Jack Larkinâ€™s new book, Where We Lived: Discovering The Places We Once Called Home. The American Home from 1775-1840 (Taunton Press, $40.00), is inspiring. His focus on the everyday lives of Americans during this period offers insights into the lives genealogistâ€™s research. In your search for records of your forefathers and foremothers, have you considered where they rested their heads each night? Take Larkinâ€™s tour of regional architecture from New England to the West of 1840 and I guarantee youâ€™ll want to know more about where your ancestors lived. Gorgeous photos and fascinating stories let us peer into the buildings our ancestors inhabited. Larkin didnâ€™t stop with houses, youâ€™ll find sidebars on schools, slave quarters, houses of worship, public structures, and even outhouses.
Itâ€™s more than an architectural history. Larkin talks about how our ancestors decorated their dwellings and he uses travelersâ€™ journals to present a first-person perspective on what it was really like inside the four walls of your great-great-grandparentâ€™s house. Noted reformer Lydia Marie Child saw overcrowding with fifteen families in one house while others viewed the more comfortable upper class estates.
Larkinâ€™s book has made me very curious about my familyâ€™s dwellings and apartments. I have a lot of research to do to catch up with this part of my family history, but itâ€™s going to be fun. Iâ€™ll start by asking relatives what they remember about houses in the family and if they own any pictures of those buildings. Then Iâ€™m going to start looking for documents followed by a trip down memory lane. Not a cerebral tour, but one that lets me see first-hand where they lived. You can do the same. Begin by reading Larkinâ€™s book then start researching your family homes from any century, no matter how humble. Without a doubt youâ€™ll add stories, images, and facts to your genealogy. Here are a few tips.
- City directories often feature the abbreviations â€œbdsâ€ for a renter, or someone who boards, and â€œownsâ€ for someone who owned the structure.Â
- Use that information to find tax records and land documents for data on costs and layout of the land.Â
- Consult maps to see where your ancestorâ€™s house once stood. Mid-nineteenth-century maps use dots while the Sanborn maps of the late nineteenth and twentieth century show you the layout of the house and detail its construction materials.
- Find your ancestors in a census record and discover who also lived in their house or neighborhood.Â
- Search for pictures of houses in their town by using the American Memory site of the Library of Congress. Many of the records of the Historic American Building Survey (HABS), a WPA project are available online. Check out the list of resources at the back of Larkinâ€™s book. He includes instructions for finding resources in the HABS database.
— Track down the places your ancestors lived and if they are still standing, take pictures and add them to your family history scrapbook.
Â Look for older photos or images of demolished houses in the collections of local historical societies and libraries.
This book is a wonderful piece of social history, one that gives us ideas about the daily lives of our family members. I sure hope there is a follow-up volume planned to cover later periods!
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Maureen Taylor is the The Photo Detective. She writes about family history and photography on her blog at www.photodetective.com.