September 23, 2017

Tell Your Ancestor’s Story: Use Social History for Genealogy

Do you wish you knew more about your ancestor’s everyday life experience? Use social history for genealogy: to fill in the gaps between documented events.

social history for genealogy family history

Recently we heard from Barbara Starmans, a social historian, genealogist and longtime listener of three of Lisa’s podcasts. She wrote to share a new blog she started.

“While I’ve maintained my Out of My Tree Genealogy blog for many years, I’ve just launched The Social Historian, a longform story website featuring social history themed articles from across the centuries and around the world.”

Social history is about “the lives of ordinary people,” explains Barbara. “It is a view of history from the bottom up, rather than from the top down…. [It’s about] understanding…how people lived, worked and played in their daily lives. It is often the minutia of someone’s life that tells the story of who they were and what they believed in.”

“By exploring social history, you will be able to research all the circumstances of your ancestors’ lives and to build their life stories from the details you find.” Barbara send us a great list that we adapted and boiled down to a few core topics:

  • Life cycle: Birth and birthing customs, health and lifestyle practices, medicine, diseases and epidemics, mental health, mortality rates, death and burial customs.
  • Life at home: Clothing and fashion, food and cooking, housekeeping, land and property, alcohol and drug use.
  • Life at work: Economy (prices, cost of living and salaries), occupations, working conditions and the labor movement, businesses and employers, social welfare and relief.
  • Relationships: Morality, marriage and divorce, children and childhood, ethnicity and prejudices,
  • Community life: Celebrations and holidays, traditions, education, language and literacy, religion/church, faith, crime and punishment, societal unrest, leisure pursuits.
  • Game changers: War, emigration, inventions, transportation, communication, slavery and emancipation.

Barbara’s social history blog gives lots of great examples of her belief that “beyond just names and dates, those who came before us have a story to tell….By learning about their time and place and how they lived in it, you can add to your understanding of who they were.”

Resources

Genealogists Google Toolbox 2nd edition cover

The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox by Lisa Louise Cooke is packed with strategies for learning about your ancestors’ lives online. There’s an entire chapter on using Google Scholar for genealogy!

Where can you look for social history online? I’d start with these sites:

1. Make sure you’re using all of Google’s fantastic resources, including Google Books and Google Scholar

2. Click to find Social history resources at the Library of Congress

3. American Social History Project at the City University of New York

Have fun! I think learning about the everyday lives of our ancestors is one of the most fascinating parts of family history.

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About Sunny

Sunny Morton is a genealogy writer whose work is read by thousands in magazines and online. As a Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, she frequently posts on the news, but also loves to share quick research tips, reveal little-known resources or take genealogists for an exhilarating dive into deeper research topics and techniques. She's also the author of My Life & Times: A Guided Journal for Collecting Your Stories.