Owners almost always want to know who lived in your old house before they arrived. Who built this house? Who closed in the porch? When did the garage get built, and why?
Perhaps you are lucky enough to know the immediately previous owners. Perhaps even the owners before them. But good old houses tend to have long-term residents, and old houses tend to have long histories, and the trail starts to get murky after a while…
There are many ways of researching previous residents of an old house – and not all residents are owners. Owners names show up on the official documents of your local Land Titles office, where you can, usually for a fee, search the title documents for all the owners of your property back to when it was built.
But not all owners lived in the houses they owned. Frequently, older homes were leased or rented, sometimes for years at a time. How to find out information about those residents? Look in City Directories or Street Directories.
In North America, they are called City Directories, and contain an alphabetical listing of all residents, and sometimes also contain a geographic listing of residents – as a cross reference – by the street that they lived on. In Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, they are called “Street Directories” and list residents by the roads and streets they lived on. Canada often has both types of listing in one volume.
Most cities and towns had City Directories from around the 1860’s through to the 1990’s. With the advent of the Internet, these large, cumbersome, but informative volumes have largely disappeared, but they survive – if you are lucky – at your local libraries and archives.
City Directories contain a wealth of information between their covers. They usually were updated once a year, and they list alphabetically, all the residents of a town, with their addresses and frequently, their occupations as well. They also have a separate cross-reference by Street or Road, listing every occupied house, with all of the people that lived there, with their occupations and where they worked.
They also list local organizations, churches, post offices, Town officers, libraries, and more. A treasure trove of information!
There are also added bonuses of information. Sometimes, there will be lists of House Names and the addresses of those houses. Who lived at “Maple Bank”? Where was “Garrison Cottage”? Were there two houses called “Springfield”? Was that old mansion called “Avalon”?
Advertisements of sponsoring businesses are often included at the front or the back of a City Directory as well, and these make fascinating reading about products and services that your early homeowners may have used.
There are some useful tips to consider while you are looking through City Directories. While most of the information is accurate, and probably the best you will find, beware of the possibility that the information may be out of date. Directories were supposed to have been updated each year, but if residents were not there to answer questions the day the directory representative called, then last years information may be printed again.
Sometimes the Street addresses were corrected, but the Alphabetical listings were not updated, or vice versa. Sometimes not all the family members were home when the listing was made, so someone may be missing one year, then back the next. Were they traveling? Visiting? Away for work? Sometimes research calls up more questions!
In the early days of the twentieth century, many cities took the opportunity to renumber all of their streets and roads into a more sensible system for a growing community. A researcher has to be aware of this possibility, and know that the same house could go from: Cairn Cottage in 1890; to #3 Main Street in 1900; to 1211 Main Street in 1910. Same house, same location, but a different numbering system. Be careful and methodical, and the history and stories will reveal themselves.
Tracking down where people worked is an added bonus for house history. Occupations are frequently listed beside the owner’s name: John Stephenson – Manager, Acme Brick Works. Looking up Acme Brick Works in either an alphabetical part of the City Directory, or in the Business Directory in larger Directories, will often add further information to your search. Where the business was located, how many employees were at the company, and what products the business may have made. Is there an ad for that business? Were those bricks used in your house?
How big was the family that lived in your house? Sometimes younger children were not mentioned. Only census information will have the full details for all members of the family, but City Directories will often include older children, and certainly any that are employed. So families with children in their late teens and twenties often provide an overview of period jobs, with sons working as clerks, or coach drivers and daughters as stenographers or millinery assistants.
Some Directories also have listings of businesses by category. You can check how many Wagon Makers, Feed merchants, or even breweries there were in your town.
With the information found in City Directories and Street Directories, finding out who lived in your house in the past is possible!
A very few directories are now available online, but can often still be found in your local library or archives. Ask where the directories might be found. As common as these books once were, sometimes they are hard to track down. In some cities, the library will have some of the books by year, and the local or regional archives will have the others.
Good luck with your research!