Researching Small Businesses in Chicago

October 7, 2015

Grace Dumelle
The Newberry 

Do you want to know more about your ancestor’s meat market? Barber shop? Candy store? Tavern? Here are a dozen places to look:

  1. The classified section of city directories and telephone directories. There may be an ad or text description of the business. Start with the owner’s name; most small commercial enterprises did not have fanciful names and stuck to monikers such as “Lee Lumber” or “Smith Brothers Mfg.”

    The Newberry holds Chicago city directories back to 1844 and many are available on There are also business-only directories from 1839-1943. The library holds many years of the residential telephone directories (“White Pages”). The classified directory (“The Red Book”) is available for some years in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1950s. Ethnic directories often contain business listings. See The Newberry Library City Directory Collection guide for more details.

  2. Trade association directories and trade periodicals. These are often excellent sources for biographical information. Detailed obituaries and business profiles are some of the treasures you can find. Search the Newberry catalog under the name of the industry and locality as subjects e.g. “Furniture Industry and Trade – Illinois – Chicago”

    History of Chicago and souvenir of the liquor interest: the nation’s choice for the great Columbian Exposition, 1893. This directory profiles saloons and includes photos of the owner or building. Just one example of directories focused on a particular industry/profession.

  3. Chicago Biography and Industry File (CBIF). This is an index to biographical sketches of business owners and businesses in “who’s who” books published between 1876-1937.

    You’ll also want to check The Book of Chicagoans and similarly-titled volumes in person on the Chicago Browsing shelves for 1905, 1911, 1917, 1926, 1931, 1936, 1941, 1945 and 1950. Entries from these volumes are not found in CBIF

  4. Newspaper stories. Search the digitized Chicago Tribune, available on-site, by owner’s name, business address, and business name. You might find coverage of robberies, anniversaries, and unusual customers or orders filled. Other digitized newspapers are available through the Chicago Public Library and Library of Congress, or stand-alone sites such as the Hyde Park Herald.

  5. Check for licenses. Did the establishment need a municipal, county or state license? These documents can help determine the years of operation. The Illinois Regional Archives Depository holds some licenses for peddlers and saloons. The state archives in Springfield hold licenses for barbers, plumbers, and many other professions.

  6. Chicago City Council Proceedings. The Newberry’s collection of these volumes has been digitized and is freely available at the Internet Archive for the years 1866-67, 1869-72, 1876-77, and 1879-1905. See if a business or business owner had dealings with the city government.

  7. Company materials: catalogs, brochures, posters, employee newsletters and so on. The Newberry’s David C. Meyer Collection of Letterheads and Stationery, for example, consists of single sheet letterheads, envelopes, stationery packets, and advertising materials originally issued by hotels, businesses, organizations, and performers.

    Also try the ArchiveGrid database.

  8. Probate records. Inventories of estates may provide an unparalleled peek into the establishment. I once found two page listing of the contents of a restaurant – silverware, dishes, cigar case, slot machine, window awnings and more. has simplified the process of finding these records by digitizing a raft of Cook County inventories and related documents. The database is available for in-person use.

  9. Photos. Look into digital collections and postcard collections (such as the Curt Teich Postcard Archives). Even if you don’t find the ancestor’s exact business, you’ll have more context as what livery stables or boardinghouses looked like.

  10. Yearbooks/anniversary books. Local businesses such as malt shops and florists often took out ads in school yearbooks and church anniversary books. The Newberry holds many of these. Use maps to determine schools and churches near the business, then search our catalog for the names of those institutions.

  11. Business records. Generally, you won’t find these for small businesses, unless someone has donated to a museum or archive. The Newberry holds some records of printers, for example, in our Modern Manuscript collections.

  12. Souvenirs. Talk to relatives, look on eBay and search the web for items that were made, used, or given as promotions by the business.