Have you considered writing your family history? Many others have, and it may seem like a daunting prospect. Imagining all the people in your family tree, perhaps hundreds of them, and deciding who to write about and who to omit is a real conundrum.
Even if you don’t plan to write a family history, as a genealogist you are still interested in understanding your ancestors and their family members’ lives in context. It’s important to place them in their environment and to understand that environment during the years through which they lived. We certainly do this by collecting all types of records. Census records are important because they place a person in a particular location at a specific point in time. You can see a list of other people in the same residence and neighbors on either side of them. Naturally, you can expand your understanding of that area by seeking out and studying local histories of various types.
Photographs can be helpful in your research to help you visualize your ancestors, and sometimes their environment. Since the end of the nineteenth century, when snapshot photography was introduced, candid shots of our ancestors and their families became more common. However, from the 1830s through at least the 1880s, photographs, tended to be made in studios with stiffly posed individuals against painted, artificial backgrounds. Other than allowing us to see these people in the clothing and factions of the period, these pictures do little to help us place our ancestors and family members in their actual, day-to-day environment.
I am a very visual person, and I really want to see the details of where and how my ancestors lived. As a result, I began collecting antique picture postcards, stereographs, posters, and other visual images about twenty years ago. I have found that even smaller towns usually have had picture postcards issued, but larger municipalities may have had scores if not hundreds of postcards produced. The postcards I collect are of towns and localities where my ancestral families lived and worked. They tend to date from the time period when my ancestors lived there and therefore provide me with a visual image of their environment. Some photographers at the turn of the twentieth century actually plied their trade by taking candid photographs of people and quickly printing them all on postcard paper stock. I have found a number of those amongst family papers. However, in order to locate the commercially produced postcards of the given location, I’ve had to look in a variety of places and purchase them. Those places include:
- Online auction sites
- Used book stores
- Antique shops
- Flea markets
- Book vendors at genealogical conferences, who may include postcards in their inventory
Picture postcards, travel posters, tourist guides, and other printed materials can provide a glimpse into everyday life in those places where your ancestors lived. It’s like opening a small time capsule each time you view one of these items. These images provide you with visual context of your ancestorsâ€™ lives, and you gain a better understanding of their circumstances, regardless of whether you are writing a family history or not.
If you are a family historian, these images are invaluable in providing you with a resource that you can use to physically describe a place, the people, and activities taking place.
Collecting postcards is a comparatively inexpensive hobby. However, it can add to your visual understanding of your ancestors, and they allow you to celebrate the places in which your ancestors chose to live and work.
AWJ Editorâ€™s Note: Ancestry U.S. Deluxe subscribers can search the Historical Postcards Collection, c. 1893-1963.
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