City directories can be an excellent source for family history, not only as a substitute for recent unreleased census records, but as a supplement to 19th and 20th century records.
Several websites contain many digitized directories for thousands of cities.
Ancestry.com (temporarily available at home from our Digital Library), primarily U.S., U.K., and Australian directories.
Heritage Quest Online on our Digital Library (U.S. city directories 1821-1989).
FamilySearch.org has U.S. and German directories. The U.S. collection appears to be less extensive than that of Ancestry.
The Internet Archive (archive.org) has over 3,000 city directories that are in the public domain.
These directories were a common local publication beginning in the 19th century. The publisher would send staff door-to-door once every year or two to ask for information. Local businesses found these directories very useful in their marketing campaigns.
Each directory contains a list of householders for the urban area in alphabetic order. They generally show the name of the head of household, their address, and occupation. From the 20th century, you may see the name of their spouse, whether they own or rent, and perhaps information about children (number of children, names of children over age 16). Business listings usually identify the owners. There may be a separate “yellow pages” listing businesses by sort. There are often “crisscross” indexes by street address and phone number. All of that information can be useful if you are looking for an ancestor who is missing from the census.
If you are looking for Prince William directories, you generally won’t see them in the online sites. RELIC has a comprehensive collection of Prince William city directories and telephone books which have not yet been digitized. They include directories for:
- The Manassas area for 1960-1983
- Quantico-Triangle-Dumfries-Woodbridge-Occoquan for 1963 – 1980
- Prince William County for 2001, 2007 – 2020
- Telephone directories for 1903, 1931, 1941, 1951 (Manassas), 1958 – 2009 (few gaps)
So, if you have a brick wall that involves losing an ancestor in a city, next time try finding them in the applicable city directory.