Workday Wednesday: City Directories for Social History

King & Kellum, Architects, Ad, Brooklyn, NY. From Hearnes Brooklyn City Directory for 1850-1851 via InternetArchive.
King & Kellum, Architects, Ad, Brooklyn, NY. From Hearnes Brooklyn City Directory for 1850-1851 via

Springsteen Family (Click for Family Tree)

Although the architects Gamaliel King & John Kellum are not related to us, I found this ad when going page by page through the city directory, looking for Jefferson and Anna Springsteen. I knew the Springsteens were in Brooklyn in the 1840s and 1850s, but wanted to pinpoint the years and learn more about that time. I also wanted to verify Jeff’s occupation, as I had found that he had a restaurant at the Brooklyn fish market.

The Springsteens were not listed in the 1850-1851 Brooklyn City Directory, but I loved the above ad- this may have been what the home of their dreams looked like! Similar homes would have been found in the neighborhoods they travelled through, or possibly their own neighborhood- or they may even have lived in a house like this.

Learning a bit about the place and time of your ancestors can often be done while browsing a resource, such as a city directory. Oftentimes, researchers will look for a name, find it or not, and move on to the next resource. Because when I found Jefferson in some of the directories his name was spelled much differently than I have seen previously (spelling creativity ruled back then!), I searched mostly page-by-page through the directories I used on As I paged through, however, I saw delightful advertisements such as this architect’s ad, data on population and transportation, and city government information and office holders. The ads especially give a taste of what a typical workday may have been like for a resident- note the occupations which we no longer have. Some may even require a bit of research because the job is obscure to us in this high-tech century. One can also learn a bit about what a woman’s life was like- the vendors she may have used for food and household goods, what products were available to make her life easier, etc.

So plan time to peruse a city directory or other resource- you may be surprised at what you find. You may find familiar names and learn of neighbors who moved to the next town with them, find siblings, children, or parents nearby, learn what occupation was followed (which can help differentiate those with the same name), and possibly even learn the name of a wife, which may be listed after her husband’s death- and that will also give you a clue as to when the husband died. Do be careful though, and read the actual entry- sometimes persons are listed after they died as an oversight, and I have even seen a directory list that a person had moved to __, so were not actually living in that town.

At the very least, looking through a directory will give you a sense of the times your ancestor lived in, and the surrounding place. It will help you build a social history that contains your ancestor, and will make the stories you tell about an ancestor much more interesting.

I will be posting more charming items from the Brooklyn City Directories of 1848-1851– and some that are downright frightening– in future posts.


Notes, Sources, and References: 

1) I did not find Jefferson and Anna in the 1850-1 city directory. They had probably moved on to Indiana by then.

2)  The OCR/search engine on did not pick up the name in multiple Brooklyn city directories even when spelled exactly like it was found it in the directory. It definitely does not have a fuzzy search. (I am, however, really happy that these directories are available online!)

3) City directories can have multiple sections, with each having its own numbering system. Brooklyn had an ‘east’ and ‘west’ section in the later directories, plus the city information had its own section and numbering sometimes, other times was listed as an appendix. So familiarize yourself with the layout of the directory and its sections- you might find some of them have more information that had not gotten picked up in a search.

4) King & Kellum, Architects, Ad, Brooklyn, NY. From Hearnes Brooklyn City Directory for 1850-1851 via


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