Tips from the Pros: Keep an Eye on eBay, from Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

Are your family treasures being sold on eBay? It’s more common than you think. Make it a point to visit from time to time and search a variety of ways, including:

  • Family names
  • Place names (to find postcards, maps, yearbooks, etc.)
  • Ethnicity (to find cookbooks, music, postcards, etc.)
  • Particular items, such as “family bible”

Use the advanced search function to zero in on what really interests you. When I was interested in items pertaining to the Reynolds surname, I searched on Reynolds and family, but excluded Burt, so I wasn’t inundated with Burt Reynolds memorabilia. Up popped an 1809 Bible for a Reynolds family from Wales.

And try limiting your search by category. As of the moment I’m writing this, “family bible” turns up 457 hits, but restricting it to the antiques category takes that down to a manageable ten items–including family Bibles for the Rathbone, Southwell, and Schofield families.

Finally, try searching surnames of interest coupled with the word genealogy. This will often reveal assorted family histories, many of which are out of print.

15 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Keep an Eye on eBay, from Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with this tip. Just last week I found a beautiful photo of my relative William Marland, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor from the Civil War, in a formal portrait. I have also purchased old letters of family members, mostly about business transactions which give me more clues to following my family’s path. The ancestors become “real” with details like these!

  2. I agree about keeping an eye on eBay. Approximately 1 week ago, I was notified by email about a brochure for “Wings Over Jordan” choir that had choir members signatures on it. When I contacted the seller, it appears that my mother may have signed the brochure while she was touring the U.S., Japan, and Korea in the 1950s with the choir.

    I won the bid (actually had to make a plea to two other sellers) and I can’t wait to receive this treasure!

  3. Besides E-bay, I find a lot of family photos and bibles on When I do find them I try and make a posting on

  4. For several years I have set eBay to notify me when anything new is posted on an uncommon surname. Awhile back I found four lots of pictures that included my great-great grandfather’s sister and nephew. I won the lot with the nephew but because the lot with the sister had six pictures included one of an unrelated woman in widow’s weeds, it had a very high selling price. When I contacted the seller with my payment info I explained my interest. He gave me information on how he obtained the photos and contacted the buyer of the other lot on my behalf. Regretfully they tried to take advantage of my interest and offered to sell the one photo at half the price of the lot. In the end, I was able to get a low-resolution scan of the photo from the original seller, for which I was very grateful.

  5. What a clever idea – many thanks for the tip – hope that people don’t get too greedy though, when they realise the growing interest.

    Thank you

  6. I’m sorry, but it really irks me that people would sell someone else’s family history items, sometimes at exorbitant prices, on any website. I wish more people would try to contact someone like Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, or try themselves, to find a family member who would really appreciate and gain some family information from the items. Unfortuneately, EBay seems to be the popular place to go at this time for this kind of thing, so I guess it does need to be considered. Thanks for the tip.

  7. I have also found that bibles from the region and time your ancestors lived can lead to surprising information. Several years ago I aquired a New testament printed in 1829 and handwritten entries for 1832 and 1833 from Pennyslvania and Virgina. The surname Doak was not familar and I at first thought of putting it up on some of the webistes for others that might have a connection. However when I did, I found out that the Doak that this belonged to ended up being marrind to a distant cousin. This led me to a link to a website that helped me continue one of my lines back another 3 generations and gather information that I had been unable to find after searching for 20 years.

  8. If you have some old family photographs, try setting up a search on Ebay using the photographer’s name. I have found additional photographs of my ancestors this way. At the very least, you will see what your ancestors’ friends and neighbors looked like!

  9. I recently found a picture of an Alcinda Wilhelm posted on EBay. I purchased this because it was the right time period and location of my Wilhelm family that I am having a problem with. It may turn out that she isn’t connected, but you have to explore ALL possibilities!

  10. Using, I had traced my Irish granduncle Daniel Harnedy to a ship called the Ophir in 1901. The Ophir was the Royal British Yacht and my Daniel was a Seaman on board. The Ophir took the Duke and Dutchess of York and Cornwall (later King and Queen of England) to visit all the British Colonies during a very famous 6 month voyage. During the voyage, the crew members were given a silver medal commemorating the voyage by the Duke and Dutchess. I know this because there is a book the was published detailing the voyage and describing the medal. As usual, I searched Ebay for any related items of the voyage. After several weeks, I was very excited to locate one of the very rare medals. Apparently, a little boy in England was playing behind his house on an abandoned railroad bed, and found the medal. He lives about 3 miles from the port where the ship ended it’s voyage and he and his dad put it up for sale on Ebay. After some aggressive bidding, I am now the proud owner of a really cool (and historic) medal.

  11. Last week I was notified about a Ralston Family Bible being offered in Missouri. The notice came from someone throught the Ralston Family RootsWeb site.

  12. If you find something on E-Bay that is an auction house sale, contact the auction house directly to put in a bid. My bid for a family fraktur(higher the the winning bid) did not go through because there were problems that day with E-Bay and none of the auction houses got their bids. I contacted the auction house and asked them to contact the buyer for me. They did and he called back because he did buy it to resell. I explained that I was interested because it was a family piece. He was willing to sell it to me for 3 times his bid. I refused to pay the mark-up. I kept looking and found it 6 mos. later at another auction house. I called them direct to place my bid. The piece is now hanging on my wall. The bid was less than I offered him.

  13. I have found E-bay to be a great source for lost family history. Postcards were a common form of early 20th Century communication and many end up for sale at local auctions where dealers pick them up and post them on E-bay. I found the only known photo of the church my great-great grandfather built in the 1880’s. I also have found other family memorabilia that I have passed on to family members. I scan the images and share them with the whole family. I do the same for our local museum, finding unusual pictures of the county.

  14. By using the daily automatic search function on eBay to search for our more unusual family names *and the names of the very small PA towns from which they came*, I found some surprising family things on eBay. One search result, on the name of one of the small PA towns, brought to my attention an auction of an 1860s store ledger, with pages of customer names and their accounts or purchases from them. I contacted the seller to ask if it was possible to search for the name I sought, but he said there were too many names. Since my ancestor lived in that very small town at that time, I took a chance and bid on and won it. Sure enough, my ancestor who owned a butcher shop then, was buying large quantities of meat from that ledger owner and I was thrilled to find another small window in my ancestor’s life. The other item was a token with the name of another ancestor and the town in which he lived. The token was apparently good for a nickel off a purchase at the pub-type establishment he operated then. I put in what I thought was a very hefty bid for such a non-descript item, but I was outbid. I contacted the winning bidder and explained why I was interested in it and if he ever wanted to resell it I would appreciate being given an opportunity to buy it. His reply was a bid abrupt, alas, and he indicated that he collects PA tokens and would not be selling it. Nonetheless I saved the picture of it that appeared on the auction and I will continue to search for another.

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