Remember the Sears Catalog? It’s on Ancestry.com

Sears Catalog Fall 1960, Cover. Digital image from Ancestry.com. Historic Catalogs of Sears, Roebuck and Co., 1896-1993 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
Original data: Sears Roebuck Catalogs 1896–1993. Vol.102–228 K. Chicago, Illinois: Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Back in “the day,” American consumers window-shopped by mail with the Sears catalog. From 1888-1993, the Sears catalog stocked millions of American households and fed the Christmas lists of men, women and children.

Wouldn’t pages from the Sears catalog make a lively addition to your family history posts, pins, pages and  conversations? Ancestry.com thinks so, too! They’ve digitized the catalogs and they’re keyword-searchable here. (Just a word of advice: browse a certain issue or search for a specific product. A keyword search for “bicycle” brings up over 5000 results through the OCR technology used to find matches.)

According to this brief history, the Sears catalog first launched as a mailer for watches and jewelry in 1888. “The time was right for mail order merchandise,” says the article. “Fueled by the Homestead Act of 1862, America’s westward expansion followed the growth of the railroads. The postal system aided the mail order business by permitting the classification of mail order publications as aids in the dissemination of knowledge entitling these catalogs the postage rate of one cent per pound. The advent of Rural Free Delivery in 1896 also made distribution of the catalog economical.”

Here’s one more blast from the American consumer past: Sears kit houses. Have you heard of these? You used to be able to order pre-fabricated homes from Sears. You could customize one of many standard sets of plans, and all the materials would be pre-cut and delivered to your home, “some assembly required,” so to speak. Learn more about Sears kit houses and see images of several designs (1908-1940) here. Did your family ever live in a kit house? Tell us about it on the Genealogy Gems Facebook page!

World War II Fallen and the Stories Behind the Stars

16 million Americans answered the call to serve their country during World War II and tragically over 400,000 never returned home. To honor them, each family of a fallen hero received a banner with a gold star to hang in their window. Now 80 years later, there’s another way to ensure they are honored and most importantly, not forgotten. Today the nonprofit Stories Behind the Stars focuses on researching and writing the stories of every one of the WWII fallen. In this special Veteran’s Day episode of Elevenses with Lisa, Don Milne, founder of  Stories Behind the Stars joins me to discuss the project, how to access the stories, and how you can help with the research that ensures that every single one of the World War II fallen are remembered.

Watch Live: Thursday, November 11, 2021 at 11:00 am CT 
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Episode 78 Show Notes 

 (Get your ad-free Show Notes Cheat Sheet at the bottom of this page in the Resources section.) This article includes affiliate links. We will be compensated when you use our links at no additional charge to you. Thank you for supporting our free content!

16 million Americans answered the call to serve their country during World War II and tragically over 400,000 never returned home. To honor them, each family of a fallen hero received a banner with a gold star to hang in their window. Now 80 years later, there’s another way to ensure they are honored and most importantly, not forgotten.

Today the nonprofit Stories Behind the Stars focuses on researching and writing the stories of every one of the 421,000 US World War II fallen. I want to share with you how to find them, and how you can help with the research that ensures that every single one of the World War II fallen are remembered.

The Stories Behind the Stars founder Don Milne joins me in this video episode. He’s a lifelong history buff, and a few years ago he decided to write a daily story about one of the US World War II fallen for his blog called WW2 Fallen 100. His effort totaled more than 1,200 stories and has been read more than 1 ½ million times.

After his banking job was eliminated at the end of 2019, Don decided to devote his full time to create Stories Behind the Stars and find volunteers to write the stories of everyone of the 421,000 US World War II fallen.

The Story of a Fallen Hero of WWII

Lisa: I’d love to start by putting the fallen heroes of World War II front and center. Can you share with us one of the stories that has really touched you?

Don: Yes. It’s harder and harder to do that because so far we’ve already done about 13,000 stories. One of the more recent ones that we’ve done on our Pearl Harbor project was a fellow named Don Whitestone. He was on the USS Arizona, the battleship totally decimated at Pearl Harbor. More than 1000 people were killed on that ship, and he was one of those. If you go to the USS Arizona Memorial, you just see a name on the wall. And that’s basically all you know about him.

USS Arizona

USS Arizona (public domain)

So, for our project that we’re focusing on right now, is to tell the story of all the men lost at Pearl Harbor, all 2335 of them. We’ve already finished the one for Don Boydston.

Just to give you a little bit of information about him. We know he was from Fort Worth, Texas. He was the youngest of six children. Almost every one of his brothers also enrolled in the military during World War Two. His eldest brother survived the war. His second oldest brother, he was actually in Hawaii the same time as his younger brother. Don was there while he was on shore. So, he would have probably been looking for his brother right after the attack, and wouldn’t have found him because he didn’t survive and they never found his body. He ended up continuing in the military and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. And he received the Silver Star for leading his men against the Germans in France in 1944. He died in 1945 while the war was still going on.

Another brother by the name of Robert served as a lieutenant. He was wounded, but he survived the war and lived to be age 90.

Another brother by the name of Ward, he joined the Army Air Forces. He was on a mission to Tripoli in 1943, in his B24 Liberator, and his plane went down.

So, here’s a family of five brothers. Two of them survived the war, and three of them didn’t. One of them died the very first day of the war, Pearl Harbor, and one of them died during the very last year of the war. It must have been devastating to have a family of five sons and lose three of them. But the father of the family, he did something really interesting. He decided that he was going to write stories, to write letters to the servicemen that may not be getting letters, because back then there wasn’t any social media. You couldn’t pick up a cell phone and talk to people. You had to write letters. And that was like, the thing that all of the servicemen looked forward to is they wanted to get letters from home. And so he made it a project in 1942. He was going to write stories to servicemen who didn’t have someone writing to them. He wasn’t going to be able to write to his son Don because he died at Pearl Harbor. But rather than feel sorry for himself and live with that loss, he decided to write the letters for a long period throughout the war.

He started with 137 different soldiers that he wrote to on a regular basis. So, I think that’s a wonderful thing that I didn’t know about. And all of these men and women who didn’t come home from World War II deserve to be remembered by more than just seeing a name on a memorial or gravesite. So, there’s a lot more Don Boydstuns out there. What we’re trying to do is find volunteers that can help us find those stories.

Lisa: That’s such a fitting story. That father was making sure that the soldiers weren’t being forgotten. You’re in a way, of course, carrying that on today, through your project. And, as you listen to that story, you realize that you think you’re hearing one person’s story. But I’m hearing the story of the parents. I’m thinking about the mom. I just can’t imagine all the sons going to war and losing one. And so really, you’re capturing the stories of many more than the 421,000 fallen.

Read Don Boydstun’s story at Fold 3.

The Mission of Stories Behind the Stars

Lisa: What’s the mission of the Stories Behind the Stars project?

Don: The name of the project kind of tells what we’re doing. It is what they still do today. During World War II when a family lost a serviceman or woman during the conflict, they were given a banner with a gold star on it that they could hang in the window. We want to tell the stories behind those stars.

We have the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. Th Price of Freedom monument carries that same motif. It has more than 4,000 individual stars, each one representing 100 of the fallen.

Stories behind the stars, our mission is pretty ambitious. We want to make sure that all 421,000 servicemen and women Army, Air Force, Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Merchant Marines, every single one of them will have a story.

Part of the mission isn’t just to have it on some obscure website somewhere. But we want to have it available so anyone can read it at the memorial. It’s got to be super easy to find on a smartphone. That’s our mission. And the only way we can accomplish this is we need volunteers that are genealogy minded, that want to want to do this and do something more than just bring flowers to remember someone on Memorial Day. We’re looking for folks to create a permanent record that will go forward for decades to remember them.

WWII Fallen Resources

The National Archives hosts the following casualty lists on their website:

Keep in mind that these lists are incomplete.

MyHeritage: Stories Behind the Stars volunteers often use MyHeritage’s photo enhancement and colorization tools on the photos included in the stories, in addition to their genealogy records. Visit MyHeritage.

How to Access the Stories of the WWII Fallen

Visit Fold3

Up until June 2021, all of the stories our volunteers have been writing were saved directly to Fold3. In the case of the Pearl Harbor project, it was decided to first save these stories to the Together We Served platform because it allows for some extra features not part of using Fold3. However, all TWS content is also shared over to Fold3.

Fold3 recently updated its user interface and this change did not include the automatic transfer of the stories from Together We Serve to Fold3. This is scheduled to happen by December 1, 2021. Once the update is complete,  you will also be able to find stories like Don Boydstun’s story on Fold3.

The best place to search for all the completed Stories Behind the Stars stories is at the Stories Behind the Stars page at Fold3 Currently, the search only works for stories saved with the new Fold3 format. As previously mentioned, there are about 10,000 stories saved in the old format and Fold3 is converting those over.

The Pearl Harbor project webpage is still a work-in-progress, and writers are still working on the stories that have been researched. They have about 500 unassigned stories and anticipate a completion date of December 7. Until then, you can find stories at the D-Day page where there is a link that will take you to a page that separates the D-Day fallen by stateYou will then find links showing a list of all D-Day fallen from each state.

Volunteer for Stories Behind the Stars

You can help Stories Behind the Stars reach their goal of completing all the stories by the 80th anniversary of the end of WWII in September 2025 by writing one story a week. Visit Stories Behind the Stars and click the Volunteer button.

They occasionally share sample stories on their blog, as well as their podcast. This will help you get the idea of what these stories are like.

From Don: It does attract a lot of people with a genealogical background, but it’s not totally necessary. We’ve also got people with 40, 50 years of genealogy experience that they’re just wonderful at doing the research and stuff.

Basically, what we’re asking people to do is write a short story. We’re not writing a 40,000 word document. We’re basically writing short obituaries. Most obituaries are what 400 to 1000 words, and they just include basic information. And that’s what we’re basically trying to do.

The whole idea is we’re not creating stories that someone’s going to sit down and spend two hours reading. You’re going to go to a grave site, maybe you’re going to Normandy or Arlington, or your closest National Cemetery, where you see flags put out for all those that are in the military. The idea is you’re going to be able to take your smartphone and go up to that grave site and pull up a story and read it right there. Something that you can read in maybe five minutes or so. So pretty much everybody can write an obituary. Unfortunately, all of us probably will have to write an obituary sometime, right. That’s what we’re asking them to do.

We’ve created some training that gives people all the tools they need, so that they’ll feel really comfortable about writing these stories. And if they don’t consider themselves, writers, we have other ways that people can help. They can help with the database. Some people are better at editing than writing. So, we have people helping with that.

Top Tips for Researching WWII Fallen Soldiers and Sailors

When researching the stories of the World War II fallen, Don recommends the following:

  • Search Ancestry and MyHeritage. Look for all types, particularly the application for a headstone, muster rolls
  • Search Fold3 – search by name and dates such as birth and death.
  • Newspapers – Look for casualty lists and other articles. Try Chronicling America which is free. Other excellent newspaper collections can be found at GenealogyBank and Newspapers.

The Stats Behind Stories Behind the Stars

Organizations partnering with Stories Behind the Stars include Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch, Arlington National Cemetery, Friends of the National World War II Memorial, The National D-Day Memorial, JustServe.org, BillionGraves, and Together We Served. 

From Don Milne:

  • This project now involves more than 1,500 people from all 50 states and more than a dozen countries. Hundreds are people with a background or interest in genealogy.
  • We have completed more than 13,000 stories but we still have 408,000 to go.
  • We completed the stories of all the WWII fallen from one state (Utah).
  • We completed the stories of all the 2,502 Americans who died in Normandy on D-Day.
  • We are on pace to complete the stories of all 2,335 Pearl Harbor fallen by December 7.
  • Arlington National Cemetery gave us their list of WWII fallen buried there. Our plan is to do a story for each of these 7,700 by Memorial Day 2022.
  • By December 1 there will be an accompanying smartphone app people can use to read these stories at any gravesite or memorial.

Resources

Three ways to watch Elevenses with Lisa:

1. Video Player (Live) – Watch live at the appointed time in the video player above.
2. On YouTube (Live) – Click the Watch on YouTube button to watch live at the appointed time at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel. Log into YouTube with your free Google account to participate in the live chat. 
3. Video Player above (Replay) – Available immediately after the live premiere and chat. 

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3 Ways to Improve Your Genealogy Blog

Creating and maintaining a genealogy blog is a fun and rewarding way to share your family history. Blogging is also effective in finding cousin connections! If you are worried your blog isn’t pulling in the cousins you expected, elevate your ranking in search results by implementing these 3 ways to improve your genealogy blog.

improve your genealogy blog

I recently received this exciting email from Ruth:

“Thank you, thank you, thank you! Several months ago, I attended one of your all-day seminars in Bossier City, Louisiana and I must thank you for motivating me!

I’ve been researching my family tree off and on for 25 years or so, and at times it has taken a back burner to whatever was going on in my life; only to be dusted off when I would get an inquiry or perhaps when someone in the family passed away. In the last 3 years, I have been attending these local seminars with a distant cousin. They were fun and I learned a few things, but none had generated the enthusiasm that I have at the moment!

The knowledge that you share and the easy manner in which you deliver your presentations are so down-to-earth and it inspires me to learn more. I left your seminar with a Premium Membership package and I have been listening to your podcast ever since.

You also encourage your readers to blog about their genealogy. I took your advice and I’ve done just that. Please take a look at my blog – any suggestions you might have would be welcomed. The title is My Family Tree: Hobby or Addiction? and I have dedicated it to my father who passed away in 2005! Here is the link: http://myfamilytreehobbyoraddiction.blogspot.com/

Thank you again for all you do that encourages us and for the new tools that you share with your listeners to help their journey along the way!

Many thanks,

Ruth Craig Estess”

Ruth, thank you and congratulations!

improve your genealogy blog ruth

I love hearing how you have put it into action what you learned at the seminar.

Tips for Improving Your Genealogy Blog

Ruth is doing a terrific job including family information on her genealogy blog that others might be Googling. That means they are very likely to find her. But there’s more that can be done. Here are 3 additional tips for Ruth and anyone who wants to get more traction with their genealogy blog:

“1. Add more images. Google looks postively upon websites that have images. It considers the website to be more of an authority on the subject covered in the blog. Images improve Search Engine Optimization (SEO.) In layman’s terms, SEO refers the ways in which you have made your blog easy to use, and easy for Google to understand what it is about. The better Google understands the subject, the better chance it has of delivering your blog as a result when people search on things you write about (like your family tree!) It’s important that your image files have names that accurately reflect what they and your blog post are about. Therefore, it’s a solid strategy to include relevant genealogical information such as names, places and dates in the image titles. If you don’t happen to personally have photos about the subject of your blog post, include images of documents or other related items.

2. Include a Call to Action. At the end of each post, invite your readers to comment and contact you if they are researching the same family. It’s amazing what a little invitation will do to prompt interaction. If you skip this step, your readers may just “lurk”, or in other words, quietly read and then go on to the next website. That’s a missed opportunity for connection and collaboration. Even though a reader may be researching the family you are writing about, they may not think to reach out to you or comment unless you prompt them to do so.

3. Make use of blog categories. Categories and Labels help organize you blog content. Create a category for each surname you discuss on your blog. The category can appear in the side column on your blog. That makes it easy for readers to click a surname they are interested in and jump directly to your posts that discuss that name.”

Surname labels in genealogy blog

Categories and Labels are great for SEO too. Google loves well-organized websites because they are easier to understand and deliver in search results.

More Gems on Creating Your Own Genealogy Blog

Ruth wrote to tell me she has already started putting these ideas into practice. She’s on her way to rising in the search results and hearing from distant cousins. How exciting! Click below to continue reading about rewarding and effective family history blogging.

Why Marketing Experts Would Agree That You Should Write a Family History Blog

Why and How to Start a Family History Blog

Genealogy Blogging, the Future of Genealogy and More

Tell Us About Your Genealogy Blog

Do you have a genealogy blog? Well, here’s my call to action! Please share your family history blog, SEO tips, and success stories in the comments area below.

And I would so appreciate it if you would share Genealogy Gems with your friends and blog readers by including a link to our website in your list of favorite genealogy help sites on your blog. Thanks!

Family History Episode 45 – Genealogy Blogs Started by YOU–the Podcast Listeners!

Family History: Genealogy Made Easy

Listen to the Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast by Lisa Louise Cooke. It’s a great series for learning the research ropes and well as refreshing your skills.

with Lisa Louise Cooke

Republished 2014

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Download the Show Notes for this Episode

Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008-09. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.

Episode 45: Genealogy Blogs Started by YOU!

In recent episodes of this podcast, we’ve been talking about how and why to create a genealogy blog. In this episode I’m going to share some of the family history blogs that YOU—the listeners—have created. I’m hoping you’ll be inspired to blog by what others are doing, or that you’ll take note of any blogs that can help you or perhaps are relevant to your own family history. Being a community is what gives genealogists strengths and inspiration. Get your notepads out and get ready to jot down these terrific blogs!

Below are the blogs mentioned in the show. Most of them stayed active and have very recent posts! What a great thing to see the success they’ve had since getting started. There’s only one blog we didn’t find when we republished this episode: Teri’s blog on her Pomeranian ancestors.

Listeners’ Genealogy Blogs

Fermazin Family Ancestry by Nancy Peralta (NEW URL)

Leaves of the Tree by Kay Haden (NEW URL)

Are You My Cousin? by Lisa Lisson (NEW URL)

Kolbe Genealogy Blog by Michelle Kolbe

Finding the Flock—A Genealogy Research Blog by Sean Lamb

Gus’s Genealogy Blog by Gus Marsh

BELL family History – York W.A. by Graham Wilkie

New Genealogy Blogger Take-Away Tips:

  • Beginning is the most important step!
  • Writing up your brick walls and family groups is a great way to summarize in your mind where you are in your research, which often generates new leads.
  • Try posting more articles to generate content for the search engines.
  • Put your blog URL on message boards relating to your surname.
  • Have you lost track of someone else’s blog that is no longer at its old URL? Search for the blog, the blogger’s name and other keywords (surnames, topics, places) to discover whether it’s migrated to a new URL. That’s how we located some of the blogs above when we republished this episode.

Starting a Genealogy Blog Q&A

(Please note that features and layouts of blogging platforms change over time. These answers were current as of the original podcast publication date. If things have changed, use clues from the answers to find the current answer!)

Question: I set up my blog in Blogger. There does not appear to be any spell checker. How is your blog set up in terms of writing and editing?

Answer: Yes, Blogger has a spell check. When you’re in Compose mode, there are buttons across the top of the Compose box. You’ll see Font, Bold, etc. There you will find an icon “ABC.” That’s the spell-checker. Click it and it will run while you’re in Compose mode.

Question: How do I insert the name of the site as a link without typing out the name of the URL? The URL is somehow encoded in the name of the link.

Answer: When links are embedded in the text, this is called a hyperlink. Highlight the text or the name you want to send people to. Then in the Compose box, you’ll see a little button that looks like the link of a chain. Just click that and you’ll get a window in which you can type in the complete web address where you’re sending people (I always go to the webpage I want to link to, copy the full URL and then paste it.)

Question: I set my blog as available to all, but a search even for the exact name of the blog doesn’t bring it up in my search engine. Why is that?

Answer: You can do a couple of things in your blog to help search engines notice you, but the reality is that perhaps Google hasn’t yet “crawled” your blog. Google combs and indexes website every day, and perhaps they haven’t gotten to you yet. You can go to Google.com/addurl, and there you can send your blog address to Google and that will get it indexed much more quickly. Get lots of new posts up with specific words (surnames, locations and other terms about your family).

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