Town Directories: Substitutes for the 1890 US Federal Census

Are you looking for a way to learn more about your 1890s-era ancestors and are frustrated by the absence of the 1890 US federal census? There are a lot of good substitutes for this information out there, and city and town directories are one of them. This is what they are and how they can help you fill in the 1880 to 1900 gaps on your family tree.

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Without the 1890 US federal census, how are you going to learn who your ancestors were and what they were doing in 1890? In fact, how are you going to track your family through their adventures from 1880 to the next census in 1900? Twenty years is a heck of a long gap in the historical record. Without access to the 1890 US federal census, a lot of important information in your family tree is going to be missing.

The good news is that there are reliable substitutes that you can use to fill in those gaps. City and town directories are one of them. This is what you need to know about them.

Before there was the telephone and the accompanying phone book, there were city and town directories. These were essentially like the phone book, but without phone numbers. These directories were popular in the mid-1800s to early 1900s. Most cities and towns of at least a medium-sized population had them. Occasionally, you will find them printed for smaller towns and villages, too. You would be amazed at the amount of information you can find in these directories.

When you think of the phone book, you probably just think of someone’s name and phone number. Before the early 2000s, the phone book probably included someone’s address, too. You actually had to pay to NOT be included in it, because inclusion was otherwise automatic. So, what useful genealogical information could be found in this type of directory?

The older, pre-phone directories included a lot of things. The information included varied by location, but it was not uncommon to include the individual names of people in a household, as well as their ages and address. Occupations were usually listed, too. Just right there, you have the basic information people look for in a census record. Even better, city and town directories were usually published every year, so you can trace the evolution of a family in much finer detail than in a census. If your family disappears from a directory one year, when they were in it the previous one (meaning everyone in the household disappears), you can usually safely assume they moved, and begin looking for them elsewhere.

In addition to having personal information listed in the directories, there was also business information. Some directories were all business, some were personal and business and some were just personal. Even in the ones that were strictly for personal information, there were usually paid advertisements from local merchants. You can often find your ancestor’s business in the paid advertisements. If the directory has business listings, you can find the name of their business, the type of business that is conducted there, and its location.

You can find city and town directories at local archives, historical societies, and museums with genealogy departments. Some genealogical libraries have them. And, of course, you can find them on online genealogy websites like and others.


About Ancestral Findings

Will established Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has been involved in helping genealogy researchers for over 25 years.