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| Basics of Family History Research
This article is part of a series.
|Overview of Family History Research|
|Family History Collaboration|
|Basics of Family History and Technology|
|Basics of DNA|
|Evaluation and Goal Setting|
|Family History in Time and Place|
|Family History Etiquette, Ethics, Legalities|
|List of Useful Resources for Beginners|
Once you have organized the information you know, you should conduct a survey of home sources: artifacts and documents still in the possession of family and friends. Home sources can include military medals, photographs, the family Bible, a grandparent’s baptismal certificate, or the patent to your great-great-grandparents’ homestead. Any of these items could hold clues about your family history. First steps involve discovering these clues, organizing them into a coherent pattern, and then following as they lead you into public records that add to the detail—or perhaps alter the assumptions. Is the medal from the Civil War service of an ancestor? Does a newspaper clipping describe the accidental death of a granduncle’s first wife? Did your maternal line immigrate in 1878, as tradition states, and your paternal line in 1778, as grandmother was fond of saying?
Funeral prayer cards, resumes, even articles of clothing can be home sources. The criterion is not an object’s monetary worth or research potential. Instead, its value may be purely intrinsic. An object might symbolize a previous owner you’ve come to know through narratives and research; or an artifact might bring another place or time to life. A musical instrument made by a great-great grandfather who was both a carpenter and a professional musician; a chair with an intricate needlework design on the seat cover stitched by a great-grandmother; and a set of fine china with the family initial hand painted by a great-aunt who worked for Marshall Field’s in Chicago: all home sources that connect us to generations past.
Home sources offer three significant opportunities to a family historian. First, the very fact of their survival can tell much about the caretaker—the person or persons who found them to be worthy of saving. Second, they can be genuine sources of evidence: the will preserved for generations that names all of a great-grandfather’s children (even the illegitimate ones) or the record of an infant’s baptism. Third, a home source can be a key that unlocks the approach to an official record, such as a vital record, a cemetery record, or a court case, to name a few possibilities.
Two faded newspaper clippings offered important clues in one research project. The clippings, pasted in a scrapbook, were reports of deaths. One was determined to be the obituary of a merchant who died while visiting family members in the European village of his birth. The translated information provided countless avenues of research. The name of the deceased, his residence, occupation, and date of death led to local historical writings, business and employment sources, a death certificate, and cemetery plot plans. The name and denomination of the minister who conducted the memorial service also proved useful. The listing of other family members, siblings, his widow, and children was especially helpful.
The other clipping contained significantly less detail but its value soon became apparent. This brief death notice included the sentence “Cincinnati papers, please copy.” Cincinnati proved to be the home of many family members of the deceased, a woman without close relatives at her place of death, where the original notice was published.
Your research goal for home sources is to organize and catalogue these links to the past and, if you are reasonably skilled or very fortunate, to identify them in time and place. While few clues may be offered, knowledge of dating techniques for a particular object may provide a breakthrough.
Types of Home Sources
Home sources come in many shapes, sizes, and textures. A home source can be a wedding band etched with a date of marriage; a quilt with the name of the quilter and the date of completion stitched on it; the account book of a nineteenth-century female entrepreneur who supported a young family as a dressmaker for the wealthy; a drop-leaf desk with a secret compartment containing an unrecorded deed; or century-old letters chronicling the Civil War from the perspective of a young soldier from Mississippi.
Discussed here are some of the sources most likely to be found among your possessions.
Perhaps the most durable of home sources are pictorial items that depict people as they were: photographs that capture the essence of a lifetime in a second, outlasting the people portrayed. Sometimes family history research results from the need to identify the people in a particularly captivating photograph or to learn what secrets their lives held.
The studio photograph shown at right of a mother and her triplets was the key to a series of important discoveries about the family. The name and city of the studio in which it was taken was imprinted. Someone had added the words, “Mrs. A. T. Guthridge & triplet daughters 1878.” This knowledge led to an 1880 census record and, ultimately, public and private records for the children and their older siblings. Eventually a living descendant was located who was able to provide some memories and home sources about the family.
Dating studio photographs is easier if something is known about the photographer or the establishment, such as the years the business was in the city. Stephen E. Massengill’s Photographers in North Carolina is one of several references giving biographical information on individual photographers and the city and date range in which they conducted business. Ohio Photographers, 1839–1900, by Diane Vanskiver Gagel, is another good example. Publications focused on other locations may be found through Internet searches.
When a photograph does not contain a studio name or year, books such as Karen Frisch-Ripley’s Unlocking the Secrets in Old Photographs or Joe Nickell’s Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation may help to date a photograph and place it in a specific location. This in turn can help to identify the persons featured. The dating of a picture begins by deciphering the photographic process that was used. A brief summary follows:
The photographic process dates from 1839, when artist, chemist, and physicist Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype process. It utilized a silver-plated copper plate and was used in America almost exclusively until the late 1850s. A pocket-size case, as shown in the image at right, sometimes ornately decorated and with a hinged cover, protected the plate. Joan Severa’s My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America, 1840–1860 depicts many of these images.
The ambrotype (a photograph on glass) achieved popularity from about 1855 into the 1860s. Also mounted in a case, the glass that held the negative was backed with dark paint, cloth, or paper. Often confused with the ambrotype is the tintype, or ferrotype, invented in 1856. The tintype is a plate of sheet iron upon which the image appears. The tintype, as shown in the attached image of the Dyer family, was more durable and less expensive than the ambrotype. Tintypes could be placed in cases or even be covered with glass, but more often they were not mounted. Tintypes continued being made into the early 1900s, mostly in rural areas.
Carte-de-visite photographs were often displayed in albums on parlor tables after 1860. These paper photographs measured approximately 2½ by 4¼ inches and were produced in great quantity through about 1890. From about 1870 until 1910, the larger cabinet-size photograph won favor among portrait sitters.
Modern gelatin dry plates, first manufactured in the United States in 1871, replaced the wet collodion emulsion used since 1864. But widespread use of photography did not occur until the development of a machine that continuously coated photographic paper with emulsion to create roll film, in 1884. In 1888, George Eastman marketed the first portable roll-film camera—the No. 1 Kodak. This camera brought everyday photography into the hands of the public. Within decades it seemed everyone had a camera, and improvements on home cameras mushroomed. In 1891, the first fixed color photos appeared, and by 1914, Kodak was producing panchromatic film which allowed for full color spectrum pictures. Since 1930, color photography advances include improved dyes and high-speed films with low graininess. In 1948 the first Polaroid camera and film were marketed. And by 2006, the general public had moved to digital cameras, recording in both still shots and motion video.
Once the general period of origin of a photograph has been established, other indicators offer more precise dating. Much of nineteenth-century American upper-class society, in dress and habit, patterned itself after that of Queen Victoria. In Queen Victoria’s Family, Charlotte Zeepvat allows a researcher to compare studio backdrops and props, such as period playthings and furniture used for the royal family with those in an unidentified photograph.
An examination of clothing and hairstyles over decades might also help to demystify a photograph in your possession. Joan Severa’s Dressed for the Photographer shows Americans, rich and poor, black and white, rural and urban, and how they chose to dress for the photographer. Richard Corson’s Fashions in Hair: The First 5000 Years illustrates how men’s moustaches, sideburns, and beards changed over time as did hairstyles for both genders. Contrast the differences in the four-generational photograph where fifty-three-year-old Joseph A. Curtis has a moustache, eighty-two-year-old William H. Curtis has a moustache merging into a full beard that includes sideburns, while twenty-five-year-old Jay Curtis is clean-shaven.
Some photographs are picture postcards. The reverse of the Curtis photograph is inscribed with the word “Postcard” and has designated places for the stamp, name and address of the recipient, and correspondence. Photos with family portraits were usually privately printed for distribution to family and friends. Picture postcards can also depict places where your family once lived, including the European village from which the family emigrated, the ships ancestors might have sailed upon, or events conceivably witnessed by past generations. The messages written on postcards can add to your knowledge about the family while providing important insights into the lives of your ancestors.
Postcards were introduced into the United States from Austria in the 1870s. Before World War I, holiday greeting postcards were a popular choice for Christmas, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day messages. Topical postcards encompass advertisements or announcements of special events, such as the cards introduced by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Topical cards were also used to depict disasters (such as fires), to provide entertainment, and to promote political figures. View cards are realistic portraits of actual places, people, or objects, tourist attractions and landscapes being the most favored subjects.
Postcards can be dated through their inscriptions, stamps, or styles. Those marked “Private Mailing Card” are likely to have been printed between 1898 and 1902 or, if printed in Europe, between 1899 and 1918. From 1901 to 1907, cards were labeled “Postcard” or “Post Card.” Only after 1907 did postal regulations permit correspondence on the back of the card. This information helped date the Curtis postcard photo to after 1907 because the back was split down the middle with space for a note on the left side.
The use of stamps as a dating method is explained at http://www.playle.com/realphoto. Among the clues are: penny postcards were manufactured after 1898, when postal regulations established the penny postcard rate, while cards requiring two cents of postage date from 1873 to 1898.
Popular styles included cards with white borders (1915 to 1930), linen surfaces (1930 to the late 1940s, although some companies continued with this up to 1960) and today’s glossy pictures (called chromes) which began in the late 1940s. More style details may be found at http://www.ajmorris.com/roots/photo/postcard/style.htm.
Postmarks and the notes written on the postcard can be obvious dating sources. The postmark on a postcard portrait taken at Coney Island dates the photograph to 1908. The inscription on the back provides the names of those pictured.
One of the largest online collections of searchable postcards is from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection, one of America’s largest publishers of postcards and photographic views during the early decades of the twentieth century. The collection is spread between at least three repositories. More than 28,000 images of areas east of the Mississippi River are available in the Prints and Photographs Online Collection of the Library of Congress (go here for an index and a history of this company and links to related holders). The Colorado Historical Society (Denver) has approximately 13,000 images from the Detroit Publishing Company representing views west of the Mississippi. The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village has approximately 18,000 vintage photographs and 9,500 postcards. Postcards can also be found online at a variety of sites, including the Florida Postcard Collection, the University of Delaware Library Postcard Collection and the New York State Library collection.
A collection housed in one museum but with far-ranging potential for researchers is that amassed by Curt Teich, a German immigrant. Teich spent the 1890s photographing cities in the United States. He printed his pictures as postcards at his business establishment in Chicago. The Teich Company became the largest postcard printer of its kind in the world, producing cards for more than seventy-five years. The business archives of more than 350,000 postcards and the original production files are now housed at the Curt Teich Postcard Archives in Lake County Discovery Museum in Wauconda, Illinois, near Chicago. More than 30,000 images are catalogued and available for searching online. Perhaps one of these cards will reveal something about the neighborhood in which your family lived.
The written record endures in many forms. Letters and personal accounts of events or eras are highly valued for the information they contain—but it is the family Bible that most often becomes the object of diligent searching.
Should you be fortunate enough to possess a family Bible, the following techniques might help you to evaluate its usefulness as a source of information. First, note the date of its publication. Match the publication date against the span of events written upon the page for family history. If the handwritten entries predate the publication, it is a clear indication that they were recorded not as they occurred but at a later date. Next, examine the handwriting used for each entry. Is it all in the same script, indicating that they were written by the same person? Are the entries in the same ink, suggesting that all were made at one sitting? Is there an inscription?
Check each page of a Bible or inherited book for notations or enclosures. Some owners recorded the dates of events, such as memorial services, weddings, and christenings, in the margin adjacent to the Bible text used for the occasion. Others stored small papers between the Bible pages: prayer cards, obituaries from newspapers, meaningful scraps of church bulletins, and even handwritten notes. Such a note enclosed in one Bible contained, in German script, the full name and birth date of each child born to the finder’s great-grandparents.
The Library of Virginia holds more than six thousand family Bible records and registers that reflect Virginia connections. The Library has been diligent in adding to this collection, which is housed in Richmond. An online index with links to scanned images is available.
Diaries and Journals
Diaries and journals are valued highly by family historians. It is easy enough to verify the accuracy of news and events: weather, surroundings, world and local happenings the diarist might have chosen to record. The accuracy and completeness of such entries can, in part, indicate the care with which other, more family-oriented, news was recorded.
Official Documents Held by Family Members
Did family members save copies of documents created by public rather than private entities? Birth, marriage, and death certificates, [American Sources for Documenting Immigrants#Naturalization Records|naturalization papers], [Miscellaneous Military Records#Discharge Records|military discharges], and [Types of Court Records|legal papers from court actions] are among the official records families may choose to retain. Valuable in themselves, such documents become priceless when the original documents have been lost through fire or neglect or are otherwise unavailable to you.
What do the records tell you? Are the names recognizable? Is there evidence of where the original record might be or perhaps the name of the county or church that created the record? Such tips can be springboards to finding other information. A will might be only one of dozens of documents pertaining to an estate that are on file at a county courthouse.
Of course, it is possible that your home copy of a document may never have been in a courthouse. People sometimes found it inconvenient or too expensive to officially record certain events. An early deed or mortgage, an original will, or the marriage certificate of a penniless couple might be the only record of a particular event. Such semi-official records should be stored in a safe place that will slow or prevent their deterioration.
Privately held documents should be evaluated without bias and with some understanding of their history. Be especially careful to avoid reaching unfounded conclusions about their value. For example, take care with land patents (documents that transferred property from the federal government to private citizens). Patents dated before 2 March 1833 were signed by the president of the United States; after that date, designated officials signed on the president’s behalf.
For more than two centuries, the making of samplers was part of a young American woman’s education. Introduced in the seventeenth century by settlers from England and northern Europe, samplers soon acquired distinctively American characteristics. Authority Mary Jaene Edmonds has determined that samplers were created in American classrooms according to the instructions of teachers. Edmonds has connected numerous samplers back to the influence of private schoolmistresses, whose teachings can be seen in the selection of patterns and the methods of execution. Her studies could lead a family historian to place the making of an heirloom sampler in a particular time and period. Genealogical information was a favored topic of sampler makers, such as young Louisa H. Plympton (born 1812, Middlesex County, Massachusetts). She used the tree of life design to stitch the names and birth dates of six Plympton children (born 1806–1828) on six pieces of fruit hanging on the branches of a tree whose roots show their parents’ names and marriage date (October 2, 1805).
Not all home sources contain as much obvious family information as does the sampler described previously, yet even the most unlikely of trinkets can be revealing by providing identifiers that direct or define a search.
One researcher discovered a police badge among her family’s home possessions. There was little on it to connect the original owner to a particular police department or time period, yet it opened doors otherwise closed. This object provided an indicator, in this case to an occupation, which distinguished the ancestor from the many other urban dwellers of the same name. Knowledge of the police connection enabled the researcher to track its owner through several years of city directories, providing a given name for the family member, an approximate year of death, and the year of arrival in the city. With these facts, the researcher was able to venture into records of immigration, death, and probate, a difficult task in an urban area.
Jewelry is often a valued family heirloom and can provide genealogical clues as well. A date or a name inscribed on a locket suggest who the owner may have been. If a piece of jewelry has monetary value, it may be fairly easy to date. A book that may help in dating late-nineteenth-century jewelry and perhaps identify a place or manufacturer of origin is Ann Mitchell Pitman’s Inside the Jewelry Box. Maureen DeLorme’s Mourning Art and Jewelry gives the history of the memorial art forms. Many color photos depict portrait miniatures, paintings and sculpture, and hair-work memorials, including jewelry that contained locks of hair of the departed.
The dating of antiques, such as furniture or other collectibles, is more complicated. Few family historians are experts in this art, and most will benefit from the professional help available from museums and historical societies. Take the object or a photograph of it to a curio shop or antique show where there are knowledgeable and reliable dealers. Seek more than one opinion, but be willing to pay for such consultations.
“Home” Sources Outside the Home
Not every family is fortunate enough to possess a collection of home sources. For those who have scarcely a photograph or a piece of heirloom jewelry, the initial steps will include a search for artifacts or manuscripts that may have been moved to other places.
A distant relative, a former neighbor, or a one-time business associate of the family may possess photographs or correspondence exchanged a generation or more ago. Or these persons may have knowledge of more distant holders of such artifacts. A researcher who practices tact, patience, and persistence could discover a treasure trove of memorabilia in another’s possession. If so, do not expect instant access to what may be valued materials. Instead, establish yourself as a caring, considerate seeker of information and one who is willing to share what you have acquired.
The Internet has become a quick and wonderful way to find old photographs, documents, and heirlooms. Megan Smolenyak’s website http://honoringourancestors.com/library_orphan.html points to dozens of articles and related websites that are dedicated to returning “orphan” artifacts to families or individuals who seek them. Family trees and locality and surname message boards on sites such as RootsWeb.com and Ancestry.com can also be surprisingly successful in locating precious mementos that have been lost to family members over the years.
Flea markets, antique dealers, and county fairs in the region from which a family came are all potential places to find materials that, even if not specifically linked to your family, can reveal much about the era and location in which they lived. Explore local and regional archives and museums for evidence of your family’s past. When visiting the hometown or city where family members once lived, take time to view photographs or collectibles exhibited by area museums or historical societies. These agencies may hold important manuscript materials that might include Civil War correspondence, business records of companies that employed relatives, or the private papers of former neighbors who were prominent in the community. The Clearwater Historical Museum in Orofino, Idaho, holds more than 4,500 historical photographs and artifacts from the Clearwater River drainage region, east and west from the Montana border to the Clearwater River and Snake Rivers at Lewiston, north and south of Shoshone County into parts of Idaho. The collection includes Nez Perce Indian history and artifacts, the history and tools of gold mining and the logging industry, and the antique guns, fine china, and turn of the century medicinal and barber tools brought into the area by early settlers. Pictures of some of their exhibits are online at http://www.clearwatermuseum.org.
There are a number of good finding aids to locate collections of family papers that have left the family’s possession and found their way into a repository, perhaps in a distant city. Such collections might include diaries, correspondence, or legal documents acquired by earlier generations, or significant photograph collections that are annotated. The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, described in chapter 3, “General References and Guides,” can help to locate manuscripts by the name of a family or individual.
Organizing Home Sources
Once you have acquired some information about an object’s origin or the date of its creation, prepare a written record of it. Photograph each precious item and arrange the pictures in an archival photo album. Leave space to record all that is known about the object, including professional or personal opinions of value, origin, and age.
A home sources album is good for insurance purposes as well as for preserving background information. It provides a photographic record for the identification of possessions and can help to manage an otherwise overwhelming collection of artifacts or written materials. The amount of organizing and the system you employ will depend on how many home sources you have. Small collections can be grouped by type: artifacts, wearables, or photographs. If you have a Bible, two diaries, several letters, and a journal, the category might be “communication or written.” Larger collections of a single category can be subdivided chronologically.
Regardless of the type or amount of material you possess or the system you adopt, managing possessions by organizing and cataloging them makes good sense. One benefit is that you can effectively use the information without excessive handling of the objects. Substituting photographs of home sources (especially those most often referred to for research purposes) allows you to place the originals in a safe location.
After the collection is divided into categories, the inventory begins. Design a simple inventory form that has headings for inventory date, person or persons conducting the inventory, category of home source, and its ultimate destination. List each item, provide a description, note its condition, context (where it was found or is usually kept), any genealogically relevant information it contains, and whatever is known or surmised about its origin.
Computer database programs provide an excellent way to organize such information. A carefully designed database will allow you to print a list of holdings in a variety of ways: by type of object, by date or origin, by name of original possessor, or by present or future caretaker, for example. Enhance the database by adding similar information on all family holdings—even those that some family members may refuse to share or exchange. Suggestions for cataloging appear in Ann Carter Fleming’s The Organized Family Historian and Rhonda R. McClure’s Digitizing Your Family History.
Family members who cannot bear to part with objects may permit photographs and/or written summaries to be made. They are more likely to do so if, in exchange, they receive similar information from other holders of home sources.
Preservation of Home Sources
The condition of some items may require an attempt at restoration. If you are not familiar with the techniques necessary to restore or preserve antiques or manuscript material, two options are available. First, you can study a manual on restoration and determine if you are capable of restoring the artifact to your satisfaction. Two useful publications are Caring for Your Family Treasures, by Jane Long and Richard Long, and the briefer leaflet Caring for Family Treasures.
If time or skill limitations prohibit a do-it-yourself project, a second option is to call upon professionals. Contact area museums or historical societies to obtain the names of qualified persons. Talk to neighbors or antique dealers who have had experience with persons who restore or prepare items for preservation.
Important and irreplaceable photographs or picture postcards can be duplicated, often inexpensively. Artifacts, jewelry, clothing, and samplers can be photographed. Correspondence, Bible pages, diaries, and journals not durable enough to be photocopied can be transcribed (in script or type). Every care should be taken to ensure that the original is duplicated or described carefully in a permanent record.
One of the best methods of preservation is sharing. Provide other family members with items from your collection that may be of emotional value but are not critical to your genealogical record. Any item that can be reproduced in some fashion should also be shared. Not only does your benevolence lessen the risk of a major catastrophe destroying all family treasures, your kindness may encourage others to share with you.
Finally, when these most precious of objects need care beyond what you can provide, consider donating them to family members for safekeeping, or to historical societies, museums, or other places equipped to preserve and protect such items. Whatever you decide, contact the recipient in advance to be sure the person or organization is willing to accept the collection and to determine in what form or condition it would be most welcome. Plan wisely. Leaving a collection of fragile glassware to a library that specializes in printed matter may not be the wisest donation decision.
- ↑ Mary Jaene Edmonds, Samplers and Samplermakers: An American Schoolgirl Art, 1700–1850 (New York: Rizzoli International, 1991), 64–65.