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.

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 213

In this episode, I’ll share a moving family history video, inspired by a listener’s Where I’m From poem. We’ll also discuss RootsTech news, talk to author Sylvia Brown, and Michael Strauss will explain the difference between different kinds of military service: regulars, volunteers and militia in Military Minutes. Listen here or through the Genealogy Gems app.

The Genealogy Gems Podcast
Episode #213
with Lisa Louise Cooke

NEWS: HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR TO KEYNOTE ROOTSTECH

Click here to read about all RootsTech keynote speakers

Click here to hear Lisa Louise Cooke’s conversation with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in the Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 133

GEMS NEWS: UPDATED PREMIUM VIDEO

Genealogy Gems Premium subscribers can now enjoy an updated version of Lisa’s Premium video, “Making Evernote Effortless.” You’ll learn how to use Evernote’s:

  • Quick Keys: Help you get things done faster
  • Search Operators: Digging deeper and faster into your notes
  • Shortcuts: Learn how to set them up to accomplish repetitive tasks faster
  • Reminders: Help you track and meet deadlines
  • Note Sharing: Collaboration just got easier
  • Source Citation: Merging notes to include sources; Source Citation with “Info” feature
  • Web Clipper Bookmarklet: a hack for adding it to your mobile tablet’s browser

Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software.

Keep your family history research safely backed up with Backblaze, the official cloud-based computer backup system for Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems. Learn more at https://www.backblaze.com/Lisa.

Animoto.com.

BONUS CONTENT for Genealogy Gems App Users

If you’re listening through the Genealogy Gems app, your bonus content for this episode is a lightning-quick tech tip from Lisa Louise Cooke on how to undo that last browser you just closed and didn’t mean to! The Genealogy Gems app is FREE in Google Play and is only $2.99 for Windows, iPhone and iPad users

MILITARY MINUTES: REGULAR, VOLUNTEER OR MILITIA?

To gain a better understanding of what life in the military was like for your ancestors, it is essential to know in what capacity someone may have served. Did your ancestor serve in the regulars, or was he a volunteer soldier, or did he have service with the local militia?

These terms are generally associated with the records of the United States Army. The other branches enlisted men using different terminology.

Free download: Military Service Records at the National Archives by Trevor K. Plante (Reference Information Paper 109)

Click here for National Archives reference materials for military acronyms, abbreviations, and dictionaries that will aid genealogists when researching how exactly their ancestors served

Journal of the American Revolution: Explaining Pennsylvania’s militia: One of the best examples of how colonial militias operated (laws, rules, and regulations, and parent organizations). Pennsylvania followed very closely the doings of other colonies during the same period.

Samuel Howard in the Civil War

Because of his age he wasn’t able to enlist until 1865 when he turned 18. He was a volunteer soldier who served as a substitute for another man who was drafted.

After his discharge, he again enlisted in the Regular Army in 1866. He was assigned to the 13th U.S. Infantry, where he served one month before deserting at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.

Samuel was married in 1867 (this may have some relevance to his decision to leave the military). He lived in Pennsylvania from the end of the war until his death in 1913. Shown here in 1876, Lebanon, PA.

Both his Regular and Volunteer Army enlistment forms are included here, along with the above photograph of Samuel with his wife circa 1876 from an early tintype. The forms look very similar, as each contains common information asked of a typical recruit. However they are decidedly different as the one covers his Civil War service and the other his post war service when he joined the regular Army after the men who served during the war would have been discharged.

MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Click here to see what MyHeritage can do for you: it’s free to get started.

GEM: AN INSPIRING FAMILY HISTORY VIDEO

Hannah’s Animoto Advice:

You’ll find when using the video templates, timing the photos to the narration can pose some challenges. Originally, when she put the photos in place and “previewed” the video, the narration didn’t line up at all with the images. Hannah explains: “When I was in “creator” mode, I selected a picture that I wanted to appear on the screen for a longer duration then I clicked the “spotlight” button that is on the left-hand side in the editor column. Or If you double click the image, it will open into a larger single view and you can select the “star” button which will do the same thing. I applied this spotlight option to several photos within my gallery. I knew which photos to do this to by previewing the video several times to make sure I liked the timing of it all.

Now if your problem is not with just a few photos but the overall timing, then try editing the pace of your photos.  In the top right-hand corner, click the “edit song/trim and pacing” button. Here you can trim you uploaded mp3 audio as well as the pace to which your photos appear. My photos appeared too fast on the screen in comparison to the narration I had, so I moved the pace button to left by one notch and previewed the video. This did the trick and the result was a heart-warming poem, turned into a visually beautiful story.”

Do you have a darn good reason to take action right now to get your family history in front of your family? Perhaps:

  • a video of the loving couples in your family tree for Valentine’s Day
  • a video of your family’s traditional Easter Egg hunt through the years
  • a tribute to the mom’s young and old in your family on Mother’s Day
  • your child’s or grandchild’s graduation
  • a video to promote your upcoming family reunion to get folks really visualizing the fun they are going to have
  • Or perhaps it’s the story of a genealogy journey you’ve been on where you finally busted a brick wall and retrieved an ancestor’s memory from being lost forever.

5 Steps to Jump-Starting Your Video Project

  1. Pick one family history topic
  2. Write the topic in one brief sentence ? the title of your video
  3. Select 12 photos that represent that topic.
  4. On a piece of paper, number it 1 ? 12 and write one brief sentence about each photo that convey your message. You don’t have to have one for every photo, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
  5. Scan the photos if they aren’t already and save them to one folder on your hard drive.

And now you are in great shape to take the next step and get your video made in a way that suits your interest, skill, and time.

4 Easy Methods for Creating Video
Update 2022: Adobe Spark Video is now part of and called Adobe Creative Cloud Express. Some or all of the features may require a subscription. 

  1. Got an iPhone? iOS 10 now has “Memories” a feature of your Photos app that can instantly create a video of a group of related photos.
  2. There’s the free Adobe Spark Video app now called Adobe Express which can you can add photos, video clips and text to, pick a theme and a music track from their collection, and whip up something pretty impressive in a very short time. Visit your device’s app store or Adobe Express. Watch my video How to Make a Video with Adobe Spark (Premium Membership required)
  3. There’s Animoto which does everything that Spark does, but gives you even more control over the content, and most importantly the ability to download your video in HD quality. You can even add a button to the end that the viewer can tap and it will take them to a website, like your genealogy society website, a Facebook group for your family reunion or even a document on FamilySearch.
  4. And finally, if you have the idea, and pull together the photos, you can book Hannah at Genealogy Gems to create a video with your content. Go to GenealogyGems.com and scroll to the Contact form at the bottom of the home page to request ordering information.

The most important thing is that your family history can be treasured and shared so that it brings joy to your life today, and also, to future generations. The thing is, if your kids and grandkids can see the value of your genealogy research, they will be more motivated to preserve and protect it.

 

PREMIUM INTERVIEW: SYLVIA BROWN

In Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode #155, publishing later this month, Sylvia Brown (of the family connected to Brown University) will join Lisa Louise Cooke to talk about researching her new book, Grappling with Legacy, which traces her family’s involvement in philanthropy, Rhode Island history and the institution of slavery hundreds of years. A Kirkus review of this book calls it “an often riveting history of a family that left an indelible impact on the nation.”

   

 

PRODUCTION CREDITS

Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer

Sunny Morton, Editor

Vienna Thomas, Associate Producer

Hannah Fullerton, Production Assistant

Lacey Cooke, Service Manager

Disclosure: These show notes contain 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 this free podcast and blog!

 

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Resources

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How to Find Your Family History for Free – Getting Started

Free Family History has a nice ring to it!

Did you know you don’t have to pay for a subscription to anything to be able to start learning more about your family history?

Start to find your family history for free by asking the four questions listed below.

1. What do you already know?

Chances are that you know something about your family already. The most important facts we start with are our relatives’ names and their dates and places of birth, marriage(s) and death. These facts can help you later to distinguish between records about our relatives and others with the same name.

Write down what you know about your “direct ancestors”–your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.–on a family tree chart like this free fill-in pdf format (these are also called pedigree charts).  Then use family group sheets like this one to organize facts about each individual couple (this is where you can list all the children your grandparents had, for example).

2. What do your relatives know?

After filling out what you can, show your family tree chart and family group sheets to other relatives. Ask them if they can fill in some blanks. Remember these tips:

  • Try to include a little note about who tells you each piece of information.
  • Someone may dispute what you find. Everyone’s memory of an event is different. Don’t argue. Treat their information with respect:. Write it down. Then ask politely if they have any documentation you could see, or why they believe something to be true (who told them, etc).
  • Ask whether anything is missing from your charts: a grandparent’s second marriage, a stillborn child or even whether someone’s name is accurate. You or others might know someone by a nickname or middle name.
  • Be sensitive to information that might be confidential or not generally well-known, like a birth date that doesn’t appear more than 9 months after a wedding, or a first marriage. Consider asking living relatives if it’s okay for you to share certain facts. Consider only showing part of your charts to a relative.

3. What’s in the attic (or anywhere else)?

We can often find family documents in our own homes and those of our relatives. Look in attics, basements, storage units, safe deposit boxes and safes, filing cabinets, photo albums, scrapbooks, shoeboxes and other places where papers and memorabilia may be tucked. You’re looking for things like:

  • certificates of birth, baptism, marriage or death;
  • obituaries or other news articles, like anniversaries;
  • funeral programs, wedding and birth announcements;
  • photos with names or other notes on the backs;
  • insurance, pension, military or other paperwork that may mention births or deaths or beneficiary information;
  • wills and home ownership paperwork–even outdated ones;
  • a family Bible.

When you find family names, relationships, dates and places in these documents, add them to your charts.

4. What’s available online for free?

There are two major types of family history information online: records and trees. Records are documents created about specific people, like obituaries, birth certificates and all those other examples I just mentioned. Trees are a computerized form of other people’s family tree charts and group sheets. It can be tempting to just look for someone else’s version of your family tree. Eventually you will want to consult those. But other people’s trees are notoriously full of mistakes! Instead, start by looking for records about the relatives you already have identified.

I suggest that you start your search at FamilySearch.org because it’s totally free. At most other sites, you’ll have to subscribe or pay to see all the search results. At FamilySearch, you just need to create a free user login to get the most access to their records.

After logging in, click Search. Choose a relative you don’t know a lot about. Search for that name. Use the different search options to add more information–even a range of dates and a state/province or country–so you don’t have to wade through thousands of near-matches.

The most common records to find on FamilySearch for many countries are census and vital records.

  • A census is a tally of residents, voters or another target population. Entries often include details about a household: who lived there, how they were related, how old they were, where they were born, etc. You can often extract family information from census listings, though some things (like ages or name spellings) may not be totally accurate.
  • Vital records are official records of someone’s birth, marriage or death. In these, you’ll often find important dates and places as well as names of parents, spouses or others important to the family. They aren’t always totally accurate, and you may only be able to see an index of the record (not the actual document).

As you find search results, compare what they say to what you’ve already learned. How likely is it that this record belongs to your family? Consider how many people seem to have the same name in that location and time period (for example, how many are mentioned in the 1880 U.S. census in that state?). Don’t just look at the search results list: click through to look at the full summary of the entry and, if you can, the original record itself. You may find additional details in these that can confirm whether this record belongs to your relative. You may even find out about new people: your great-grandparents’ parents, for example. Write it all down or begin building a family tree right there on the FamilySearch website (because it’s totally free: learn more about that here.) And one of the greatest keys to long term success is citing your sources. It’s imperative that you make careful note of where you got the resource so that you can find and refer to it again later, and back up your research if it is ever called into question.

People who research their family history often describe it as a puzzle with lots of different pieces. You will need to assemble a lot of puzzle pieces–information about each relative–to begin to see the “bigger picture” of your family history. You’ll start to sense which pieces may belong to a different family puzzle. You may put together a picture that is unexpected, or has some shadows and sadness. There will likely also emerge heroic, beautiful and touching images.

Ready to learn more?

Up next, read:

7 Great Ways to Use Your iPad for Family History

How to Find Your Family Tree Online

Best Genealogy Software

Search the SSDI for Your Family History

 

 

Which are the Best Genealogy Websites for YOU??

Bill Johnson in Manassas, Virginia, USA, wrote to me with this question–and I know he’s not the only one asking it!

“It’s difficult to know what genealogical resources to spend your money on. I have been a subscriber to Ancestry.com (world package) for years. But, there is FindMyPast, MyHeritage, etc. Your books identify dozens of other resources that all sound good — and cost money. Then there are some of the free resources like the National Archives and the LDS resources [FamilySearch].  Where should you spend your time and money?  While money is always a factor, I find that my time is a more precious resource.  If I have Ancestry.com, would I gain anything by subscribing to FindMyPast? MyHeritage? FamilySearch? The National Archives or the BLM sites?  I am concerned about wasting money on redundancy.  Why visit a site that only offers a select subset of the data that I access through Ancestry?

Which paid sites do you regularly use?  Which free sites do you use?  Your books have a plethora of suggestions but the pool of resources is increasing by the day.  It is really getting rather confusing.”

What a great question!!! Here’s my answer:

“I agree, it’s gotten more complicated selecting the best genealogy websites for your own needs. I will take a look at covering this more in depth in a future podcast episode. I do have a few ideas for you right now.

It’s really about accessing the right website (or tool) for the task.

  • For general depth of records I turn first to Ancestry.com (you only need the world edition if you need records outside of the U.S.), and then FamilySearch.org. With Ancestry.com, I make sure I use the card catalog and search by location tool (scroll down to the map) so I’m not missing all the record sets that don’t automatically jump to the top of the general search results. FamilySearch is free, so I check its online resources EVERY TIME I have a question. I check both browsable and indexed content (from the main screen, click Search, then Records, then scroll down and click Browse all Published Collections (or click to that screen here). You’ll be able to choose a location and see all content they have and whether it’s been indexed or you just have to browse through it (like reading microfilm, only online).
  • For me personally, I was slow to warm up to MyHeritage because I just wasn’t sure how it would best help me. Once I embraced it and posted my tree, its strength in my research became clear: for the first time ever I connected with a distant cousin in the “old country” (Germany)! The international user base of MyHeritage stands above other sites. And the fact that you can create your own family site on MyHeritage makes it a great ongoing resource for staying connected. (Disclosure: MyHeritage is a sponsor of the Genealogy Gems podcast. However, that is because of the value I came to experience in my own research as I just mentioned.)
  • When I am focused on my husband’s British roots I head to FindMyPast and pay as I go as needed.

download backblazeOur mission here at Genealogy Gems is to reveal innovative ways of using the myriad of tech tools so you’ll know you can turn to them only when you need them. Think of it as a toolbelt. The right tool for the right job! But I also only bring tech tools and websites to the podcast and my website that I believe are worthwhile. Believe it or not, I weed a lot of them out!

I hope that helps, and I wish you great genealogical success!”  Lisa

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