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City directories are published annually by commercial publishers who sell the directories and sell advertising in the directories. The publishers compile statistical information about a city and its residents and present it along with a directory of business. For example, The Providence Directory and Rhode Island State Business Directory for the year commencing May 1, 1929 states on its title page that it contains the following:

Alphabetical Section (Page 437) Gives names, occupations and addresses of all men twenty years old or over, women who carry on businesses, widows, and all business houses. Dates of deaths during the previous year are given, and where possible, the addresses of people who have moved to other cities. The names of partners in firms are given in this department, with much other information that cannot be found elsewhere.

Business Directory (Page 1403) All business houses, individuals in business for themselves, and professional men are listed without charge under the heading that best describes them. The more progressive houses, realizing that it pays to be easily found, pay a nominal charge for special listings in heavy type, under every heading where a buyer might look for them, cross-referenced to a descriptive space in the ‘reference section.’

Advertising Department (Page 101) Where more information than is possible to give under the headings is placed on file for buyer’s and seller’s reference the value of this department cannot be estimated. It is an index of the best business interests of the city, and stands for them and the city in reference libraries all over the country, as well as on the desks of progressive business men. It is accessible to everybody, and the logical place to look for specific information. This probably explains why no other form of publicity is so generally endorsed by business men, as a glance at this department will show.

Map (Opposite) The clearest map ever made of the city, on a scale large enough to see and small enough to be handled easily.

Street Directory (Page 65) A complete list of Streets, giving numbers at intersections, and enabling one to tell at once between what streets a given number lies, and the quickest way to get there. An alphabetical list of Halls, Blocks and Buildings from which street and number may be found for addresses which only give name of a certain building.

Miscellaneous Information (Page 13) Organization of City Departments, giving officers—Cemeteries—Post Office branches—Parcel post zones and rates—Churches and ministers—Societies, Institutions, etc, with officers—State officers and departments—U. S. officers and departments—Courts—Population tables—Calendar, etc.

The chief customers for the city directories are businesses, which use the City Directory to trace customers and identify potential customers. Directories more recent than the 1929 directory cited above include a Telephone Key section, matching phone numbers with names. As the 1999 Providence City Directory explains:

You receive a message from Laura with the telephone number 225-2000. Who is Laura? To find out who Laura is, or what company she represents, look to the TELEPHONE KEY. It’s a numerical listing of all the phone numbers in your area. Now you know Laura is from "Laura’s Boutique," one of your best customers.

The same directory suggests this use for its Street Guide:

You know that a satisfied customer is one of your best sources for business referrals, and is likely to tell their neighbors about positive business experiences they have had. How can you quickly find the neighbors of your longtime customers Norman & Maxine Leonard? Look up the Leonards’ address in the STREET GUIDE. By doing so you will also find the names and addresses of their neighbors. The streets are listed alphabetically, so it’s easy to find the addresses you are looking for. You will also find the cross streets, so you will be able to locate and visit these prospective new customers in person. The STREET GUIDE is also useful for any type of fund-raising or canvassing, and for planning delivery routes.

Historians find city directories valuable sources of detail about life in a particular place at a particular time. Residents and businesses are listed by their street addresses for a given year. Public agencies, schools, churches, organizations etc. also appear in the city directory. Thus, it is possible to trace the establishment of a business or to know when a family moved into a dwelling or to discover that an individual was a public official or an officer of a particular organization in a certain year.

In this country, city directories have been published regularly since the nineteenth century. Public libraries and historical societies usually have copies of the current and past city directories, so that is the first place to start for a research effort.

In seeking to learn more about the Tirocchi and Cella families, the curators and scholars working on this project looked at city directories to verify when various family members lived at which locations. Among other things, they also tracked family businesses and real estate investments as they appeared in the directories, and were able to confirm Dr. Cella’s involvement in civic activities.

They were also able to trace the shop’s location and to study the history and change in the number of dressmakers in Providence over time. The study confirmed that as dressmakers declined, retail increased. During the same period, in the first decades of the twentieth century, men’s tailor shops remained about the same because men’s ready-to-wear had been introduced earlier.