A Place Called Home, by Maureen Taylor

rustic home.bmpJack Larkin’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 genealogist’s research. In your search for records of your forefathers and foremothers, have you considered where they rested their heads each night? Take Larkin’s tour of regional architecture from New England to the West of 1840 and I guarantee you’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 didn’t stop with houses, you’ll find sidebars on schools, slave quarters, houses of worship, public structures, and even outhouses.

It’s more than an architectural history. Larkin talks about how our ancestors decorated their dwellings and he uses travelers’ journals to present a first-person perspective on what it was really like inside the four walls of your great-great-grandparent’s house. Noted reformer Lydia Marie Child saw overcrowding with fifteen families in one house while others viewed the more comfortable upper class estates.

Larkin’s book has made me very curious about my family’s dwellings and apartments. I have a lot of research to do to catch up with this part of my family history, but it’s going to be fun. I’ll start by asking relatives what they remember about houses in the family and if they own any pictures of those buildings. Then I’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 Larkin’s book then start researching your family homes from any century, no matter how humble. Without a doubt you’ll add stories, images, and facts to your genealogy. Here are a few tips.

  • City directories often feature the abbreviations “bds” for a renter, or someone who boards, and “owns” for someone who owned the structure. 
  • Use that information to find tax records and land documents for data on costs and layout of the land. 
  • Consult maps to see where your ancestor’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. 
  • 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 Larkin’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.

 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.

2 thoughts on “A Place Called Home, by Maureen Taylor

  1. If you get the street address of your ancestor’s residence from the U.S. Census, you can use Google Earth to get a look at what the area looks like today. My wife’s great-grandfather lived at several addresses on the south side of Chicago in the early 20th century, and I’ve taken a bird’s-eye look at those addresses. Sadly, many of them are vacant lots today.

  2. Regarding abbreviations in directories; some of ours use “res” for resides and “o” for owns. In the same directories, “bds” occurs as well. Usually “res” was used for family members, and “bds” for a paying nonfamily boarder.

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