Research Tips and Tricks: Historic Business Research

Many requests that come across my desk have to do with historic business research. Patrons often want to find out any information on a particular business in Rhode Island; anything from where the business was located to how long they were in business. When I tackle such requests, one of my first impulses is to consult our collection of city directories.

1901 Prov. DirectoryThe most popular city directory is the Providence City Directory. The Providence Public Library holds the Providence Directory going back to 1824 and the Rhode Island Business Directory going back to 1872.

These directories are very useful as a starting point, supplying researchers with the basics such as where the business was located in which year and they can also give a timeframe the business was in business. If you are lucky, these directories might also show you an ad for the business you are researching.

The hardest part of using a city directory for research is figuring out how to actually use the directory. When looking for people, it is quite straight forward; you simply need to look up the person by their last name which is listed in alphabetical order. When dealing with businesses, though, the directory can be a bit more tricky. The business part of a directory has stayed pretty much consistent throughout the centuries in that they are organized by service rather than simply by alphabetical order by name. For example, when you look into the Yellow Pages for this year, you can find a plumber by looking under the 'Plumber' heading rather than looking up the plumber's name directly. This gets tricky when researchers start going back in the decades as categories change throughout time. For example, if you want to look up a company that makes knives nowadays, you could look them up under "knives" or "cutlery," but if you wanted to look up the same type of business in 1901, you would need to look them up under "Hardware and Cutlery."

1901 Prov. Directory So, when looking up services in older directories, you may need to consult a thesaurus or consult with your local historian to try and figure out what that service was called during that time period.

As you can see in the image above, the directories give you a list of the businesses under that service along with the address. It also gives you the page number where an ad for the business can be found in the directory. For example, Hawkins, George A. has an ad on page 1521 in this directory, which can often give you even more leads.

1901 Prov. Directory

Directories can also help identify the time period of the business. The best way to determine this is to start looking through the directories at an interval of every five years to see if the business is listed. If you have a general idea of when the company was in business than you can use that as a starting point (but remember to look five years forward and five years backward to make sure you catch when the busniess was first mentioned). Keep looknig every five years until the business is no longer listed. Once you hit a year it is no longer listed, go back three years and see if the business is listed then. If it is not listed three years back, go back one year until you do see the next listing. This will give you a good estimate of when the company was in business in Providence.

If all else fails, you are more than welcome to email, phone, or visit me to see if we can find anymore leads in the Rhode Island Collection.



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