Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

How to Research a Family Business: Business Directories

Describes resources for researching the history of a business. Guide by Susan Kriete.

Overview

Specialized business directories are a key resource for any researcher interested in business history, and are especially handy for researchers who know the type of business their ancestor (or other owner) operated, but not its name. There are two main types of business directories: those which aim to provide a comprehensive listing of all businesses within a particular geographic location, and those which are meant to list all businesses within a particular industry, regardless of location.

Geographic Business Directories

Although most familiar to researchers as the "yellow pages," directories listing local businesses arranged by category, rather than alphabetically by surname or business name, began appearing well before they were printed on the eponymous yellow paper. 

Advertisement for The New Trade Directory in The Gazette of the United States, January 18, 1800The self-proclaimed first U.S. business directory was The New Trade Directory for Philadelphia, Anno 1800 (available on-site through the database America's Historical Imprints), published in 1799 by William Jones, who modestly described it as "A Work upon a plan which never before appeared in the United States, being a SPECIES of Directory, but different from the usual sort" (Gazette of the United States, AND Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, January 18, 1800)(emphasis in original). The similar New Trade Directory for New‐York, anno 1800 (available on-site through the database America's Historical Imprints) appeared in New York City at the same time.

These were the first American directories to list businesses by category or type of trade, The benefits of this then-novel system of arrangement are delightfully cataloged in the following advertisement:

If a HOUSE-KEEPER wants quickly to find a Baker, a Cake-Baker, Seamstress, White-washer, Washer, China Mender, School-master or Mistress, Classier, Paper-Hanger, Painter, Cedar-Cooper, LockSmith, Blacksmith, Bricklayer, Plasterer or Joiner, He can . . . turn to the Index and be referred to the TRADE in question. In like manner can the LADIES find out the residence and names of all the Mantua-makers, Bonnet-makers, Stay-makers, Dyers and Nurses, &  c, or a STRANGER the most convenient Boarding House, Hair Dresser, Hatter, Taylor, Trunk-maker, & c -- Nor is the utility of the work confined to these alone; for any Tradesman may trace at once the names and residences of the Masters and Journeymen in his own line.

(Gazette of the United States, AND Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, January 18, 1800)(emphasis in original).

Despite the obvious advantages, specialized business directories, arranged by trade, were not published regularly until the mid-19th century. Once established, these classified directories quickly became an indispensable tool for finding service providers and tradespeople, and remained so until the internet finally displaced them.
 
Another type of geographic business, commonly called a "criss-cross" or "cross reference" directory, became popular in the 20th century. These are "reverse" directories which include a comprehensive listing of residents and businesses in a market arranged by street and house numbers, and also by telephone number sequences. Although aimed primarily at marketers and law-enforcement investigators, these directories can be useful for identifying a family business for which you only have an address.
 
 

 Industry business directories

In addition to city-specific business directories, many trades published industry-specific directories (for example, brewing, building, watch and clock making, electrical trades, etc.) that were regional, national or even international in scope.

Publication dates vary by trade, but most commonly trade-specific directories began appearing in the late19th/early 20th century. Some examples from NYPL's collections include:

Locating and using business directories

FINDING AND USING GEOGRAPHIC BUSINESS DIRECTORIES

Bear in mind that both occupations and their descriptions have changed over time. For example, The New Trade Directory for New‐York, anno 1800  includes businesses categories we would still expect to find today (e.g., Attorneys-at-Law, Bakers, Distillers), familiar businesses listed under unfamiliar names  (e.g., Breeches Makers, Sick Nurses ,and Victualling Shops), and other businesses that don’t exist at all anymore (e.g., Brass Founders, Callico-Printers, Oakum Pickers). 

Free online sources:

As with the City Directories, many early business directories have been digitized and are freely available through HathiTrust, InternetArchive, and/or GoogleBooks. These sites all support key-word searching, so researchers can search for an identified business name within the text of the directory.
A few New York City business directories are also available through NYPL's Digital Collections portal.


Available at NYPL:

Subscription databases:

  • The Ancestry Library Edition database "U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995" (available at all NYPL locations) includes business directories for some cities (including New York) in some years. To check for a particular business directory, use the "Browse" function. You can also search the entire database by name and location, and see if the results include any business directories.

Ancestry, U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995

Ancestry Library Edition, U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 (accessed August 28, 2018).

 

  • Some of the directories included in Fold3 (available at NYPL Research Libraries) are business directories. Directories in Fold3 are listed by city and year; currently the only way to determine whether a particular directory is residential (listed by name) or business (listed by trade) is to click on the year and view the title page

Microfilm:

NYPL holds yellow pages for New York City and some surrounding areas dating back to 1929.

Print copies:
NYPL also holds many early NYC business directories, including the following publications (note that dates refer to years of publication and NYPL holdings may not include all years):

To find additional New York City business directories held by NYPL, including those covering boroughs other than Manhattan, try browsing our online catalog under the following subject headings:

NYPL also holds cross-reference directories published by Cole for New York City and some surrounding counties. To locate these in our online catalog, try a keyword search for "Cole's directory."

In addition, NYPL holds historic business and city directories for some other cities. To locate these in our online catalog, try a subject search for:

FINDING AND USING TRADE-SPECIFIC BUSINESS DIRECTORIES

Locating a relevant trade directory is more hit-or-miss, but it is worth trying a keyword search (using the name of the trade and the word “directory”) of both the various digital libraries (HathiTrust, Internet Archive, and GoogleBooks) and NYPL's online catalog to see what might be available.