This week has been one of great excitement for genealogists across the United States, as we reached a new 72-year marker on 1 April 2022 and the 1950 census was released to the public.
1950 is a milestone of sorts, as it marks the beginning of the second half of the 20th century – or the modern age of genealogy research.
Many genealogists are well versed in researching ancestors in the early 1900s, the 1800s and even in earlier centuries.
However, for those who have little experience researching much more recent families, a different set of research skills will likely be necessary.
How Does 20th Century Research Differ from Early Centuries?
There are some positives about the availability of 20th century resources, but there are also quite a few negatives, which will require workarounds in order to experience genealogical success.
First, let’s look at the positives:
1. An explosion of official local, county, state and federal government records
2. Greater likelihood of locating privately held family records
2. Greater likelihood of contact with living family members who can share knowledge
4. Access to local newspaper archives
5. Known location of religious records
6. Existence of school records
On the surface, this list of resources looks fabulous! So many more people were literate, bought and sold real estate, had family events mentioned in local newspapers (obituaries were published for free by many papers!) and families kept many more sentimental mementos.
However, there are a couple of huge downsides to modern research.
- Privacy Issues
- Lack of government resources to retrieve and copy documents
While the negatives list is very short, they create two very effective stumbling blocks for genealogists.
There are millions of Americans enumerated in the 1950 census who are living today. With the advent of the Internet Age, society – and government officials – have begun to institute policies and laws to protect people’s privacy.
Access to vital records is often restricted to the individual named in a record or close, direct family members or to those with a significant legal need to obtain birth, marriage and/or death certificates. Some government agencies have even placed year restrictions which must pass before access is permitted – as much as 100 years!
As the decades passed in the latter portion of the century, individuals became much more inclined to privatize family items like probates, turning instead to options like trusts.
If the deceased did leave a will, county clerks may well tell a researcher that they need to hire a professional to retrieve the file, making it a costly venture.
Accessing land records can be just as expensive if they haven’t been filmed/digitized. I requested two land deeds in two different states, knowing exact years – 1922 and 1935 – and, in both cases, I was told to hire a title company! (I passed on that choice!)
Some counties are beginning to offer online digital images of land records, but those databases usually don’t include pre-21st century records.
Two factors have influenced the amount of information in published obituaries, which have gradually shrunk in length since 1950.
First – Today, obituaries are not published for free and can be quite costly, depending on length as price is determined by the number of words. Some families opt to not have any obituary published, sharing only details of funeral/burial services.
Second – Between burglaries committed when families were attending funerals and, later, a need to protect the privacy of survivors, obituaries no longer contain the rich details of those published mid-century and earlier.
Nowadays, they tend to be quite short – perhaps only the person’s name, age, town residence and funeral details are published. Children might be named only by first name (no married name for daughters) with no place of residence mentioned. Wives’ maiden names might be omitted.
While obituaries may still be very helpful in fleshing out details of a person’s life, they are rarely the treasure trove of information as in past years.
Teachers create lengthy files on their students as they progress from kindergarten through 12th grade. However, upon graduation, a student’s records are moved to inactive records. Because of storage issues and a lack of funds to digitize those school files, many districts have adopted a formal policy of destroying records more than ten years old.
Church records, although plentiful, are often impossible to access without the consent of the minister or priest. Some churches may claim privacy issues, while other church offices don’t have the staff or inclination to drag out the old church registers.
Tips for Successful Genealogical Research in the 20th-21st Centuries
What does all this mean for your own family history research? It’s a bit of a mixed bag.
When researching a family from the 1950s, think outside the box and try lots of strategies. Make use of technology to find workarounds.
Recently, I helped my high school 50 Year Reunion Committee to track down classmates with whom they had lost touch. The strategies in my genealogy toolbox will work as well for 1950s family as for 2020s families.
1. Begin with the 1950 census. Identify family members and begin building their FAN (Friends/Associates/Neighbors) club. Access earlier censuses for the same person/family to add details to his/her life timeline.
2. Check FamilySearch for deeds/probates that have been digitized. If you are really lucky, your family will have lived in one of a handful of localities for which FamilySearch has filmed well into the 20th century. If you are not that lucky, check with family members to see if anyone has land deeds, copies of court records or wills of deceased family members in their possession.
3. Search Ancestry.com for a person of interest by entering name, place and birth year to see if any hits come up. I tried searching for a Sharon Peterson, a friend and classmate who moved away when we were in the 4th grade. I put in the town where she moved plus her name and birth year. Up came her high school yearbook photo!
4. Search FamilySearch using the same search criteria as for Ancestry. Different results usually come up for the same person and it provides a new detail or two.
5. Search MyHeritage, same as in #3 and #4. This site is especially strong with immigration records, of which international travel is part. I’ve found passport images for family members.
6. City directories had become the local telephone books by the 1950s. Depending on the town you are seeking, many can be found on Ancestry and a few other subscription websites. However, if you have specific names and a short range of years, try the town library. Ask to speak to the Reference Librarian and request a look up.
7. Local newspapers published news of school plays, patriotic events, church activities, Girl and Boy Scout meetings, accidents, hospitalizations, local sports, births, graduations and much more, in addition to obituaries. Even the want ads can add life details. I found an ad I placed in the newspaper in 1964 to sell my outgrown bicycle. Fun stuff!
8. Church histories and records – Many religious organizations have published histories. Some can be purchased online; others can be found in local libraries. If you haven’t had success obtaining baptismal, marriage or burial records from a local parish, be prepared to offer to make a contribution to the organization ( $25 might be an incentive) and also be prepared to beg – nicely.
9. Use social media available online today to find living people, such Facebook, Instagram, etc. Warning – Many have become disenchanted with social media. FB used to be one of my first stops looking for living people. Not so much anymore as I am finding fewer and fewer people there.
10. Use public information databases, e.g. FamilyTreeNow, SpyFly, People Finder, Spokeo, Veripages. A place of residence, at least a state and more if a name is common, needs to be included for any chance of success. An exact year is often needed because there will be a number of hits for persons born, say, in 1951, 1952, and 1953. If you have only a name, there might be too many hits for you to determine if your person of interest is even listed. Be aware that many of the telephone numbers and email addresses are outdated on these databases. Many offer a pay-for-the-record service, which I’ve NEVER done. I only search what is free.
11. Find free online obituaries by searching “First Name Surname” (in quotes) plus “obituary” (in quotes). Omit the year unless you are certain when a person died or if you are trying to locate survivors. I found many a missing classmate because they were mentioned in a parent’s or sibling’s obituary.
12. If you discover new details about a person, like a sibling’s name or parents’ names, go back to Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, etc. and search for the siblings/parents. That may uncover new resources & connections to your person of interest.
To be honest, finding living or those who recently lived is like rolling the dice. Some families have enough online bread crumbs to pick up their relatives’ trails, while others seem to fly way below the internet radar. The 1980s seems to be the most difficult decade in terms of finding records and people. It’s a bit too modern for many record formats popular in previous decades, but it’s also a tiny bit too early for many records to have made it into online databases and websites.
I’ve found some people in less than 5 minutes, but other times, it has taken hours to narrow down the focus to two or three possibilities.
In spite of modern day research challenges, it is possible to learn a lot about our 20th century families. The strategies outlined above will increase the chance of success.
2 thoughts on “April 2022 Genealogy Blog Party: Tips for Successful Research in the 1950s & Beyond”
An excellent primer on how to proceed from the middle of the 20th century up to today. Very worthwhile tips, TY so much!
Great tips! I use many of the above as well (with some tweaking), along with others! I don’t find that all of the above are useful for that time period, but ALL are useful in genealogy research! Thanks for sharing! 🙂