A Powerful Genealogical Resource: City Directories

Julie Huffman, Librarian, History & Genealogy Department,
Tessa Kelso in 1893 L.A. City Directory
Tessa Kelso in 1893 L.A. City Directory

City Directories are wolves in sheep’s clothing.  You think you’re cracking open a boring ole phone book but, when you look closer, you'll find loads of clandestine information that phone books are missing.  Sorted alphabetically by last name, these (often-) annual tomes feature not just residential addresses, but spouse names, occupations, and work addresses. They can be powerful tools to fill in your family gaps between U.S. Censuses.

For instance, I was researching one of the early Los Angeles Public Library city librarians Tessa Kelso. She ran our institution from 1889-1895, but none of the federal censuses of the time feature her in Los Angeles. The 1880 census has Tessa living as a 17-year-old with her parents in Cincinnati; the 1890 census is not available (because most of it burned up); and the 1900 census has her living in Manhattan. 

So, using the Los Angeles area city directories we’ve digitized and have available on our website, I tracked her in the 1893 and 1894 city directories and deduced much interesting information:

Tessa was an unmarried woman living two blocks away from the Los Angeles Free Public Library, at which she appeared to be the city librarian (or the main librarian).  The library was located on the 3rd floor of the “new” City Hall, which was on the east side of Broadway, between 2nd and 3rd Streets; Tessa lived at 455 South Broadway in an apartment building known as “The Acacia” (where it looks like the Fallas Paredes store is today).  Also living at this address were six other people, including Adelaide R. Hasse (unmarried), who was the “first assistant librarian” at the Free Public Library.  A year later, both Adelaide and Tessa moved to 347 S. Hill Street (which appears to be where Angel’s Flight is now—also only two blocks from the library).  Three other people lived at 347, so it may have been a small apartment building.  Both women still worked for the library and Tessa was on the Board of Directors.

This is much rich information that causes my mind to reel with narrative possibilities.  What were apartment buildings like in 1893?  Did Tessa have to endure any guff for (a) being unmarried and (b) having a notable job? Was her job considered notable? Was is safe to live downtown at that time? Were Adelaide and Tessa more than coworkers, since they moved from residence to residence together (and, also moved to Washington, D.C. together after they both resigned from the library in 1895…which I found out from an 1896 Washington, D.C. city directory!).

Dig up some stories for yourself--just go to http://rescarta.lapl.org/ResCarta-Web/jsp/RcWebBrowseCollections.jsp and search away!  It's free and accessible for anyone with an Internet connection to use.