Family History Research Through City Directories
City directories are well recognized as an important research tool for genealogists, because they provide a kind of time line for an ancestor during his residence in a community. Year by year we can see where a person lives, what his occupation was; we can watch his family grow and move out on their own, and we can see people die and leave their widows to live on in their place. This is especially important when tracking family lines in big cities, because in large population centers people moved around. They didn’t own property generally, and jobs were their focus. City directories are our eye on this world of our ancestors, but we need to understand some of the nuances of searching the records.
An example of searching for a New York City family which disappears between censuses is found in the family of Michael Quinn Jr. and Mary McKay. They last appear in the 1910 Census of New York City with two of their eight living children. Michael was a marble polisher by trade. He was born in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1857, to Michael Quinn Sr. and Mary Kinley. Since Michael Jr. did not appear in the 1920 Census of New York City, we assume he died, or they both died, or they moved to another city. The Quinn family had not been identified previously in another city, but their children were later found, scattered, with a couple of them remaining in the New York City area, and others settling in Philadelphia, and Minnesota.
Searches in New York City records were made to determine what happened to the family between 1910 and 1920. Examinations of the Death Indexes for New York City proved inconclusive because of the many Michael Quinns who appear in these records.
We needed some type of data that would help us define what happened to Michael and Mary in this brief period of time. A search of the City Directories for New York City was undertaken. City directories are like an annual census record. Their principle function in a world where door to door sales was so important, was to provide businesses with a ready-made list of customers. The businesses then advertised their goods and services to their desired consumers. These published “business guides” provided a listing of residences on an alphabetical basis, and even sometimes street by street. The information (especially in a metropolitan setting such as New York City), was limited to one short line, per household, which entries would fit on a three or four column page. Researchers can expect to find the name of the head of a family, his work address, his residential address, his occupation; and for a woman, if widowed and of whom. In a large city, like New York City (and we are referring only to Manhattan, which is also classified as New York County) early city directories were very large and expensive to publish. Consequently, in order to control expenses, directories for big cities often did not record names year after year unless an address changed. This was not so of persons of special importance such as doctors, or policemen, who provided necessary services.
This concept proved true with Michael Quinn. He appeared in the 1909/1910 City Directory (at the same time as the 1910 census), listed as a Polisher, residing at 324 East 117th Street. He next appeared in the 1913 directory, at 329 East 122nd Street; and lastly in 1916, at 207 East 188th Street. He was Michael Quinn, Polisher, in each entry. All years were searched between 1910 and 1934, and in the years in-between 1910, 1913, and 1916, entries for Mary, widow of Michael, were examined looking for a widow at the same address of the preceding year’s address. After 1916 there were many entries for “Mary Quinn, widow of Michael” at various addresses, but we were unable to identify any of them with the target family. But now we have a narrower time period to search for death certificates.
The important thing here is to recognize that individuals and their families can be identified in a type of microcosm of society. However, they might not be listed every year in a series of city directories, and it is therefore important to search a broad range of directories to watch for new entries of a known individual.
By James W. Petty, AG, CG
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