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Using City Directories for Research: Basic Information

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Page 95 of the Raleigh City Directory of 1880-1881

Raleigh City Directory 1880/81

City directories are a great resource to add to genealogy sources. City directories have been used in the U.S. since the 1700s in some areas and in North Carolina since the late 1800s. One of the first directories in the state was for Wilmington in 1860. Rural areas are rarely included, but if they lived close enough to a large town to be considered a suburb, they may be included. However, what we consider rural now, may not have been then. Over 100 towns in 63 counties of North Carolina have city directories.

In my own research, a city directory allowed me to discover information about my great-great-grandfather that other sources, such as census, did not. This includes information about his exact residence, where he worked and found out his boss was his brother-in-law; I also learned what that business did through an advertisement I found within the book.

This is the start of a multi-part series. This post will focus on the basics of city directories. In January, I will show how city directories have helped me to trace a family through multiple years and what I can learn from the information found. Later in the spring, I’ll talk about other uses for city directories in genealogy research.

With the absence of the 1890 census, city directories near that time can be especially valuable by filling in information during a twenty year gap of the federal census for most areas. If you have an ancestor who lived in Raleigh in the 1880 census, but in other county or state in the 1900 census, city directories can be a good tool to narrow down the year they migrated. They can also be helpful for years between census enumerations.

City directories have four to five components: Residents, businesses, advertisements, streets, and government. The first three of the list are the main reason for the creation of the directory – the residents, the businesses of the town, and advertisements. The others (streets and government), don’t always appear. In addition, some directories include maps. Let’s take a closer look at each of the above components.

Residents: Alphabetical list of residents in the city, sometimes in nearby towns or suburbs. List is sometimes segregated between white and minorities or sometimes minorities are noted with an asterisk (*) or other mark. Entries show if they are a head of house, resident of the house, or boarder; occupation and sometimes their boss; home address; and sometimes their work address. This section of the directory has many abbreviations. Usually, a list of abbreviations and their meaning can be found at the beginning of the residents list. Women can be listed, but often only if they work outside the home or are widowed. In some cases, entire families can be listed. For example

Doe John, carpenter, h 109 e Jones

Doe Jane, wife of John

Doe Jack, son of John, r same, student



Business directory of the 1875/1876 Raleigh City Directory

Business directory of the 1875/1876 Raleigh City Directory

This section is devoted to businesses in the city. Generally, the entries include the name the business, owner, and street address. Many, but not all of the businesses listed can have ads in the directories, which are scattered throughout the whole directory. If your ancestor has a place of employment listed in the residents directory, you can look up the business in this section to learn more about that business.

Advertisements: Many pages of directories have at least one advertisement. Some have ads that appear on every single page, while others only have them at the beginning and end. There is often an index to the ads. Ads vary widely in the information they give and they are much like the ads you see in newspapers today. If you find your ancestor in the residents section, note which business they worked for and then you may find an ad for the business to learn more.

Government: In many cases, city, county, and even state government information can be included. In an 1883 directory of Raleigh, the Government section begins with the Governor, Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, and other offices along with their salary. It also lists the various divisions of the state government and those employed in them.


Street Directory of the 1880/81 Raleigh City Directory

Street Directory of the 1880/81 Raleigh City Directory

Street directories vary widely. Some will have just a listing of street names, while others will list the home owner of each house on the street. Occasionally, a map is included. You can compare the home of an ancestor with the street directory and, if there is one, the included map.

Where can you find city directories? The Government and Heritage Library has Raleigh City Directories as far back as 1875 through now, both in book and microfilm format. Come and check them out.

You can also find fully digitized maps at North Carolina Digital Heritage Center ( at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

In addition, many local history rooms in public libraries have directories for their city.

Stay tuned for more information on city directories coming up in a month.


  1. […] December 2016, I talked about the basic information in city directories and how they can be helpful for research. […]

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