How to Find Your Family History in the 1950s

When we try to research our family history from recent decades, we often find privacy barriers: U.S. census records for 1950 and beyond

1950s Fords by Bob P.B. on Flickr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

are closed, as are many vital records. Here are some ideas for finding family history in the 1950s and beyond:

1. Interview relatives. The good news is that in many families, there are relatives around who remembers the 1950s. If there’s not, then look to the memories of the next living generation.

Interviewing a relative is one of the most fun and meaningful ways to learn your family history. You can ask specific and personal questions, deepen your relationships with those you interview and gain a better understanding of the lives that led to you. Older people often love to have someone take a sincere interest in them. The free Family History Made Easy podcast episode 2 has a great segment on interviewing your relatives.

2. Read the newspaper. Use newspapers to find obituaries and discover more about daily life, current events, popular opinions of the time, prices for everyday items and more. It’s getting easier than ever to find and search digitized newspapers online, but more recent papers may still be under copyright protection.

Use online resources like to discover what newspapers served your family’s neighborhood, or even whether an ethnic, labor or religious press would have mentioned them. In the US, I always start with the US Newspaper Directory at Chronicling America to search for ALL newspapers published in a particular place and time, as well as the names of libraries or archives that have copies of these papers. Historical societies and local public libraries are also wonderful places to look for newspapers. My book, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, teaches readers what to look for in papers and how to locate them online and offline.

3. Search city directories. By the 1950s, most towns and cities published directories of residents, mostly with telephone numbers. I use annual directory listings to track buy generic medication online families from year to year. These might give you your first clue that someone moved, married, separated, divorced or died! I can often find their exact street address (great for mapping!), who lived at the house and sometimes additional information like where they worked, what their job was or who they worked for.

Ancestry.com has over a billion U.S. city directory entries online, up to 1989. But most other online city directory collections aren’t so recent. Look for city directories first in hometown public libraries. Check with larger regional or state libraries and major genealogical libraries.

4. Search for historical video footage. YouTube isn’t just for viral cat videos. Look there for old newsreels, people’s home movies and other vintage footage. It’s not unusual to find films showing the old family neighborhood, a school or community function, or other footage that might be relevant to your relatives.

Use the YouTube search box like you would the regular Google search box. Enter terms like “history,” “old,” “footage,” or “film” along with the names, places or events you hope to find. For example, the name of a parade your relative marched in, a team he played on, a company she worked for, a street he lived on and the like. It’s hit and miss, for sure, but sometimes you can find something very special.

My Contributing Editor Sunny Morton tried this tip. Almost immediately, with a search on the name of her husband’s ancestral hometown and the word “history,” she found a 1937 newsreel with her husband’s great-grandfather driving his fire truck with his celebrity dog! She recognized him from old photos and had read about his dog in the newspapers. (Click here to read her stunned post.) Learn more about searching for old videos in my all-new second edition of The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, which has a totally updated chapter on YouTube.

Click here to read more about the 1950s U.S. census: when it will be out and how you can work around its privacy restrictions.

We Dig These Gems: New Genealogy Records Online

Every Friday, we post highlights of fabulous new genealogy records online. Scan these weekly posts for content that may include your ancestors. Use these record types to inspire your own search for similar records elsewhere. And always check out our Google tips at the end of each list: they are custom-crafted each week to give YOU one more tool in your genealogy toolbox.

This week we highlight lots of British records and the WWI era:

UK SCHOOL RECORDS. FindMyPast has posted two new datasets on this topic. British School & University Memorial Rolls, 1914-1918 includes over 58,500 students from prominent UK universities who fought in World War I. And nearly 2 million names have been added to the UK National School Admission Registers & Log-Books, 1870-1914. These cover students in England and Wales, 1870 to 1914. FindMyPast says, “Explore their school records to find their birth date, admission year and the school they attended. You may also be able to discover their parents’ names, father’s occupation, exam results and any illnesses that led to absence from school.”

UK TAX RECORDS. About 10 million records and more than a half million images have been added to England, Westminster Rate Books, 1634–1900 at FamilySearch. According to the site, “This collection contains rate books from various parishes in Westminster City from 1634-1900. The rate books were an assessment of tax that was owed and are an excellent census substitute.” The index comes from FindMyPast, where subscribers can also search this collection.

UK WWI SERVICE RECORDS. Over 4 million records have been added to United Kingdom, World War I Service Records, 1914–1920. “This collection contains World War I service records from 1914-1920,” says the collection description. “It contains records from two publications in the National Archives: WO 363 (War Office: Soldiers’ Documents, First World War “Burnt Documents”) and WO 364 (War Office: Documents from Pension Claims, First World War).”

Google owns YouTube, the world’s most popular online video channel. More and more historical footage is being posted on YouTube, from amateur home movies to rare news footage and more. The search box is your best tool for finding footage of events, places and people, including World War I and II events. Conduct a search with the keywords that best describe what you’re looking for. After that initial search, the Filters button will appear: click the down arrow to reveal more search options and options to sort search results. Click here to see rare video footage I found on YouTube that made my jaw drop–it’s my husband’s great-grandfather, his fire truck and his dog.

Find Your Ancestors in the Scotland Census Now at FamilySearch

Is that the sound of bagpipes? It might be, because the Scotland 1901 Census is now available at FamilySearch! Learn more about what you’ll find in this collection and get top tips from a Scottish genealogy expert on how to find your ancestors is in Scottish records. Then we head over to Central and South America for exciting new and updated genealogy collections for the Bahamas, Panama, and Brazil.

new genealogy records Scottish Scotland Census

Scotland Census Now at FamilySearch

Does your family tree have roots in Scotland? You’re in luck! You can now search for your tartan-clad ancestors for free at FamilySearch! The Scotland Census, 1901 contains almost 4.5 million records for those living in Scotland on Sunday March 31, 1901.

“These records are comprised of Enumeration forms that were distributed to all households before the census night and the complete forms were collected the next day by the enumerators. Included in this series are returns from ships of the Royal Navy at sea and in ports abroad.

Click here to search these records at FamilySearch now.

This collection is also available on Findmypast. If you have a subscription to Findmypast, you can access the 1901 census that includes Scotland, England, and Wales. Click here to search at Findmypast.

UPDATE: The original FamilySearch press release contained incorrect information about the source of the 1901 census records. Visit the National Records of Scotland website here for more information about the 1901 census.

According to the National Records of Scotland website, they hold records of the census of the population of Scotland for 1841 and every tenth year thereafter (with the exception of the wartime year of 1941 when no census was taken) and of the sample census of 1966.  Census records are closed for 100 years under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.”

3 Strategies for Finding an Ancestor in Scottish Records

If your love of tartan, bagpipes, and kilts equals your love of family history research, you are likely hoping to find an ancestor who was born in Scotland. Or perhaps nothing would surprise you more than to find a Scottish ancestor. In either case, the next step is to find this ancestor in Scottish records.

As with all immigrants, the first step to finding them in their homeland is to research their lives extensively in America before searching for them in Scottish records. Scottish genealogy expert Amanda Epperson, PhD joins us here on Genealogy Gems to share some of her top strategies to help you find your ancestors in Scottish records. Click here to read more!

New Genealogy Records for the Bahamas

Findmypast has been making major strides in expanding its collection to include rare and underrepresented records. The newest addition is the Bahamas Birth Index 1850-1891. Discover your Bahamian ancestors in this online index of registered births from the British Crown Colony of The Bahamas.

Birth records are essential to expanding your family tree. There are tens of thousands of records in this collection, giving information not only about relatives born in the Bahamas but also their parents. Click to search the Bahamas Birth Index 1850-1891.

Panama Records Indexes

Three new indexes containing just under half a million vital records from the Republic of Panama have recently joined Findmypast’s growing collections of international records. There are now four collections for Panama:

These new additions consist of baptisms, marriages and deaths spanning the years 1750 to 1950 and will generate hints on Findmypast family trees. (Learn more about Findmypast’s new tree hinting feature by clicking here.)

Brazil Civil Registrations

FamilySearch has a new genealogy collection for South America: Brazil, São Paulo, Civil Registration, 1925-1995. Boasting nearly 2 million records, this data set includes births, marriages, deaths, and indexes created by various civil registration offices in the state of São Paulo. Some of these records have been indexed and are searchable as part of this collection. Additional images and indexed records will be published as they become available.

These records are in Portuguese so you may want to take a look at these resources for help with these records:

You can search the index or view the images or both. Before using this collection it is helpful to know your ancestor’s given name and surname, identifying information such as residence, and estimated marriage or birth year.

Bring genealogy records to life with Google Earth!

Genealogists love making discoveries in records, but the excitement of documents doesn’t exactly translate to the non-genealogists in your family. Capture your family’s imagination by telling their family history story with Google Earth. See how easy it is to turn the genealogical information you’ve collected into compelling multi-media stories. These tours will help everyone in your family appreciate your genealogical research and protect as a legacy for generations to come. Enjoy!

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke is the producer and host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, and an international keynote speaker.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

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