Modern Day “Stuff” and Genealogy: Hidden Places to Learn About Ancestors

Most of us think about, and regularly use, genealogical resources like libraries, online databases, courthouses and cemeteries. It’s very easy to overlook modern day “stuff” that we or close relatives might have. Sometimes that “stuff” yields true treasures.

What “stuff” am I talking about? Mostly, but not entirely, items that came into vogue by the beginning of the 20th century. Here are some examples:

  1. Diaries, Journals, Autograph Books – I have distinct memories of keeping a short-lived diary and making autograph books at summer day camp and school. They were thrown in the trash at some point, but I really wish I still had them. Did you create any of these items, or did family members and do you know where they are? I would LOVE to have the signatures of camp friends who often commented on fun activities that happened.
  2. Scrapbooks – I know most of the books themselves were horribly bad in terms of preservation, but they hold endless family memories. Because I was the one family member who asked about the ancestors, I inherited an old Victorian album owned by my great grand aunt, Pearl, that contained priceless family photos. Unfortunately, I had to trash the album itself because of the really bad condition it was in, but by talking to elder, more distant relatives, I gained family photos taken long ago.   The moral of this story is to talk ask questions!
  3. Letters, Postcards, Land Deeds and other Family Papers – Nana kept holiday cards and even vacation postcards that we mailed to her. It’s fun looking back at myself as a child and reading what I thought most important to share. Even more importantly, again by talking to elder, more distant family members, I was the recipient of what, to me, is an important document. A land deed signed by two of my great grandparents and one 2X great grandmother!
  4. School Souvenirs and Program Certificates – More school yearbooks are becoming available online, but if you have access to ones owned by your family members, they often provide insight into their interests and FAN clubs. Commencement programs, club participation and sports interests can be found in school souvenirs, aside from actual grades.
  5. Newspaper Clippings – Families are brought to life in newspaper stories. I’ve moaned in the past about the unavailable newspapers in my two particular states of interest – Maine and New Jersey, but I am lucky that my family clipped items pertaining to themselves, saved and passed them down to the next generations. I’ve learned what my grandmother’s wedding dress looked like, my Mom’s U.S. Navy service, my Dad’s birthday parties and of my great grandfather’s funeral. Most importantly, I’ve learned dates of birth, marriage and death when vital records have not been extant.
  6. Military Records – Although I have no direct ancestor who saw service between the American Revolution and World War I, the brother of my 2X great grandfather, Lowell R. Adams, served in the Spanish-American War. He was likely very proud of that service and had copies of a photo of himself (center, standing) and his platoon (?) taken in Cuba made and given out. The one that his brother received has passed down to his own son, his grandson, and then to me.
  7. Family Bibles – I do not own any family Bibles, except my own. However, I had the chance to see – and touch – the Johannes Whitmer family Bible that was housed at Christus Gardens in Tennessee in the 1990s. It was a very special experience.
    Being the largest Bible in the collection and old (dated in the 1700s), it was in a display case and, YES, it did have original handwritten entries of family vital records.
  8. Baby, Wedding and Funeral Memory Books – By the early 1900s, these memory books were very, very common. They might hold unexpected gems, aside from being lists of who attended and gifts given. If the book was open during the event, actual signatures of the attendees will be in them. My great grand aunt Pearl’s wedding book is in my possession and, like the land deed I shared in #3, my great grandparents PLUS collateral relatives all signed her book during the summer of 1916 when she received guests at home. Page 1 has the (only) original signature of my 2X great grandmother, Nellie Tarbox Adams, followed by that of my great grandmother, Annie Stuart Adams. On later pages, my great grandfather signed, along with more family members.
  9. Religious Activities – Church certificates, photos and newsletters preserve the religious activities of our ancestors. Nana participated in church plays, common in the Slovak-American community in the 1930s. An added bonus was that her brother, Peter, was also in the play.
  10. Family Business Memorabilia – Items like fuel bills, food accounts and actually owning a family business produce all kinds of memorabilia. Nana and my grandfather were owners of a meat market, along with her brother, Peter, and a friend. The store was open for about 25 years. I have an undated trade newsletter that featured the meat market and it has a photo of the workers.

These are just a few of the types of mementos that your family may have treasured and passed down. If you are not the lucky caretaker for any of these items, ask your family members if they or anyone they know has any of these tucked away in a closet. They provide a great picture of what your family’s life was like at a given point in time.

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