The first truly distinct published city directory appeared in the United States in 1785 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As early as 1665, first under the Dutch and British, and then under American auspices, individuals published lists of city residents in New Amsterdam (now New York City), Baltimore, and Charleston, but the efforts were not consistent or uniform.
By the beginning of the 19th century, directories appeared routinely in New York, Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, and Hartford. This new industry was started by school principals, businessmen, and postmasters, but most commonly by newspaper editors who had printing presses and a strong interest in the private and commercial residents who were their customers. By the mid-1800s, full-time directory publishers appeared in most major U.S. cities.
In the late 19th century, city directories were big business. Directory publishers formed a trade association to promote higher standards, and names like R.L. Polk became part of the American consciousness. In an effort to attract more customers and to outdo the competition, publishers began to add features to their directories. Some features became standardized, while other features came and went in different areas. Select directories included Civil War soldiers who served from the city, death dates for people who had passed away in the preceding year, and notations of removals of residents from certain cities.
More traditional contents often include a publisher's introduction, history and map of that city (usually showing ward boundaries), churches and cemeteries (by denomination), city officials, laws and ordinances, fraternal and social organizations, and reverse or criss-cross listings. The latter, which lists residents in street and house number order, was often issued as a separate publication. The value of the reverse directory is that it helps establish home ownership and identifies an individual's neighbors.
As larger cities grew to enormous proportions, it became impossible for companies to continue publishing annual directories. Moreover, with the advent of the telephone in the early 20th century, free telephone directories eroded the market for traditional directories. The last annual directory for New York City (Manhattan and the Bronx) was published in 1925 (although during the Depression, WPA assistance enabled publication of directories in 1931 and 1933). The last directory for Chicago was issued in 1928, and the publication of directories for the Los Angeles area stopped in the 1940s. Although city directories are still published today, in many areas they are no longer annual, but more likely to appear every two years.
Who was included in the city directory? This decision was left to the discretion of each publisher, and would vary from city to city — and even within a city over time. The chief purpose of the directory was to serve business interests. So, in an effort to identify and expand their customer base, it would benefit the publisher to include as many names as possible. For a businessman who extended credit to his customers — as was often the practice in the 19th century — the directory enabled him to contact customers concerning their accounts. It also helped him determine if new customers would be reliable by reviewing their history in previous directories. Directories enabled businesses to arrange delivery of goods and services. Finally, the directory became a popular advertising medium.
Residential sections often listed all homeowners in the city, including head of each household. Many families living in cities rented rather than owned their residences, so publishers also included principal tenants. Some directories listed the head of every family in one house, even if there were multiple families at that address. Different publishers also used different abbreviations. While publishers established their own rules for who would and would not be listed, accuracy and diligence were left to canvassers hired to collect data each year. It is not unusual to find duplicate listings for a single individual since one canvasser may have obtained the name through a residential visit, while another obtained the name from a work location, and the duplication was not found before publication.
By the 1880s, almost any adult male living in that city (or at least employed and living in that city) was listed. Widows were also usually listed. By this time, many directories even listed men employed in, but not actually residing in, the city. The listing often included the town in which he lived, as well as his occupation or employer. By the end of the 19th century, single women were listed in several city directories, and the names of wives (usually in parentheses) appeared after the names of their husbands.
In the early 20th century, you might also find names of students. Usually post-secondary, they were identified with "student" as occupation. As telephones came into many households, telephone numbers were often included. The publisher's claim that each new year brought a new canvass is probably true since you can often find the same people at the same address over several years, but with changes (names spelled differently, new occupations). Directories usually omit minors, but you may find people in a directory who were overlooked in the census.
Although copies of older city directories are plentiful and found in most large public and academic libraries, they present researchers with other obstacles. Since the directories were only intended for temporary use, they were often printed on cheap quality paper using substandard inks. Hence, original copies are often very fragile and greatly deteriorated, making handling of the originals undesirable. Many libraries offer microfilmed versions instead, and digitized versions are increasingly available.
For more information on the background, content, and types of directories, go to the Progenealogists.comWeb site, which provided most of the background for this description.