Among the most useful resources for this region are:
Similar to present-day phone books, they provide a list of residents along with their occupation, place of work, and home address. Some include street-by-street listings, showing the names of all the people who lived at a particular property.
D.C. directories as far back as the 1820s are at the Martin Luther King Library and the Columbia Historical Society. For Alexandria, even earlier directories are kept in that city's public library historical collection at the Lloyd House.
Are you really curious about your home's former residents? Censuses back to 1790 are at the National Archives microfilm room, and many of the local libraries and historical societies have the records for their areas. There is a waiting period of at least 70 years in the release of census data, so the most recent one open to the public is from 1900.
Insurance Company Records
While covering only a very small number of homes, these records are worth looking for because of their great detail. Ones for Virginia, from the Mutual Assurance Society, are at the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission in Richmond and describe buildings' dimensions, construction materials, and replacement value. Updated policies often will show changes and additions to the properties.
Numerous papers have been published in this area over the last two centuries. Check first with your local library; many maintain extensive clipping files.
Besides real-estate atlases, there are many other maps that will show the development of your neighborhood. Fairfax County's Planning Office History and Archeology Section has published several fascinating books showing growth and change in that area, One, Beginning From a White Oak, provides details about original land grants from the 1660s and shows them overlaid on a current street map. Another, The Cartography of Northern Virginia, has reprints of maps from 1608 to 1915.
In addition to details about a person's estate and how it was distributed, wills can provide human interest, and lawsuits over wills can be "particularly interesting and revealing," says Margaret T. Peters of the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission. Open to the public, wills are on file at local court houses.
Besides the local libraries and historical societies, the Library of Congress has many photos of this region, especially the District. Finding an illustration of your home may take true perseverance, as detailed indexes are lacking. Look under the name of your street, but also check the names of any prominent buildings located close to yours.
It often is possible to find people who have been in the area for 40 or 50 years. Their personal recollections can enliven and enrich the sometimes dry archival material you locate.
Clearly there is no single resource that will provide you with a complete picture of your home and neighborhood. "You need to keep bouncing back and forth between various documents," says Columbia Historical Society curator Elizabeth Miller.