What Life Was Like In The Living Of It
The historian, Will Durant, once indicated that a definition of "history" could be "human activity through time." The truth of this statement cannot be denied. We are born, we live a period of time, and we die. During our lifetimes we associate with others, work, perhaps marry and have a family, engage in recreation, experience the great events of the world around us, connect with Nature and the arts, solve pressing problems through inventions and devices, and play. We express ourselves in various ways. During our lifetimes we create a personal history, the story of ourselves and our connections with others and the world at large.
If we engage in genealogical research, our focus is usually very narrow. We fill in the blank lines on the pedigree chart with names, birth, marriage and death dates. We often forget that our ancestors lived life through time in a three dimensional experience difficult to reduce to a line on a chart.
Some of the genealogical research programs do broaden the search and include aspects of social history.
Family Tree Maker is just one example of a program that provides a little social history platform. It has a built-in database of historical events from all over the world that can be used in timelines. You can edit, delete, and add to these historical events. When you create a timeline, Family Tree Maker looks at facts entered for an individual and displays the most location-appropriate historical events.
There are many excellent web-based tools, such as timeglider, Dipity, and Timeline, that allow researchers to create, share, embed and collaborate on interactive timelines that integrate video, audio, images, text, links, social media, location and timestamps. These timeline tools do not come with a built-in database of historical events, however.
We frequently want more information than these programs provide or we want to focus on a special aspect in our ancestor's life. Most of the time we have little to go on in order to know what life was like in the living for them. Fortunately today, we have numerous resources to help us fill in the blanks and develop a well-rounded understanding of what constituted and influenced the lives of our ancestors. Resources on the World Wide Web become indispensable.
Choosing some general categories for social history research before we begin our genealogical research makes our work go faster and easier. In addition to the often dominant and more easily available political history information such as the New York Times "On This Day", I suggest exploration of the following:
- Arts - music (popular, classical), dance, drama (theater, film), painting, sculpture, literature.
- Medicine and dentistry
- Food and gardening
- Sports and recreation
- Consumer goods and fashion
- The subject's special interest if known
Many of us come to genealogy through loss. In 1989, my father was in his last year of life. We spent many good hours together and he gave to me what he could of our family history. The stories he told brought up more questions than they answered. When he died, I sought additional information about my grandparents and their families. I was fortunate to contact some relatives on my mother's side who were of my generation, the descendants of my great aunts and uncles, but the generation I most needed to talk with had passed, as had the generation who were their direct descendants.
County clerks and public records became my best sources and although they provided excellent facts that answered the questions of Who? and When?, they could not tell me the How? and Why? of the lives of my ancestors. For that, I sought elsewhere, looking for what might provide a larger picture of their lives and times.
Through records kept in family Bibles and a marriage license registered with a county clerk, I was able to establish key dates in my maternal grandmother's life. I had a copy of her death certificate. With this timeline, I attempted to fill in some larger unknowns in an effort to find out what the wholeness of my grandmother's life might have been like.
Ethel, my maternal grandmother, was born in 1897 on a ranch near Sweetwater, Texas. I knew that she was an uneducated woman, having only the very beginnings of primary education. She could write her name but little else. She was, however, very intelligent and wise and she loved music.
Until her death in 1953, she sang songs that had been handed down to her by way of Scots-Irish ancestors. These were ballads like "Barbara Allen". She also sang a number of Civil War songs. Her repertoire included Mountain Gospel and popular songs of my youth in the 1940's and 1950's because she was a great fan of the radio.
Because of her love of singing, I decided to search for a music profile of her lifetime. One of the best sites I found was the Lone Star College - Kingwood Library site, "American Music Before 1900".
This scholarly source provided not only titles and information about popular music by year as well as lyrics, it also provided video and audio of the music plus additional commentary about activities from ballroom dancing events to circus, vaudeville, and the popularity of John Philip Sousa.
My grandmother was a very modern woman. Her husband had died when their daughter, my mother, was two years old. My grandmother did not remarry.
She liked her independence. Ethel was an entrepreneur, starting a lunch wagon business in Sweetwater using the skills she had, cooking. Using fresh ingredients from her garden, her flock of chickens, plus what she could trade for, and the few items she bought, she traveled to work sites in a mule drawn wagon and conducted a brisk lunch trade.
Ethel did well until the Depression but was sustained by the good fortune and wise business practice of owning her land, house and animals. Because my grandmother had used her talent for cooking, I became curious regarding the food fashions of her day.
One of the most comprehensive resource sites is The Food Timeline. From this site I was able to trace the popular food brands that my grandmother most likely purchased. These include Chase and Sandborn Coffee and Quaker Rolled White Oats.
Food Reference.com also provides an enormous amount of useful information about food. In addition, it lists other significant, events, literature and items concurrent with food developments, like the rationing in WWII.
My grandmother lived at a time of many inventions we take for granted. She saw the beginning of the motor age with Ford's Model T and the media age with the radio. She lived in a world that moved from kerosene lamps to electrification. She saw the development of photography, movies and television. The Wright Brothers took their first flight when she was six years old. When she died, we were entering the jet age. She saw adding machines come into common use and the beginning of the computer age in 1937. Inventions Timeline is an invaluable starting place for this kind of research.
Consumer goods often reveal much about our needs and values in an historical period. Sears hosts one of the best research sites. The company's archives page provides information about activities in different time periods as well as the goods the company sold.
Because the 19th and 20th Centuries are renowned for scientific discoveries, I wanted to trace what my grandmother had experienced. Science Timeline is an excellent and extremely detailed source. At the beginning of my grandmother's life aspirin was produced for the first time, Marie Currie discovered x-rays, and Max Planck began work that would lead to the foundation of quantum physics. At the end of her life, Wittgenstein published his Philosophical Investigations, An Wang invented the magnetic core computer memory, and Watson and Crick built a model of DNA that began genetic research.
I found I wanted to see what the span of my grandmother's life looked like and discovered Historypin. This site provides a "then & now" street view look at locations around the world. The photos come from individual contributors as well as libraries, archives, museums, businesses, and schools. I also made use of the Library of Congress' rich and vast photostream on Flickr.
My grandmother Ethel lived through the Depression and two World Wars. Those are big political events but they do not describe the true richness of the ideas, arts and forces shaping her life, nor do they give a more complete insight into her lifetime experience.
As you can see, filling in the "blank spots" in the life of an ancestor through social history research is both intriguing and meaningful. Gaining this larger picture of what life was like in the living of genealogical subjects expands our understanding of their personhood and deepens our knowledge of who we are and how we got to where we are today. Happy hunting!
Genealogy Timeline Tools
New York Times - On This Day
American Music Before 1900
American Music Timeline
U.S. Pop Music Timeline
Smithsonian Institution - Folkways
The Food Timeline
TIMELINE: History of Radio & Politics
Library of Congress - Flickr Photostream
Put the expert knowledge you learn to good use by signing up for a free trial
account and begin tracing your family history today.