Stories from city directories

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.

  • Fond du Lac, 1857.
    Many businesses advertised their location in relation to landmarks like the courthouse or bank rather than a specific street address. Brigham and Co's Fond du Lac Directory for 1857-58, p. 58. Source: Fond du Lac Public Library.
  • Berlin, 1858.
    Pierce's "Eating Saloon" in Berlin, Wis. promotes oysters and game, while De Reimer's ad reflects the mid-19th century druggist's role as a purveyor of all kinds of chemicals. Berlin City Directory, 1858, p. 19. Source: Berlin Public Library.
  • Janesville, 1862.
    This Janesville grocer offers cash for produce from local farmers; Rice's "Temple of Art" offers lessons as well as artwork. A. Bailey's Janesville Directory, City Record and Business Advertiser for 1862, p. 8. Source: Hedberg Public Library, Janesville.
  • Berlin, 1869.

    Photographer J. J. Hargrave uses a stock image of cherubs to promote his studio in the city of Berlin. History and Directory of Green Lake and Waushara Counties, and the city of Ripon, 1869, p. 39. Source: Berlin Public Library.

  • Madison, 1871.
    This lavish advertisement touts the services of Jack Reiner, a Madison bill poster who pasted advertising posters on kiosks and walls around the city. Madison City Directory and Business Advertiser for 1871-2. Source: Madison Public Library.
  • Green Bay, 1874.
    Green Bay physician C. L Fortier's advertisement mentions his services as an "accoucheur"--an obstetrician. Green Bay and Fort Howard Directory, 1874, p. 69. Source: Shawano City-County Library.
  • Fond du Lac, 1876.
    Many advertisements in the Centennial 1876 Directory of Fond du Lac County are in English and German, reflecting the area's substantial German population. See the next slide for the German version. Source: Fond du Lac Public Library.
  • Fond du Lac, 1876.
    The German translation of the preceding advertisement. Centennial 1876 directory of Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, p. 44. 
    Source: Fond du Lac Public Library.
  • Stoughton, 1882.
    This directory from Stoughton features many ads for businesses in the nearby urban center of Madison. A Directory of the City of Stoughton, and the Villages of Edgerton, Milton and Milton Junction, 1882. Source: Madison Public Library.
  • La Crosse, 1884.
    This La Crosse photographer highlights the props available in his studio: "gateway, sofa, rock, log." Bunn & Phillippi's La Crosse City Directory, 1884, p. 72.
    Source: La Crosse Public Library.
  • Madison, 1894.
    An ad from the era when ice was harvested from lakes, stored, and delivered for refrigeration year-round. Madison, Wis. City Directory 1894-5.
    Source: Madison Public Library.
  • Madison, 1894.
    Commercial enterprises like the Satirio Steamboat Line once ferried Madison residents and visitors across Lake Mendota. Madison, Wis. City Directory 1894-5. Source: Madison Public Library.
  • Eau Claire, 1899.
    B. J. Brien of Eau Claire promotes custom-made shirts and pants "for less than you can buy them for ready made." Eau Claire City Directory 1899-1900, p. 4. Source: L. E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, Eau Claire.
  • Waukesha, 1909.

    Amenities offered by the Jones House hotel in Oconomowoc include steam heat and electric lights. Wright's Directory of Waukesha 1909-10, p. 221. 
    Source: Waukesha Public Library.

  • Oshkosh, 1928.
    These Oshkosh companies advertise modern innovations such electric ovens and motorcycles. Winnebago County, Wis. Directory, 1928-1929, p. 11. Source: Neenah Public Library.
  • Wisconsin Rapids, 1930.
    The city directory is "A modern up-to-date method of getting what you want." Wright's Wisconsin Rapids City Directory 1930, p. 30. Source: McMillan Memorial Library, Wisconsin Rapids.
  • La Crosse, 1913.

    A reminder that a city directory is a must-have for "the busy man's desk." Wright's Directory of La Crosse for 1913, p. 4. Source: La Crosse Public Library.



The images in this slideshow come from the following digital collections. Follow the links to browse and search the full collections.

To find more Wisconsin city directories available through Recollection Wisconsin, head to our Browse by Category page and choose “City Directories” from the Format list.

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