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Philadelphia Studies: People & Neighborhoods

City Directories

City directories, the precursor to the telephone book, are an invaluable resource for understanding the history of a city's businesses, organizations, and residents. Temple University maintains an excellent guide for understanding the use of city directories in research.

Penn's holdings of Philadelphia city directories can be found in Franklin by searching "Philadelphia (Pa) Directories" as a subject, or in our microfilm collection. First consult an index of the microfilm directories, City directories of the United States, 1860-1901: guide to the microfilm collection, available in the Van Pelt Reference Stacks at Z5771.2 .C58 1983. Directories are listed alphabetically by city. For Philadelphia, city directories include Boyd's, Gopsill's, McElroy's, as well as Macpherson's directory of 1785, the first American city directory. Each listing will tell you where to locate that directory in the microfilm, which is located in the Van Pelt Microtext Center. 1st Floor, Van Pelt Library.

Early (1785-1865) directories of Philadelphia are available online via the Internet Archive.



Finding Census Schedules from an Address

Note: Some Ancestry functionality is currently limited for off-campus users. Browsing Census schedules by enumeration district is currently available on-campus only. 
For 1940 Census schedules only, see also,  an open access project of the National Archives. is a useful tool for accessing census schedules.  Unfortunately for researchers of cities, it was designed primarily for genealogists, and therefore is much easier to search by name of resident rather than location of residence. In order to research your neighborhood of interest:

  • Find a range of addresses and intersections representative of your neighborhood of interest (use Google Maps, etc.).
  • Go to Ancestry Library Edition
  • Navigate to US Census Collection, then year of choice.
  • Navigate to Pennsylvania, Philadelphia County, and note how the city is divided up (wards, enumeration districts, etc.).
  • For 1880-1940, use Obtain EDs in One Step to find correct enumeration district by street intersection. I recommend hitting "cancel" to access the "LARGE CITY ED FINDER." For 1880, you can also use An urban finding aid for the 1880 federal population census of Philadelphia
  • Go back to Ancestry and find the ward and enumeration district of interest.  You may have to flip through many pages to find your location of interest.


Philadelphia Social History Project

The Philadelphia Social History Project (PSHP), directed by Theodore Hershberg at the University of Pennsylvania, was a pioneering effort by an interdisciplinary group of scholars and students to study the historic social, economic, and demographic dynamics of Philadelphia.

Finding Biographies in Franklin

Book-length biographies can be found in Franklin by searching for a name as a Subject (e.g. Eakins, Thomas 1844-1916), or by searching the place or occupation plus Biography as a subject (e.g. Physicians Pennsylvania Philadelphia Biography). Other sources of biographies of Philadelphians are listed below.

How to Find Property Ownership History

Philadelphia's property records are available back to the 1700s through several databases, free and licensed to the Penn Libraries.

Registry Number (Parcel Map Identifier)

The fundamental piece of information you will need to trace property deeds is your property's Registry Number - also called the Parcel Map Identifier. This identifier has two parts : a Recording Map identifier (number+direction, e.g., 031S, 157N) followed by a Parcel number.

Searching current deeds and property records (1973-present)
Searching property ownership (mid-1800s to mid-1900s)
  1. Reg. Plans. These registers trace parcel ownership, listing consecutive owners and transfer dates - these are necessary for the second step. These PDF pages are arranged by Recording Map identifier. Each line on a PDF page represents a Parcel number. Parcel numbers may carry over to additional pages : look for the Parcel numbers in their appropriate rows! NOTE : If all you need is a list of past property owners and transfer dates, you're done!
  2. Grantee / Grantor. These registers provide the Recorder of Deeds' initials, Deed Date, Deed Book, and Deed Page for each historic deed - these are necessary for retrieving a historic deed. Grantors sell the property, Grantees buy the property. Start by browsing one of these volume menus by date. Then choose the initials (Last name first letter, First name first letter - watch out for how PhilaDox handles very common names!) to open a multi-page PDF file.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

The Sanborn Map Company helped fire insurance companies set rates in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with these detailed maps of each built structure, its use, dimensions, height, building material, and other relevant features (fire alarms, water mains and hydrants, for example).

To find your Philadelphia location within the Sanborns, start with this Graphic Map of Volumes, which will identify the volume covering your location. Each Sanborn volume has its own front-matter Volume Key with a map identifying map pages covering groups of city blocks. The Volume Key will also provide a graphic explanation of map symbols,and it will often include an index of business establishments.


Philadelphia neighborhoods are fluid entities without fixed boundaries. The resources below describe commonly accepted neighborhood boundaries. (For demographic or other data on neighborhoods, see Social & Cultural.)

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