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American Women: Resources from the General Collections

Genealogies, Local and Family Histories, City Directories

W.E.B. Du Bois, collector. African American Family Posed for Portrait Seated on Lawn. 1899 or 1900. African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

From the Library's large collection of genealogies and regional histories you can find information on women ranging from an elusive birth date to a detailed account of the lives of several generations. Family histories can be surprisingly intimate and, in this age of self-publishing, appear in great numbers. Local histories may explain workings of nearby factories and businesses, conflicts within churches or town government, or compelling issues confronting a locale—all of which may tell us about the lives of women. Background on the places a woman lived—her schools, churches, movie theaters, gardens—are needed to write biographies and also contribute to other aspects of women's history. These volumes are rarely well indexed.

The Library's Digital Collections include many multiformat collections that focus on the history and culture of particular regions of the United States.

Telephone and City Directories

The Library also holds a vast number of United States telephone and city directories, many of which are available on microform. City directories are rich in unexpected bits of information; in addition to names and addresses, they often list spouses, occupations, and boarders, and some indicate race and marital status.

Dedrick. Hunting Horse and Daughters. c. 1908. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Classified sections with names of businesses, organizations, and public institutions in the town reveal women's options in choosing churches, schools, clubs, newspapers, or hat makers. To discover the women's organizations in Whatcom, Washington, in 1902, or the number of midwives in Honolulu in 1936, look in the appropriate city directories.

Browsing the 1863 Washington and Georgetown Directory shows that the most frequent occupations given for women were boardinghouse keeper, dressmaker, and milliner. The directory names one accoucheur and several women who were hucksters.

Scanning runs of directories for one town or state might show when women began to appear in town offices or in traditionally male occupations. Careful searching can uncover details that enrich our picture of women's lives in specific areas and at specific times. Local History & Genealogy Reference Services has a sizable reference collection and is staffed by specialists who can provide assistance in using these sources.

There are no call numbers for U.S. telephone books and city directories.  Request directories by name of town, state, and year. Many are self-serve in Microform Reader Services. Use the following guides to learn more about city directories at the Library of Congress:

Selected Print Resources

To locate genealogies for researching this topic, search: [Last name] family as a Library of Congress Subject Heading in the Library's online catalog. For local histories, search by name of the geographical location (town, county, state, region): [Geographical location]—Directories.  The selected print resources will provide more information on researching this topic.