On the Street Where They Lived, by Juliana Smith

I like to try to picture my ancestors in the settings in which they lived, but in eras and families where pictures are scarce, it can be difficult to imagine. I love browsing through old photographs anywhere I can find them and even in cases where I can’t find an image of my ancestor’s exact house, it’s fun to see images of the neighborhoods where they lived, the churches or schools they attended, and local street scenes.

Last week, Paula’s article about Google Street View showed how to view of ancestral places of interest. This is great in cases where the houses or buildings still exist (and of course is limited to areas where the service is available), but for most of us, getting that glimpse of the houses and neighborhoods in which they lived will require a little more research.

Google It
Whenever I learn a place of origin for one of my ancestors in “the old country,” the first thing I do is search for that town online. One of my ancestor’s is from Balbriggan. A search brought up the Balbriggan & District Historical Society website which has a few photographs as well as some historical information. When I switch over to Google’s image search, even more photographs come up. While most are contemporary, I can definitely get a feel for the area, and I ran across several images of historic monuments. A similar search for another small Irish town turned up an image of the church where my second great-grandmother was baptized.

Look for websites of local historical societies, libraries, tourism agencies, and chambers of commerce. These sites often have sections on local history that are populated with historical photographs. Search for nearby landmarks, street names and addresses, churches, schools, parks, and any other institution that your ancestor may have used.

The collections of images at Ancestry are growing by leaps and bounds. Since July 2006, Ancestry has experienced a surge in user-contributed content and more than 5.5 million photos have been uploaded. Many of the submitters have generously chosen to make their trees–and accompanying photographs–publicly available. Using the Photos and Maps tab on the homepage, enter a town name and state in the keyword field and see what kind of images come up. I was just browsing through with various keywords and ran across this street scene from Tingewick, Buckinghamshire, England.

If you’re lucky, you might even find a distant cousin has posted a photograph of an ancestral home. Here’s a photograph of a house in Kokomo, Indiana, from around the turn of the century.

The Library of Congress collection has some really neat photographs too, and the Historical Postcard Collection has views from many locations. All are searchable through the same Photos and Maps tab on the homepage.

A search for “Tillary Street,” where several of my Brooklyn ancestral families lived, turned up a photograph of Dr. James Tillary’s House at 15 Tillary Street. My third great-grandmother lived at 47 Tillary when she died.

Tax Photographs
A couple weeks ago, I answered a question on the blog about the New York City Tax Photographs that are available through the Municipal Archives. Around 1940, a photograph was taken of every house in the five boroughs. The photographs aren’t cheap; an 8”x10” will run $30 plus shipping and handling, but for those who don’t have an image of an ancestor’s home, it is well worth the cost, and you can even order online.

Library of Congress
The American Memory Project at the Library of Congress website has some great collections of photographs and thirteen of these collections are categorized as “Cities and Towns.” Browsing through the collection of photographs from the Detroit Publishing Co., I clicked on the category “Streets” and found nearly 1,800 photographs of street scenes from across the United States and other countries as well.

Other Photographic Sites
There are scores of websites that host photographs of various locations. Randall’s Lost New York City Collection displays photographs of nineteenth-century buildings that were destroyed in the 1970s, along with the addresses.

The Cleveland Memory Project showcases the Special Collections of the Cleveland State University Library. Among the photographs on this site, I found a picture of the high school my father attended.

The Denver Public Library’s Western History and Genealogy Department has digitized more than 120,000 images from Colorado and other western states. There are some interesting photos from mining towns, like this stereograph of “Men and boys in suits or vests, and hats, pos[ing] in the street in Creede (formerly Jimtown) in Mineral County, Colorado.” I also found a view looking down on the town of Leadville.

There are even photo archives geared specifically toward genealogists. Check out Dead Fred and if you don’t find a photograph of your ancestor, try searching for his hometown.

In Your Mind’s Eye
Some local histories will include illustrations, but even if they don’t some are very detailed in their descriptions of the area they cover. The details they provide can help you to visualize the area and describe it in your family history.

Copyright Considerations
You do have to remember copyright laws if you’re considering using the photographs, but many of the collections I’ve mentioned do have pages with information on getting permission to use the images. There’s typically a small fee associated with it and you will have to credit the source, but most of the sites I’ve seen make it easy to do.

What’s Your Favorite Source?
Do you have a favorite source for historical images that I missed? Please share it with us in the Comments section here on the blog.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than nine years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

18 thoughts on “On the Street Where They Lived, by Juliana Smith

  1. This summer I am travelling back to central New York to begin a documentary on my family. I have scripted my first visit and am excited to create a video journey of my genealogy research. I have plotted out future visits to Canada…Chicago…Boston…even Deadwood City and eventually to England and Ireland. I am working with local historians and historical societies to enrich the work. My cousins…some of us haven’t seen each other in over forty years…are all contributing to the information and we have even planned a family gathering for the summer of 2008 to celebrate our family.
    With a blog site being readied for the near future our entire family will share in the research and have an armchair video/audio and written view of their ancestry.

  2. I loved the tips you gave for finding older homes. My hobby – in addtional to my genealogy – is creating miniature replicas of my ancestors homes. Many are no longer standing but a picture of the neighborhood would enable me to create something pretty close, The oldest home I’ve re-created was built ca. 1850 in Etna, Ohio.

  3. A cousin – our gt/g/fathers were brothers – sent me a photo of the ruins of the croft where they lived in Red Rock, Latheron, Caithness, Scotland. I have maps etc but am still wondering how they made their journey in 1861 south to Glasgow and then to Edinburgh. Originally thought it might be connected to the Highland Clearances (see John Prebble & Earl of Stafford) but as they were all tradesmen – journeymen masons, joiners etc am not so sure. What would the form of transport in these days be like, especially when they had babies and young children?

  4. I have found checking ebay and doing a simple search listing the county and state in “all categories” often brings up old post cards, photos, and memorabilla of various landmarks, street scenes, etc.

  5. If you are interested in London, antique prints are widely available from various antique print dealers. I found an original 1880’s print of a street featuring a house my ancestor once worked in 40 years prior. It was in a fashionable part of Westminster and is beautiful framed and hung on the wall. Try Ash Rare Books – they have a website with scanned images of the prints you can browse.

  6. I use Microsoft Virtual Earth in FTM 2008 and Google Maps, where I can not only see some street views but attach labels. Recently I also started searching street addresses on Google. The very first one, for my great-great-great grandfather and his family in Reading, Pennsylvania, turned up photographs of the outside and inside of the house because it is for sale! I plan to keep doing this every once in a while to see if lightning strikes twice.

  7. I also download and print out “penny picture post cards” (sponsored by GenWeb state and county sites) to add to my collection of photos of the period in which I am interested. By saving these pictures, I’m hoping my children and grandchildren will eventually appreciate the research I’ve done on their behalf (and mine) over the past 8-10 years.

    Additionally, I like to watch the “Little House on the Prairie” series on television because it provides a picturesque reminder of the kind of life my grandparents and greatgrandparents lived in the late 1800’s in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

    Barbara Paulson
    Knoxville, TN

  8. The New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery includes thousands of historic photographs of New York City. The researcher can search by Street name(s)photographs. Many of the New York City photographs have a Pan & Zoom feature using the MrSID plud-in. The level of detail revealed is extraordinary.


  9. During the war, the public works project took pictures of homes in the city. I have a large family group picture taken on the front porch, with no names or date written on it, but my grandmother said she was holding her son (born 24 Aug 1904)but she didn’t know if he was the one wiggling in the picture or not. She didn’t mention anything else. Going to the Willard Public Library site in Battle Creek, MI. I found that they had the pictures of homes in Battle Creek. Looking over the door on the porch, I was able to make out an address (64 Pittee St.)and also found the same address listed in several obituaries. I was able to find a picture of the same house at the Willard web site. After finding another relative, I was able to find the name of one other person in the picture.

  10. Old maps are important, too. I had an old geography book
    (between the World Wars) that had maps of states with rivers
    but no roads or railroads. It helps to visuallize the states
    as our early ancestors moved into them before there were roads
    or railroads. I have since cut out all the maps and filed them
    in a folder, discarding the rest of the book.

  11. While creating my family history, I have bought several antique postcards, either through EBay.com or in antique stores. When I receive them, I then attached them to the individaul profiles. I also look for cemeteries where my ancestors are buried, and use the photos of the cemeteries in family member’s profiles.

  12. Another great way to get a feel for places ancestors lived is by searching for the place name at http://www.youtube.com. I’ve had video tours of many of my ancestors’ homeplaces in Canada, the Czech Republic, etc. by looking at the various videos people have submitted to this site.

  13. The University of Louisville Photo Archives located in the basement of the Ekstrom Library building is an excellent source for views of Louisville, Kentucky.

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