Local street directories are valuable sources for house, family, and community history. Before it evolved into the familiar "phone book," the street directory was put together by local entrepreneurs who compiled the information by sending canvassers out to knock on the door of each house in the village and ask who lived there. As a result, these directories often contain a lot of interesting information that phone books later dropped, including what the head of the household did for a living, his or her place of employment, the wife's name, the marital status of single women, e.g., "widow," and often even the names of school-age children living at home. Because they carried as much advertising as possible, the early directories also tell us about local businesses; many also featured a separate business section.
The Museum has most of the Wilmette street directories published from 1890 to 1918, and a large (but far from complete) set of the phone books published after that date. Visitors can browse through photocopies of all of the street directories and most of the phone books.
Directories have the potential to tell you who used to live in your house, and in some cases even who probably built it, and when. The difficulty is that they are sorted by last name, not by address. Luckily, a handful of them—1917-18, 1922-23, 1925, and 1935—actually include a section that is sorted by address, and these are very useful. To get this same advantage for the earlier period, we have taken three early directories—1890, 1898, and 1908—and entered their contents into a computer database, so that they can be sorted and searched.