Tips from the Pros: Garage Sale Genealogy, from George G. Morgan

If you’re a garage or yard sale junkie, or like to attend flea markets, don’t overlook the boxes of old books you find there. Sometimes you can find excellent bargains on items that can be particularly helpful to your research. These include:

  • Maps and atlases that can provide previous names of towns and places that no longer exist.
  • Foreign language translation dictionaries that you may be able to use while translating your ancestors’ letters and diaries.
  • Old local, county, state, regional, and national histories.
  • Old city directories and telephone books.
  • Old medical dictionaries.
  • Military histories and other books of local historical interest that may contain information about your own ancestors.

Dusty items like these are often of little interest to others and can usually be purchased very cheap. Be on the lookout for these tools that can help your genealogy research.

Let us know what treasures you’ve found at a local garage sale in the comments section below.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

13 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Garage Sale Genealogy, from George G. Morgan

  1. What I enjoy purchasing at estate sales or yard sales, their stores are the old postcards and old greeting cards. I especially like reading what loved have written. The postcards have their addresses and some have the female maiden name. Old cookbooks have family receipes. They all have some family history. My grandson who is two usually goes with me and he enjoys the white church gloves. I think he thinks he’s Mickey Mouse. These are the treasures that I have found. It is limitless. What saddens me the most is that sometimes the family pictures are in the trash and I say to mayself their goes a part of their family history. I would give anything to have more family pictures of our decendents. I guess its true what is someone elses trash is someone elses treasure. A trek to the past only gives us what we search for in the future.

  2. Several years ago a woman bought a box of patterns (can’t remember if they were knitting, crocheting or needlework)at a tag sale in NJ. When she got them home she discovered a packet of letters in the box. She “googled” the last names and somehow came up with my husband. She contacted us and sure enough the letters were to and from his uncle and other family members. The thrill was finding that one of them had been written by my husband’s father!

    So thanks to the “tag salers” who see the value of someone else’s trash and take the time to try and pass that family “treasure” to folks that care!

  3. I live in a retirement community in Arizona. Here there are a lot of estate sales. Usually because the homeowner has died or gone to a nursing home. It is so very sad to see all their personal belongings sold. Surely, someone in the family would want those photo albums and other memorabilia!
    Someday they will wish they had kept them. I have hunted in vain for pictures of my grandmothers family. No one in the family even remembers any but her sister was a photographer so I am sure there were many pictures taken. One cousin became blind so her son threw all her pictures away since she could’t see them! She was the one who most likely inherited the pictures I want.

  4. Not to be overlooked for old or older books are the “Friends of the Library” bookstores in many libraries. In gleaning background information on social and political issues in the 1800s in Ohio, I found that beer was the biggest product and another relative provided sanctuary for those on the underground railway. I also try to find non-fiction books published about the year that I was born (1932). Also, pictures of clothing, military uniforms, the Internet for history of military armaments to help identify a general time period in which an ancestor served in the military.
    Patricia Ann Dean Christiansen
    San Juan Capistrano, California

  5. Such sad stories. I too, lost the only picture of my mother’s mother who died when she was born. It was hanging in the attic of my father’s family home. After my father died, my sister took everything and locked us out of the building. Needless to say we don’t talk, and I think whoever got the building, got the picture. I would give anything to have a copy. She is the only one of my mother’s family that I don’t have a picture of. Davenport, Iowa.

  6. At yard sales I look for photographs with names on them, family histories and bibles with family histories. I’ve had some luck reuniting people with these; I think that it’s criminal that people sell them off, or even throw them out. I’ve listed what I had found on the message boards at, asking only to be reimbursed. The family bibles are especially great, and I copy the entries and send a copy of the information to the appropriate historical society and genweb site. I hope that one day someone will post something of my family’s.

  7. When my grandmother sold the family home she wouldn’t let anyone help her clean out. Didn’t want to “burden” them. Consequently, in her somewhat confused state, her grandfather’s Civil War diary and the family Bible disappeared. I always hope that some day someone will find them and contact us.

  8. I always look for old yearbooks. My thinking is that when I have the time, I can scan and post the pictures on or on some other site. I have donated some to the local genealogy society, too.

  9. “Gold is where you find it.” We’d lived in Colorado for almost 30 years and then moved back to Missouri in 1978. That first year back I saw an ad in the local paper about a yard sale out in the country a few miles and it stated there would be some old books in the sale. “Old books” always draws me for I collect old books. I picked up an interesting old book with a hand painted picture of a flower on the cover and when I opened it, I knew I had to have it no matter what the cost, for it was full of local history (in the 1800s) of this county. In it were obituaries, marriages, school listings, etc. and even a newspaper clipping about Abraham Lincoln’s death at the time it occurred. I asked how much it was and the elderly lady, who was having the sale, said, “Oh that was Grandma’s old book, how about 75 cents.” I asked if I had heard right and she said, “Is that too much?” I told her it wasn’t, paid my 75 cents and hugged that book the rest of the day. I have copied and posted most of the historical articles in that book and even found my great-great-grandfather’s obituary in it. It was a book about agriculture and all these priceless items were pasted over the information about agriculture. I have a few first edition books by famous authors, and a wonderful collection of old one-room school books going back to 1845, but this book was a “one of a kind” book and is treasured by me. Indeed, gold IS where you find it.

  10. I was at a garage sale and found a paperback bible about 20 years ago. Inside the front cover handwritten was a note from the person who gave it as a gift. The receiver of the gift was in a branch of my family tree who moved from WI to CA many years before. The person selling it didn’t know the person who owned it. I only paid 50 cents for it.
    The only old yearbooks I have found they always want alot of money for them.

  11. I applaud all the genealogy angels who find treasures and return them to their rightful owners. I am the current president of the Poindexter Descendants Association and one of the group’s main research genealogists. In these capacities, I was contacted in the fall of 2006 by an employee of a museum in Illinois dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln. Someone had found a broken box (it turned out to be a old cedar chest) on the side of a road in their area. It was filled with papers, documents, pictures, genealogy charts, etc. The finder, not knowing what to do with it, took it to the local museum. None of the material really related to Abraham Lincoln. The curator was going to dispose of it when one of the museum employees, who is a genealogist, asked if she could have some time to try to locate the family to whom these items belonged before they were thrown away. Some documents were over 200 years old. There was a invitation from Eleanor Roosevelt to a garden party at the White House and more. What treasures would be lost if they were just placed in a dumpster. Poindexter was a surname repeated in a number of the documents and listed on the back of pictures, so she contacted our association. We were able to assist in finding the correct family to whom the items belonged and get them returned. The cedar chest had been stolen nearly 10 years before. We have no idea where it was during that time, but the treasures it held are now home safe and sound. The caring genealogical angel from the Abraham Lincoln museum in Illinois returned irreplacable family heirlooms to a greatful senior citizen and helped our association discover another of our family branches.

  12. Many years ago I was at a distant relatives auction..I found a photograph book with pictures of my great-grandparents in it….I checked to see if I could just buy it, but they said I would have to wait til it was auctioned…..I got it, and paid $5.00 for it…my great-grandmother died fairly young and it is the only picture of her…I talked to the family at the auction and they said that the relative had taken all the other pictures out of the albums, except the one I bought because the pictures would not come out without ruining the album……The names of my great-grandparents and several other relatives were written on the paper below the picture. If he had taken them out I would have had no idea who they were………That is my best ever auction find…..

  13. I went to a local yard sale a month ago and found an alumni directory for the high school that I went to which I only paid a dollar for.It was for the years 1927-2005.And just a couple of weeks ago I found a french record that had the name of a family member on it.They turned out to be a big help in my genealogy research.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *