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3 Tips to Extract Details from a City Directory

When using City Directories to locate information about previous home owners, it’s important to extract all the details that can be found. Here are 3 tips to help you uncover as much information as possible in your house history research.

Let’s take a look at a city directory listing from Wayland, Massachusetts in 1931.

1) Look up the abbreviations

Everything seems to be abbreviated in city directories!

Let’s look at the first entry – “Raymond Eliz C Mrs hostess Green Tops Boston Post rd r do 140.” That seems to be saying Mrs. Elizabeth C. Raymond, who works as a hostess at Green Tops [probably a restaurant] on Boston Post Rd. The last part “r do 140” seems pretty confusing.

Luckily, all city directories come with a page listing abbreviations. You will usually find it in the front of the book. If you’re looking at a city directory online you’ll need to go back to page one and then page forward until you find it.

In this case it’s found on page 24. There are quite a few abbreviations – and not only for words but also for names. From this list we learn that ‘r’ stand for boarder or roomer and ‘do’ stands for ditto or same. Now we can interpret the whole listing – Elizabeth C Raymond, who works as a hostess at Green Tops [probably a restaurant] at 140 Boston Post Rd and resides at the same place. Based on the other listings, the number at the end seems to refer to the house number.

Page 24 of 1931 Polk City Directory listing abbreviations
List of abbreviations from 1931 Polk City Directory, page 24

Further down the page under Richardson we see an abbreviation that doesn’t seem to be covered in the abbreviations – RFD. I googled it and found that it stands for Rural Free Delivery which started in 1896 and became an official part of the Post Office in 1902. You can read more about Rural Free Delivery in this article by the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. The abbreviation page listed R D not RFD which was a bit confusing.

There are two more abbreviations that can be overlooked. At the very bottom of the page is a note that an asterisk indicates property ownership and that a cross symbol indicates automobile ownership. That provides some very important details about the people in the list!

2) Look at all the people at the same address

In the listing, we see three people with the last name Richardson all living on the same street -Old Conn[ecticut] Path – Ernest A (and his wife, Fannie), G. Prentiss (and his wife, Alice) and Geo (and his wife, Rose A). Are they family? Do they all live at the same address?

City Directory listing for three Richardson Families

If we look at the word or phrase right after the wife’s name, we find out the occupations of the gentlemen. Ernest works as an auto repairer, G. Prentiss works as an auto repairer and George is a farmer. Because Ernest and G. Prentiss both work in auto repair it suggests there might be a relationship. But are all they all in the same house?

Going back to the abbreviation list we see that ‘h’ means householder (or home owner in today’s usage) and ‘r’ means roomer or boarder. Now we can interpret these listings more clearly.

  • Ernest A. Richardson is a home owner so he lives in his own house.
  • G. Prentiss Richardson resides as a roomer at George Richardson’s house.
  • And George Richardson is a home owner.

Now we can understand that we have three families in two houses.

Lastly, we can see that both Ernest and George have the asterisk and the cross symbols indicating that they both own property and automobiles.

Another clue is the postal address. Ernest has an address of RFD Nat 572J and Prentiss and George are both located at RFD Nat 1963M.

Further genealogical research using census and vital records reveals that George Richardson is the father and Ernest and G. Prentiss are his sons. While both sons are married in 1931, Ernest (10 years older) is married and living in his own home. G. Prentiss and his wife, on the other hand, are living with his parents.

3) Look for further sub headings

City directories can contain information for a single place or they can cover an area. When searching for city directories for your city or town if you stick with your town name you might not find it in a city directory. For instance, in this case, Wayland is not in its own city directory but is found in the Waltham City Directory which also includes Weston, Wayland and Lincoln. The easiest way to figure this out is to look at the title page.

Waltham City Directory including Weston, Lincoln and Wayland

In the listings for many people on this page, we see an abbreviation that is not defined in the big abbreviation list on page 24 – (C). To find what (C) means we need to go to the start of the Wayland section to find a second, smaller set of abbreviations.

Start of Wayland listings with special abbreviations

Here on page 27, under Special Abbreviations, we learn that C is for Cochituate, Nat for Natick, Fram for Framingham and Wal for Waltham. From this we learn that the Richardson live in the Cochituate section of Wayland.

The next time you use a City Directory in your house history research, make sure you take the time find the abbreviations page so that you can interpret the text correctly and extract as much information as possible.

Read other Wayland, Massachusetts articles here.

Cite/link to this post: Marian Pierre-Louis, “3 Tips to Extract Details from a City Directory,” The Northeast House Historian (https://northeasthousehistorian.com/3-tips-to-extract-details-from-a-city-directory/ : posted 19 May 2024).

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