Genealogy: the Second Most Popular Hobby in the US?

Family History
27 April 2017
by Rebecca Dalzell

Family history research is the second-most popular hobby in the United States, according to articles in TIME and USA TODAY by author and former LA Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez.

How did genealogy get so popular?

The advent of the internet certainly helped, making billions of records like census data and passenger lists easily accessible.

You can, for example, easily find out what your last name means and what it says about you.

But its current popularity is also the continuation of years of growing interest in where each of us comes from.

For most of American history, genealogy was most popular among people of European descent. Storied old families took pride in a lineage that traced back to the Mayflower, but genealogy was not widely studied.

In the mid-20th century, generations of immigrants had assimilated and their children often had lost touch with their heritage. That changed during the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s, when free thinkers sought deeper meaning.

Universities introduced specialized curriculums and departments that focused on distinct cultures or historically marginalized groups. For instance, Columbia University only held its first class on African-American History in 1969.

Harvard established an African-American studies department the same year. In 1976, Alex Haley’s bestseller Roots explored an African-American origin story, demonstrating the power of learning where you come from.

By the 1990s, advances in digital technology meant that large collections of historical records could be stored and accessed online. This meant tens of millions of people could readily explore their family history online.

As Mr. Rodriguez in his articles described, the hobby was “fully democratized.”

Decades later the interest in finding one’s roots has only grown. Ninety million family trees have been created on Ancestry.

Six million people have taken AncestryDNA tests to discover distant cousins and their genetic ethnic mix.  And shows like Who Do You Think You Are? have millions of viewers in the U.S. and air in several countries.

In an age where many are looking to connect to something bigger than themselves—to have a deeper understanding of themselves and where they came from—it makes sense that genealogy would have grown more popular over the past few decades.