History of directory publishing

The earliest extant Canadian directories are those for the city of Québec, Directory for the City and Suburbs of Quebec, number I published in 1790 and number II published in 1791. They include an alphabetical list of all males from the city aged sixteen and older. In his introduction to the 1791 directory, the compiler, Hugh MacKay, discussed the purpose of the compilation:

The peace and security of society is in an eminent degree to be ascribed to a good police; and that police can hardly be carried into effect by the Judicial Power, unless a crowded City is arranged, so as to discriminate at one view its inhabitants and their occupations, to detect the receptacles of idleness and vice.1

The ordering and displaying of a society is a recurring idea in the history of directory publication, although generally with commercial rather than moral intent. E. Mallandaine, compiler and publisher of the First Victoria Directory in 1860, stated in his prefatory remarks, "the period has fully arrived when our fair town of Victoria is of sufficient importance to deserve that index of commercial progress, a Directory." 2 Every directory published by R.L. Polk & Co. stated in its introduction, "the Directory is a mirror truly reflecting [the city] to the world."

Purpose of the directory

The directory was and is intended to facilitate communication between buyer and seller, to be a tool for advertising and marketing within a particular community and also to publicize that community and its advantages to a broader audience. Information included in many city directories on the occupations, addresses, status as tenant or homeowner and phone numbers of inhabitants is useful in marketing. The classified business directory or buyer's guide and the wealth of advertising contained in most directories are directed at the person looking for a particular product or service.

As a result of the availability of series of directories collected by libraries, such as Library and Archives Canada and other institutions, genealogists, historians and other researchers have found a variety of different uses for the directories. Genealogists are perhaps the most numerous and frequent directory users in their attempts to piece together family histories. Directories are often used to trace missing persons and birth parents. A person's approximate dates of arrival and departure from a locale and changes in occupation and address can be determined.

The social, political, commercial and physical development of a city, town or region is also revealed by a study of its directories for a period of years. The publishers of city directories generally attempted to include all male inhabitants over the age of eighteen and an examination of their occupations reveals coverage of all levels of society.

Provincial directories, sources of information on the inhabitants of smaller towns and villages, generally provide shorter listings of business and professional persons. The village of East Templeton is listed in Lovell's Province of Quebec Directory for 1871 as having a population of 175, however, only 26 names appear.

Aboriginal villages are listed in some of the provincial directories, however, the number of Native persons listed are few if any. St. Regis, an Iroquois village listed in Lovell's Province of Quebec Directory for 1871, is one of the few entries which actually lists a number of Iroquois leaders as well as the missionary, the Indian agent and the postmaster.

As directories are generally a product of urban, commercial development, the inhabitants of rural areas are the least well covered by them. A number of directories were published for Ontario counties, mainly for the years between 1870 and 1910, which provide listings of the farmers in each township, their status as tenant or freehold, the concession and lot number of their properties and the nearest post office. For provinces other than Ontario, county directories are few in number.

Women were seldom included - only single, working women and widows - in the directories of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the preface to his 1901 Hamilton directory, Henry Vernon stated:

In the Alphabetical, the names and addresses and occupations of the ladies are now inserted for the first time. It is true one will look in vain for the names of message boys, or that of the daughter of the house, who naturally shrinks from the unwarranted publicity (in her case) that a directory gives... 3

More recently, married women have been listed in entries with their husbands and current directories often list them as separate entries in the alphabetical sequence.

A.B. Cherrier, compiler of the directories for the city of Québec in the 1880s, discreetly noted the following exclusion from his directory: "Names of residents in houses of ill fame are not inscribed in the Street Key, and as a consequence will not be found in the Alphabetical Directory." 4

Miscellaneous and gazetteer information

The miscellaneous and gazetteer information included in many directories can also be of great use in the study of a developing town, city or region. The civic and provincial directories of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries include large quantities of varied information on municipal, provincial and federal levels of government. Lists of institutions such as post offices, churches, courts, banks, hospitals and schools are also included, along with lists of benevolent, literary and scientific societies, associations, social clubs, military personnel and periodicals and newspapers published at the time. A certain amount of demographical and agricultural statistics is also to be found in the directories.

Some directories contain fairly lengthy historical descriptions of the places that they cover. Many include descriptions of local industries and resources with which the classified business directory can be used to examine the development of a particular industry or profession.

Hunter, Rose Co.'s City of Ottawa Directory for 1870-71 is an excellent example of the fascinating detail that the researcher can find in a directory. The following passage acts as both a description and an advertisement for the Ottawa Tannery:

The buildings are above 2 1/2 stories high, 30 feet by 120 feet, and are situated on St. Paul street, near Canal Basin. An addition has lately been made to the establishment of a frame building, two stories high, 60 feet long and twenty feet wide, in which there is a twenty-horse power steam engine, with boiler and leach room, containing two large leaches on the ground floor; the second story is occupied as a bark mill and heating room. Mr. Woodland employs about ten hands, and turns out about six thousand sides of finished leather per annum. He also deals in sole leathers, French calfs, hides, sheepskins, oils, roans and morocco leather. 5

The gazetteer entries for certain villages near Ottawa, also listed in this directory, are often informative and interesting. Architecture and transportation were highlighted in the entry for Aylmer:

The public buildings are of stone, substantially built and cost ten thousand pounds .... One of the first class steamers of the Union Forwarding Company leaves daily for Pontiac, connecting with the steamers for Pembroke[,] Des Joachim and intermediate points. Stages leave Ottawa for Aylmer daily. 6

The directories of the mid to late twentieth century are published by only a few major publishers and are generally more uniform in style and contents. They provide less of the type of miscellaneous information described above, however, still include lists of civic, provincial and federal officials and brief descriptions of the commercial, industrial, social and natural advantages of a city or region.

Common to all directories is an abundance of advertisements which appear on the cover, spine and edges, in groups at the beginning and end, and in between and beside columns on pages. They range in style from single lines such as "For something nice in clothing call on J.W. Clemens, Kranz's Old Stand" 7 which is repeated on numerous pages of the 1893 Berlin directory, to those in the style of business cards with elegant borders and a variety of type faces as in MacKay's Montréal directories of the 1840s. The advertisements are a source of valuable information about the services, products (such as clothing, machinery, medicines and food stuffs), and entertainments available to a society. Most directories provide an index to advertisers.

Photographs, illustrations and maps are also included in many directories. The Toronto city directories of the 1920s, for example, contain many photographs of city buildings. The Montréal blue books published by Dau Publishing, provide plans of a number of theatres and concert halls.

Frequency of publication

The practice of publishing directories on an annual basis was not established in Canada until the 1840s with the publication of Montréal directories by John Lovell and Robert W. Stuart MacKay. Between 1790 and 1840 directory publication was infrequent. After the 1791 edition, the next Québec city directory did not appear until 1822. Like the Montréal directories, those for Québec were not published on a regular basis until the mid 1840s. Dorothy E. Ryder noted in her introduction to the Checklist of Canadian Directories, 1790-1950 that the 1790 and 1791 Québec directories were commissioned by the Legislative Council as part of a census project. However, when the demand for the 1791 edition was insufficient to pay for the paper, the directory was discontinued. Throughout their history, directories have only been published as long as they were profitable.

Provincial directories were published less frequently than the city directories and unfortunately were generally limited to the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. The earliest of this type of directory is the Province of Canada Directory for 1851, which lists cities and towns in what would become the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. British Columbia provincial directories were exceptional in appearing fairly regularly between the years 1880 and 1948.

An examination of the early directories for the larger cities often reveals numerous publishers competing for the directory market. These publishers were often printers, stationers or publishers of newspapers. Between the years 1861 and 1891, ten publishers produced Ottawa city directories before Might Directories dominated the market. The competition between publishers is revealed in a notice to the public printed by W.H. Irwin in his City of Hamilton Directory for 1888/89. In it he discussed the merits of his Hamilton directory over the Hamilton directory of his rival R.L. Polk & Co. of Detroit, and asks:

Supposing any Canadian undertook to publish a Directory of the city of Detroit, the headquarters and residence of Messrs. R.L. Polk Co., what would be the chance of success? Would he not soon hear there was sufficient intelligence, patriotism and encouragement for home industry without the interference of CANADIANS and FOREIGNERS? 8

Irwin's comments seem to foretell R.L. Polk Co.'s decision in 2000 to cease publication of all of its Canadian directories. Vernon Directories and Lovell Litho and Publications are among the few publishers of Canadian directories still in operation today.

Canvassing for information

Most directory publishers past and present have used the same method of information gathering in compiling their directories, the door-to-door canvass. Information is given to a canvasser on a voluntary basis or if the resident is not at home, an information slip is left, which the resident may or may not choose to fill in and return to the publisher.

Canvassers were often individuals randomly hired by the publisher, although in the case of the 1918 Fredericton directory, the publisher noted that "the Daughters of the Empire ... took complete charge of the canvas." 9

The use of the door-to-door canvass resulted in a number of problems with the directories, such as lack of comprehensiveness and inaccuracy, as many of the publishers stated in their prefaces. McAlpine, Everett Co., publisher of the Ottawa and Kingston directory for 1875, stated that canvassers fearing smallpox refused to visit certain houses. A.S. Woodburn, publisher of another Ottawa directory for 1875, noted that:

...difficulty is still experienced in some parts of the city, in obtaining the necessary information, many persons believing that the names were required for either military enrolment, or the addition of some local, or obnoxious water rate. Omissions may have been occasioned in this way; and as changes are constantly taking place by removals and otherwise, between the time of canvas and publication, absolute accuracy cannot be expected. 10


Users of the directories were expected to subscribe annually. A subscription to Cherrier's Québec city directory was three dollars in 1880. In 2000, R.L. Polk's directories ranged in price from $180 to $300. The directory was normally returned to the publisher at the end of the year, at which time the subscriber could lease a new volume.


Because the directories are only intended to be used for a determinate length of time, the quality of paper and binding is often poor and deterioration is rapid with heavy use. Institutions such as the Library and Archives Canada, which maintain retrospective directory collections, are attempting to deal with this conservation problem through deacidification, microreproduction and most recently, the digitization of directories. It is hoped that these methods will provide improved access to the content of the directories and will preserve them in a range of formats for future researchers.


1 Hugh MacKay, Number ll of the Directory for the City and Suburbs of Quebec (Québec: Printed by William Moore, at the Herald Printing Office, 1791), p. iii.

2 Edward Mallandaine, First Victoria Directory (Victoria: Edward Mallandaine, 1860), preface.

3 Henry Vernon, Vernon's City of Hamilton, Twenty-eighth Annual, Street, Alphabetical, General, Miscellaneous and Classified Business Directory for the Year 1901 (Hamilton: Henry Vernon, 1901), preface.

4 A.B. Cherrier, Cherrier's Quebec City and Levis Directory, Established in 1858, for the Year Ending May 3,1883 (Québec: Cherrier Co., 1883), p. [73].

5 Hunter, Rose Co., Hunter, Rose Co.'s City of Ottawa Directory for 1870-71, comp. W.H. Irwin (Ottawa: Hunter, Rose Co., 1870), p. 216.

6 Ibid., p. 221.

7 Union Publishing Co., Berlin and Waterloo Directory, 1893 (Ingersoll: Union Publishing, [1893?]), p. 8.

8 W.H. Irwin & Co., City of Hamilton Directory (Hamilton: W.H. Irwin & Co., 1889), p. 443.

9 Maritime Directory Co., Fredericton Directory (Halifax: Maritime Directory Co.,1918), preface.

10 A.S. Woodburn, Ottawa Directory 1875 (Ottawa: A.S. Woodburn, 1875), preface.

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