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Boston Historical Address Research

Learn how to research an address in Boston by the person's last name or by the street address.

Boston Address Research

Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, Mass.

This Research Guide provides resources on how to research historical addresses in Boston. There are many reasons you might need to research an address, such as genealogy research or wanting to know what a building was in the past. Due to privacy concerns, these resources focus on historical research and are not meant to research living people.

This guide is divided into two main sections - researching by a person's last name or by an address. Many of these resources are available online, and the rest are resources you can use at the Central library in Copley Square. In addition, this list is comprised of many commonly used resources for address research. It is not a comprehensive list of every resource available, so if you need more assistance please contact the Research Services department.

By Person's Last Name

The streets of Boston. Tremont Street

These resources can be used to research addresses by a person's last name. For example, if you want to know where an ancestor lived at a fixed point in time or track them throughout their life. The library has a variety of resources to help with this type of research. City directories and telephone directories were made by private companies, and the lists of residents and Census were created by the government. Most of the resources track the head of household and/or adult residents. The Federal Census is the only resource in this list that will have names of children.

The Boston Directory

The Boston City Directory is a useful resource to track a person through time. It was compiled by private companies and usually included information such as the person's name, address, and profession. Think of it as a phone book for just addresses. Most of its run published the names of adult men, and the first year to show the names of wives with their husbands was 1933. The first directory was published in 1789, and it was published irregularly until 1825 when it became annual. The last directory was published in 1981. Because it had such a long run, the format and included information changed frequently. For example, early volumes are only in a rough order, and volumes after 1930 added a street directory.

Where to use the Boston City Directory at home:
Boston Public Library Directory research guide: 1789 to 1974, with gaps
Boston Athenaeum: 1789 to 1900, with gaps
HathiTrust: 1789 to 1887, with gaps


Resources available at the Boston Public Library:

Ancestry Library Edition: 1823 to 1981, with gaps (database must be used on a library computer)
Hard copy Boston City Directories: 1789 to 1981, with gaps. These hard copies can be used at Central and requested from the Research Services desk inside Bates Hall. They will be microfilm or books, depending on the years you need. You will need a library card or research card to view them.

The Boston List of Residents is like a mini census the city takes each year. It includes information such as the name and occupation of the residents. The first year the library has is 1861, but for the majority of its run, it was only organized by ward and precinct of the address. The first volume that added a name directory was 1985, and they are organized by last name. They will only include adults who have submitted their information, and they do not include names of children. For privacy reasons, these later years have not been digitized, and the hard copies can be used at Central. All years can be requested from the Research Services desk, and you will need a library card or research card to view them. 

Resources available at the Boston Public Library:
Hard copy Lists of Residents - 1985 to present, can be requested from Bates Hall desk. 
You will need a library card or research card to view them. Due to privacy, the most recent year available will be a few years old.  

Boston white pages 1968

Telephone directories (phonebooks) are available as hard copies at the Boston Public Library from as early as 1884 and continue to present, with some gaps. They are organized by last name of the head of household. The available formats include microfilm, microfiche, and hard copy books, and the format depends on the year you would like to see. They can be requested from the Research Services desk in Bates Hall, and you need a library card or research card to request them. 

Telephone directories are not available online.

Resources available at the Boston Public Library:
Hard copy telephone directories: 1884 to present, with gaps

1940 Federal Census

The Federal Census has been taken every ten years since 1790, and you can use it to find a street address of your ancestor. This resource is valuable because you can search it knowing only the person's name and the state they lived in. The Census is also the only resource on this list that includes all the members of the household, including children. Due to the 72 year rule, the most recent Census schedules available are 1940. The records for 1850 to 1940 will probably be the most helpful because the earliest records did not provide as much information. You can find out more about the information contained in the Census from the National Archives.

While the Boston Public Library does have Census records available as microfilm or hard copies (format is dependent on the year), it is available from a number of online resources.

Where to access the Census at home:
FamilySearch (free for everyone - filter by collection name "United States Census")
HeritageQuest Online (free for Boston Public Library patrons - log in with your library card number and 4-digit PIN)

Resources available at the Boston Public Library:
Ancestry Library Edition (must be used on a library computer)

 

By Person's Address

Tremont Street, Boston, Mass.

These resources can be used to research a specific address. For example, if you want to know who lived at an address or what a building was in the past. Directories can be used to find residents, and maps and atlases can be used to find owners of a building. These resources will include head(s) of household or building owners, so children will not be included.

Boston Directory Street and Avenue Guide

The Boston City Directory is a useful resource to track an address through time. It was compiled by private companies and usually included information such as the person's name, address, and profession. Think of it as a phone book for just addresses. Most of the directories are organized by person's last name. The volumes after 1930 have street directories in the back of either both volumes or the last volume. The last directory was published in 1981. Most of its run published the names of adult men, and the first year to show the names of wives with their husbands was 1933. 

Where to use the Boston City Directory at home:
Boston Public Library Directory research guide: 1789 to 1974, with gaps

Resources available at the Boston Public Library:
Ancestry Library Edition: 1823 to 1981, with gaps (database must be used on a library computer)
Hard copy Boston City Directories: 1789 to 1981, with gaps. These hard copies can be used at Central and requested from the Research Services desk inside Bates Hall. They will be microfilm or books, depending on the years you need. You will need a library card or research card to view them.

Ward 1 Precinct 1 City of Boston List of Residents

The Boston List of Residents is like a mini census the city takes each year. It will include information such as the name and occupation of the residents. The first year the library has is 1861, and for the majority of its run, it was only organized by ward and precinct of the address. To find out the ward and precinct, you can use a street list from a similar time to the one you are researching. Keep in mind that these numbers could change over time as boundaries changed. They will only include adults who have submitted their information, and they do not include names of children. For privacy reasons, these later years have not been digitized, and the hard copies can be used at Central. The most recent available year is on the open shelves near the Research Services desk in Bates Hall, along with hard copy street lists. Additional years can be requested from the reference desk.

Where to use the Boston City Directory at home:
Boston Public Library Lists of Residents research guide: 1909 to 1966, with gaps

Resources available at the Boston Public Library: 
Hard copy Lists of Residents: 1861 to present

Due to privacy, the most recent year available will be a few years old.
You will need a library card or research card to view them. 

Cole's Metropolitan Household Directory Boston West Suburban

Cross-reference directories are directories that have names listed by addresses and/or telephone numbers. They will have the name and address and possibly a telephone number. One kind of cross-reference directory is called an "address record." They will only list the head(s) of household and will not have names of children. Most of the Boston Public Library's cross-reference directories will be on microfilm, and the library also has hard copies of some of the Cole Boston Directories. You will need a library card or research card to view them.

Resources available at the Boston Public Library: 
Address record/cross-reference directories on microfilm: 1938, 1940 to 2000. Request it from Bates Hall.
Cole Directory for Boston Central books: 1986 to present, with gaps. Use this guide to find out how to access books at the Delivery Desk and Archival Center. 

The library has more volumes of the Cole Directory for other Boston area locations, which you can find by searching for "Cole Directory Boston" in the library catalog.

Historical Newspaper Databases - Descriptions

Newspaper databases are a valuable resource because they are searchable. You can enter an address and see if any results appear. A common result is advertisements, but other news stories can result. Keep in mind that addresses can be formatted differently, and you might have to run different searches to include these alternatives. For example, 700 Boylston Street could also be spelled as 700 Boylston or 700 Boylston St. You can find out more about the Boston Public Library's newspaper databases on our Newspaper research guide.

Databases at the Boston Public Library are organized by title, or you can view just newspaper databases here.

Local Boston newspapers can be found in the following databases:
Boston Globe (1872-1985)
Newspaper Archive (includes the Boston Post for 1831-1922 and the Boston Globe for 1872-1922)
19th Century US Newspapers

Atlas of the city of Boston : city proper and Roxbury : plate 18

Atlases and maps are resources you can use to try to find out who owned a building, as well as see where the home was in the context of the city. Some resources have been digitized, and if you want to pursue this area further, you can contact the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

Where to access atlases and maps at home:
Massachusetts Real Estate Atlas Digitization Project: contains atlases from ~1857 to ~1938, with many gaps.  
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps: online at the Library of Congress. 1867 to 1975, with many gaps.
Map Junction: contains maps from 1640 to present for Boston, with gaps. It is searchable by address and also lets you compare two maps from different dates.

 

Resources at the Boston Public Library:
Leventhal Map Center
Atlascope (through the Leventhal Map Center)

Historical Urban Atlases of Boston @ the BPL