Annotated City Directories

Spokane Postal Guides (c) Dawn Bingaman
Spokane, Washington, has a unique collection of annotated city directories from 1903-1941. Photo by author.

In the Heart of the Inland Empire, there is a treasure for genealogical researchers, just waiting to be found: city directories. City directories, you say: meh. Wait. These aren’t just any city directories, they’re annotated city directories. Published city directories manually updated by the postmaster, to show address changes. Ahh, now do I have your attention?

Before we discuss these very special city directories, I thought we should first touch on the basics. City directories are a fantastic resource for genealogists and historians to link residents and businesses to a particular time and place. City directories were the precursor to the modern-day telephone book (now going by the wayside in the 21st century). Early city directories typically listed name, occupation and address, and were often divided into two sections: an alphabetized listing of residents, and an alphabetical business listing. It was not uncommon for a street directory and map to be included, along with other information that varied by year and locale, depending upon the publisher.

The earliest directories began appearing in the largest American cities in the latter part of the 18th century, and were regularly published in many urban areas by the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century.1 In Trenton, New Jersey, for example, the first local business listings were published in 1844 in a newspaper called “The Sheet Anchor of Democracy”.2 Publication in book form began a decade later, with annual directories published (most years) between 1867 and 1971.3 Each area’s directory publication schedule will have its own nuances, but Trenton is a fairly typical representation of the practice.

Typical entries for the surname Carson, in the 1876 Trenton City Directory published by Boyd, p. 111. Names, occupations and addresses are shown.

City directories in Spokane

Now, we’ll switch gears and look at the scenario with regard to city directories in the Spokane, Washington area. I have visited the genealogy department of the Spokane Public Library on numerous occasions over the years. Recognizing the uniqueness of these city directories, I made a return visit in October 2012 when I knew the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society volunteers would be manning the genealogy desk. I took a few photographs, and err, well, grilled the volunteers that Tuesday afternoon about the annotated Spokane directories that cover the 1903 to 1941 time frame.

None of the volunteer genealogists had much in the way of specific information about the author(s) of the updates, but the consensus was that one (or more) of the postmasters in Spokane made corrections to the directories to facilitate mail delivery. Whether done on his own initiative or as a matter of policy is not known. What is known is that at some point, the published directories were unbound and sheets of blank paper were interleaved between the printed pages. Handwritten notations then were made on both the printed pages and blank pages, in pencil and pen. If there was any particular reason for the different colors of ink used, that information was not known to the volunteers that I questioned.

Local address changes were recorded, of course, which ultimately may have become part  of later editions. More valuable though are the annotations showing moves within the state, and even those that relocated out of state, as those types of moves would otherwise be more difficult to track. Margin notes appear to be related to dates of changes to mailing addresses. At some later date, the annotated city directories were bound and re-titled. Today, the collection is commonly referred to as the Spokane Postal Guides.4

Kuhn Family Example

Adalia “Addie” (Beach) Kuhn, sister-in-law to my 2d-great-grandfather, Clinton C. Kuhn, and family moved from southeast Washington to the city of Spokane by 1899. Addie, widowed in 1901, was not included in the 1906 Spokane City Directory. Daughter Frances Kuhn was the only Kuhn family member included in the printed city directory that year.
Frances Kuhn, recorder, Pacific States Telephone & Telegraph Co.

Annotated entry for “Francis” Kuhn. Note the absence of her mother, Mrs. W. H. (Addie) Kuhn from this 1906 publication.

When the directory was compiled, Frances, who worked for the Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Co., was living at East 10 4th Ave in Spokane. However, because of the postmaster, we know she moved to 1223 Nora, possibly in May of that year. And, thanks to the postmaster, we know her mother (shown under the name of Addie L. Kuhn, and again under the name Mrs. W. H. Kuhn) was living with Frances at 1223 Nora. Why Addie Kuhn was omitted from the city directory that year is a mystery, but I am thankful that the postmaster took the time to include her nonetheless.

Addie Kuhn was manually added to this Spokane City DirectoryStarred entries for Mrs. W. H. (Addie L.) Kuhn, added by the Spokane postmaster.

The great many manual revisions made over the years in these Spokane volumes may give one pause as to the reliability of city directories as a source of information in general. As genealogists, however, we should be using every readily available source, and evaluating the information contained within that record when compared to other sources we consult. With the increasing availability online of large runs of image copies of city directories, we would be remiss not to include them in our research plans.

Tips for researching in city directories

  • A good number of directories are becoming available online at sites like and Google Books, but don’t despair if your city isn’t covered. Check the online catalog of a library, university or historical society in the area to learn what may be available offline as well.
  • Smaller communities may have been included in suburban or county directories, so it’s a good idea to always check availability for your locale of interest.5
  • Always read the preface or introduction to learn how the publisher canvassed the territory covered by the directory. This will allow you to learn who should have been included, and why your target ancestor may have been omitted from that particular directory.
  • Search for your family every year a directory was published, to pick up on changes in residence, occupation and household.
  • Pay particular attention to the first listing of a woman as a widow, as that will narrow down the death date of her spouse if you don’t already have that information.

1 Philadelphia was the first city in the United States to publish a city directory, in 1785. Meyerink, Kory L., “Effective Use of City Directories”, ProGenealogists ( : accessed 30 Nov 2012).

2 Trenton city directories on microfilm, microfiche and books in the New Jersey State Library, cataloged in “New Jersey City Directories at the New Jersey State Library”, [New Jersey] State Library Information Center,  ( : accessed 30 Nov 2012).

3 Ibid.

4 Spokane Public Library catalog search for terms: spokane postal guide, ( : accessed 30 Nov 2012).

5 See, for example, the many communities represented in various city and county directories in Washington state at the Washington Secretary of State’s website ( and : accessed 30 Nov 2012).