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Research Aid: City Directories

Since the 1840s, many cities have published directories that list the addresses of individuals and businesses. These are not telephone directories, but listings of who lived at, or what business existed at, a particular address in the city.

Most directories are arranged two ways: 1) alphabetically by name of the individual or business, and 2) by street address. Many also include a separate listing of clubs and fraternal or social organizations in the city. The directories can be used to determine when someone settled in the city or when they left the city or died. City directories often include occupational information, and where this information is given, one can often discern the rise or fall in the fortunes of individuals by noting changes in their occupation from year to year. City directories can also be used to track the establishment and relocation of businesses, as well as their demise or sale.

Early city directories were only indexed alphabetically by occupant; later, street indexes were included in the directories. These indexes list occupants by street address and sometimes indicate whether that address is an individual dwelling or apartment. A typical entry reads: N. Paterson, 435 Art A. McLeod.

One now knows the name of the occupant at 435 N. Paterson. To find 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 Arthur McLeod was married to Justina K., had a job as Clerk of the Supreme Court, and lived at 435 N. Paterson.

In some directories, the street address listings only give the page number of the alphabetical listing on which the occupant appears. For example, by checking 1317 Drake, one learns that the resident is mentioned on page 200. Turning to page 200, one finds that John H. Keizer lived there, that he was president of the Lake Wingra Creamery, Ice and Dairy Produce Company, that he was married to Anna E., and that he lived at 1317 Drake.

Researchers must be cautious when using city directories. On occasion the canvasser missed residents or tenants. Also, city directories do not list every resident of the community.

It is also important to note that city streets may have been renamed or renumbered. In Milwaukee a project to rename and renumber streets began in 1926 and was completed in 1930. For more information on these changes, look at Wright’s Street Guide Supplement, Milwaukee City Directory, 1930 (call number: F84) on microfilm and the Milwaukee County Historical Society’s Street Name Conversions online resource.

City Directories Locations

Milwaukee city directories are available in the general stacks of the Golda Meir Library (call number: F589 .M6 A18), as well as at the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the Milwaukee Public Library, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Archives, and the Legislative Reference Bureau.

For other cities, please visit your local public library.