city directory for the 1890 census, which was mostly lost in a fire during the 1920s.
  • Supplementing census information, especially if your ancestor worked in a noted mill or served within a fraternal association.

Historical Detail

City directories are filled with historical details about urban institutions, businesses, and societies. Therefore, if you are researching theatre-going in the early 20th century, city directories will give you lists of theatres, their location and span of operation. In you lucky the directory might even include an engraving a theatre.

Labor historians will find the volumes interesting to identify the residential patterns of specific laboring populations like toolmakers, plumbers, or carters.

Ethic historians can use them to identify ethnic societies, fraternal orders, and churches. Further street directories can be used to identify shifting ethnic neighborhoods within the city.

Women historians can use the directories to trace the working lives of women as the pages often list women’s occupation, places of business or employment, and their marital status.


Considering one might think of directories as purely textual, they can be a surprisingly rich source of images. City directories often contain, for instance, images of buildings, ostensibly places of business, shops, factories, and so forth. An illustration of the building was often included in advertisements, so that readers might not only learn the address of a business, but also what it looked like: a common feature of early advertising.

Worcester’s city directories also include rich images of machine tools.

City directories, and associated business directories, are also rich source of early advertising images. They have things from simple text-heavy ads describing services offered in great detail, to illustrations of goods and stores, and the early use of photography to sell a product.


Many early city directories double up as gazetteers, describing in great detail how a city worked. Early directories often include a map, sometimes quite elaborate foldout affairs.