Invisible Women and Asians in 1920s Sacramento

Usually genealogy is really satisfying. Sometimes it just makes me angry and sad.

I spent my Saturday morning reading city directories from Sacramento, California from the early 1920s. I was looking for clues about a couple of my ancestors. City directories are the precursors to phone books (remember those?), and since they were often published annually, they can be a great way to track the lives of your ancestors year-by-year.

As long as those ancestors were male.

And white.

I took a look at the front matter of the 1923 Sacramento City Directory published by Sacramento Directory Co. Here’s what I found:
Sacramento Directory Co., publisher, Sacramento City Directory 1923 (Sacramento: Sacramento Directory Co., 1923), accessed via Ancestry.com, U.S. City Directories 1822-1995 (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 February 2018), image 6 of 391.

I can’t help but wonder what the process was like for the “men who were carefully trained in this work.” How did that training address excluding people on a racial/ethnic basis? What was the training process for ruling out most of the women? For each woman they encountered, the enumerators had to determine a) marital status, and b) employment status to decide whether to include or exclude her.

After the sections listing individuals alphabetically and businesses by type, this book contains a street directory listing each address and who lives there:

Sacramento households 1923
Sacramento Directory Co., publisher, Sacramento City Directory 1923 (Sacramento: Sacramento Directory Co., 1923), accessed via Ancestry.com, U.S. City Directories 1822-1995 (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 February 2018), image 290 of 391.

Do you notice anything untoward in these listings?

Not all city directories were this blatantly racist or sexist. I took a look at the 1923 (same year as above) city directory for Seattle published by R.L. Polk & Co, a firm that published directories for many cities. Asians were not (categorically) excluded. Married women’s first names appeared in their husband’s listings, and though most women with their own listing had an occupation noted, being a single woman without an occupation did not appear to be grounds for exclusion from the directory.

One of the reasons I went into professional genealogy is to help uncover the stories that have been largely excluded from history. There are lots of barriers to finding those stories that I already know about. Today I smacked into a new one. The silver lining? Every time I learn the limitations of one source, I can use it more efficiently for what it DOES contain and move on to find other sources that might have what I’m looking for.

Onward…

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