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.
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.
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!
Recently, Genealogy Gems podcast listener Debra Ingrum Trammel wrote to me with this question about cleaning out a relative’s home. Does it sound familiar?
“Hi Lisa, My husband is faced with the daunting task of disposing of his parent’s belongings. His parents at age 92 and 86 have things that go way back!!
We live in Tennessee and his parents lived in Texas so that in itself is a real chore to have to make numerous trips back and forth. My husband is so eager to get all of this finished but I am concerned that he will overlook or not be aware of any items that should be kept for his family history.
I continue to work on researching his side of the family. I know that we should keep certain documents: birth certificates, marriage licenses, definitely old photographs, etc. but I fear that there are items that I might not think about as being important. Might you offer some suggestions for us?
Here’s my answer:
Debra, I sympathize with your concern about overlooking things. When my Grandpa died I was pregnant with my last child and unable to go back and help clear out the house in another state. I worried too about things being tossed without folks realizing they were important.
One area to keep an eye out for is bills & receipts – a lot of folks (like my Grandmother) kept receipts from way back. While on the surface they seemed prime to toss, I actually retraced their steps and homes through the 1940s and 1950s based on the addresses written on the receipts!
Paperwork is often the area we itch to toss, but old envelopes and letters from other people writing to our relatives can provide many clues.
I also carefully go through all old books before giving them away because more than once a special tidbit has been tucked inside the pages. If you don’t plan on keeping the book, or don’t want to keep the item in the book, be sure to make note of which pages it was nestled in between. There could be a special meaning there. If everyone involved is in a big hurry to finish the clean up and you don’t have the luxury of time to go through the pages of the books, at least give give them a gentle shake over a table allowing anything tucked inside to fall out.
In Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 39 I tell the story of one of the most significant finds in my family that almost got tossed out. But Grandmother was tapping me on the shoulder, prodding me to look further before wrapping things up – and boy am I glad that I did! If folks in your family think you are being too persnickety about not over looking things, play that segment of the show for them, or tell them the story.
These are just a few ideas to get you started. I invite all of you readers out there to share your unusual finds and recommendations for Debra on the Genealogy Gems Facebook page. (And don’t forget to “Like” us!)
Wishing you family history success, and many thanks for writing! Lisa
Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast
with Lisa Louise Cooke
Republished May 13, 2014
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.
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 31: Immigration and Naturalization Records for Family History, Part 3
Did you know that all those annotations and scribbles on passenger lists may hold important clues to your family history? In this episode, we continue our discussion with Stephen Danko about immigration and naturalization records. (If you missed them, they are Episodes 29 and 30.) Specifically,we’ll listen in on a presentation he gave on passenger list annotations and what the immigrant’s experience was like at Ellis Island.
So we’ve talked already about ship passenger arrival lists. Now let’s get out the magnifying glass, so to speak. We’ll look closely at the little notes on this records.
Annotations on passenger lists could have made upon departure, arrival or later when that immigrant applied for citizenship. One of the common misconceptions about passenger lists is that they were not filled out at Ellis Island, as many people believe. Rather they were completed at the port of departure. So notes could have been made at a variety of different times.
Here are three examples of annotations that were made upon a person’s arrival in the United States:
D=detained for inquiry
SI or DSI=Special Inquiry or Detained for Special Inquiry—this was really bad! (listen to the podcast to hear why)
USC=Was born in the U.S. or was a U.S. citizen
For a more thorough list of annotations on passenger records, read Stephen’s handout he graciously shared with us: A New Look at Immigrant Passenger Manifests. His companion blog posts (see Updates and Links below) show you real-life examples.
Here are some more great tips from that conversation:
- Check at the end of the manifest for pages called Record of Detained Alien Passengers, and Records of Release of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry.
- Our ancestors could have traveled back and forth from their homeland several times before they became citizens. Those passenger lists are just as valuable as their original immigration. If they hadn’t completed the naturalization process yet, then you may find an indication of that re-entry number or their citizenship status.
- As Stephen mentioned in a previous podcast, depending on the timeframe, your ancestor may have had to request a certificate of arrival when applying for citizenship. And if you haven’t found their naturalization records yet, and are lucky enough to find a certificate of arrival annotation on the passenger list, then you will have a really good chance for tracking them down.
- Certificates of arrival were required for anyone who applied for citizenship beginning in 1926 who had arrived after 1906. Annotations on the passenger list about the certificate of arrival (C/A) can lead you to where and when they applied for citizenship. A number like 1X-151953 indicates a request for a certificate of arrival was made after 1926 to help with the naturalization process. The first number “1” is the naturalization district, if there is an “X” it means the person didn’t have to pay for the Certificate of Arrival and the numbers after the dash are the certificate of arrival number or the application number. The date of the certificate of arrival may appear after this number sequence.
- Another code, VL, is the verification of landing, often seen for arrivals before 1906, before certificates of arrival were issued.
- Numbers like 432731 / 435765 = the passenger was a permanent resident of the U.S. and was returning home with a re-entry permit.
- If someone’s name was crossed out on the passenger list but the rest of the line was not, it probably means their name was amended. It was likely misspelled.
- Look through every page of the ship’s manifest for your ancestor’s voyage. You may find record of stops the ship made along the way, recording of friends or relatives, or even a second entry for your ancestor as Stephen mentioned in the case of changing class of ticket.
- The more recent the passenger list, the more information we’ll find and possibly the more annotations we may find. In my case my great-grandparents made the journey from Antwerp Belgium in 1910. In looking back over their passenger lists (they each have their own because they traveled three months apart) I found numbers and markings on their record that I hadn’t really paid much attention to. So when I heard Stephen’s talk I was very excited to figure out their meaning!
Listen to the podcast itself for more details on:
- Head taxes charged;
- Names entered at port of departure for people who may not have sailed;
- Why a person might appear twice on a passenger list;
- Notations that they were hospitalized upon arrival—or that they died there;
- The number of meals eaten at Ellis Island; and
- Grounds for exclusion for entry to the U.S.
Updates and Links
A New Look at Immigrant Passenger Manifests. This pdf by Stephen Danko provides a timeline history of the information requested on passenger lists. You’ll also find annotations made before and after arrival.
Stephen’s Blog: A New Look at Immigrant Passenger Manifests
Stephen’s Blog: More Annotations on Immigrant Passenger Manifests
One-Step Webpages by Stephen P. Morse (Ellis Island Search Tool)
Remember the board game LIFE? Archives.com has put its own spin on this family favorite that experienced a revival in the 1960s.
(Quick Quiz: 1. What year was the game of LIFE created?
Bonus: 2. What was the original name?)
We recently discovered this cool, interactive webpage for learning more about U.S. history through census facts. It’s called The American Family Through Time and you can “play” it here free at Archives.com.
This clever page uses census data to show how American life has changed over the course of 220 years (and 23 censuses). You can click on decade-by-decade summaries on the “gameboard.” In addition to the census questions, you’ll find some fun now-and-then comparisons for housing, education and occupations. Great for kids of all ages!
Quick Quiz Answers:
2. The Checkered Game of Life
Everyone’s families have a little bit of mystery in their past–or a lot!
TheBlaze.com recently posted this great story about a woman who was able to solve a longtime family history mystery by posting it online at Metafilter.com, a crowd-source blog. She posted this query:
“In my grandmother’s final days battling brain cancer, she became unable to speak and she filled dozens of index cards with random letters of the alphabet. I’m beginning to think that they are the first letters in the words of song lyrics, and would love to know what song this was. This is a crazy long shot, but I’ve seen Mefites [other site users] pull off some pretty impressive code-breaking before!” Then she posted the “code” from one of the cards.
Within 15 minutes someone solved part of the puzzle: a section of the code was the first letters of the prayer from the New Testament, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name….”
Have YOU ever been faced with indecipherable notes left behind by a family member? What family history mystery do you wish an online community could help you solve? Share this on the Genealogy Gems Facebook page and leave your answers.