Monday, September 3, 2012

Don't Forget Those Artifacts

In our research we usually concentrate on looking for documents such as birth and death certificates and marriage licenses…they are, after all, the stuff of genealogy. We also thrive on finding old photographs because they help us identify ancestors and sometimes even relationship among ancestors.
But what about old cameras, old books, furniture, eye glasses, desks, tools, and even houses? Those also can have a value to us genealogists although we don’t always stop to think of it. They can carry family history that is just as important to us in giving "life" to our ancestors as those documents that we spend so much time trying to find. And just like photographs, they can stimulate memories from the living members of our families that might never see the light of day without such a prompt.

We genealogists become antique collectors because we are commentators of family history. Antique dealers treasure such items because of their monetary value; we treasure them because of the stories and history about our families that they carry…their value to us is intrinsic. An old corncob pipe may not be worth very much money, but if we know that it belonged to our great-great grandfather, and that it was his chief pleasure to sit on the porch in the evenings and smoke it while telling stories with the family after working the farm all day, then it has great value.

Other items that may have value to your family are those associated with ancestors’ hobbies or jobs, such as nurses’ uniforms or scissors, pocket watches or cuff links, dried flowers or pressed ones, etc. The list is virtually endless. Often it just requires us to change our focus during our research to recognize the genealogical values of such things.
My family, for instance, treasures a small marble topped table that belonged to my great grandmother. She, as a child, as well as her children and her children's children all, at one time or another, did their arithmetic homework on its top. They wrote directly on the marble with a pencil and then erased their figures to begin again, making the top dull and even wavy in spots. The table is valuable because of the history it carries…because of the role it played in the life of our family, and its imperfections add to the value.
Even houses can hold genealogical value. Parents and grandparents may have wonderful childhood memories about living in a specific house. Another set of stories that might be connected with a house deals with when it was first purchased. Our homes typically are the most expensive possessions we have, and committing to such an obligation for the first time usually impresses itself indelibly on our minds. Those types of memories deserve to be recorded and even amplified with appropriate photographs. They give a broader and deeper understanding of our families and the lives they led.
Treasures of this type are probably scattered with members of your family. A brother may have an old family desk; a cousin may possess a hall tree that once was a great grandparent’s. And of course there is always our own basement or attic that can hold an item waiting to be discovered.

Once an item is found and we discover the story associated with it, don’t forget to write that story down and also record when, where, and who told the story. And when you are recording the story and its source, don’t forget to describe the object that started it all, its location, and take a picture of it as well. Completely documenting sources applies equally to documents and artifacts alike. An excellent source to guide source documentation is Evidence Explained: Citing history sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Second Edition) by Elizabeth Shown Mills, Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc., Baltimore, 2009.
The Pinellas Genealogy Society offers a class on documenting sources that may be of value to you. Check the website at for more information.

So broaden your field of view during your research and consider family possessions as well as documents. The result will be a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the lives your ancestors led.

No comments: