This slideshow highlights a selection of advertisements from Wisconsin city directories published between 1857 and 1930. City directories are commercially-published compilations of the names, addresses and professions of people in a particular town or city. The earliest formal city directories published in the United States document major urban areas on the East Coast and date to the 1780s. In Wisconsin, the earliest city directories date to the 1850s; by the 1920s, at least one directory was published for most of the large and mid-sized cities in the state.
These directories are a valuable source for all kinds of historical research. Genealogists regularly use directories to locate the addresses and occupations of ancestors and historians use them to track residential patterns and trace the growth of urban populations.
City directories also provide a fascinating look at 19th and early 20th century advertising and consumer culture. Ads in city directories document long-vanished products and services, like ice harvested from local lakes or a steamboat line on Madison’s Lake Mendota. The language in these ads is typically straightforward – “Goods selected with care, and warranted as represented,” asserts an ad for a pharmacist in the town of Berlin – in contrast to the irony prevalent in advertising today.
An 1871 ad for a Madison bill poster (someone who pasted advertising posters on walls and kiosks) attests to the ongoing power of advertising:
I come in haste, with pail and paste
To proclaim to all creation
That folks are wise who advertise
In this our fast generation.
The images in this slideshow come from the following digital collections. Follow the links to browse and search the full collections.
- Brown, Door, Kewaunee, Oconto and Shawano Counties: Historical Atlases, Directories, Plat Maps & High School Yearbooks. Part of the State of Wisconsin Collection from University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.
- Early Fond du Lac County People and Places. Part of the State of Wisconsin Collection from UWDC.
- Evansville, Wisconsin Digitization Project. Part of the State of Wisconsin Collection from UWDC.
- Fond du Lac and Green Lake County Atlases, Directories and Histories. Part of the State of Wisconsin Collection from UWDC.
- Historical County Plat Maps from South Central Wisconsin and Early Madison City Directories. Part of the State of Wisconsin Collection from UWDC.
- Janesville’s Past. Part of the State of Wisconsin Collection from UWDC.
- L. E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, Eau Claire.
- La Crosse Public Library.
- McMillan Memorial Library, Wisconsin Rapids.
- Neenah Public Library Local History Collection. Part of the State of Wisconsin Collection from UWDC.
- Waukesha County History 1870-1920. Part of the State of Wisconsin Collection from UWDC.
To find more Wisconsin city directories available through Recollection Wisconsin, head to our Browse by Category page and choose “City Directories” from the Materials list.
Read more about city directories
- Kory L. Meyerink, “Effective Use of City Directories,” Heritage Quest Magazine (2001) via ProGenealogists.
- Philip Sutton, “Direct Me NYC 1786: A History of City Directories in the United States and New York City,” New York Public Library, 2012.
- A. V. Williams, The Development and Growth of City Directories (Cincinnati: Williams Directory Co., 1913). Digital version via HathiTrust.
- A. G. Wright, Directory Bulletin (Milwaukee, 1901-1906). This trade publication targeted at American publishers of city directories was edited by A. G. Wright of Milwaukee for the Association of American Directory Publishers. Digital version via HathiTrust.