Sunday, February 11, 2007

Family History Is Mostly Ephemeral

Marty Weil has a cool blog devoted to ephemera—old stuff that shouldn't still exist, but has somehow survived. It will give you an idea of the range of material worth seeking out and preserving.

My New England Yankee forebears had mixed feelings about ephemera. On the one hand, they hated to throw out anything that might have value. On the other hand, a school hall pass from 1961 could be put to good use starting a fire in the cookstove. Practicality trumps sentimentality when the coffee pot is cold.

Some things did survive. An invitation to my great-grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary was returned to the family by a descendant of one of the attendees. When my mother's grandmother went into a nursing home, her wallet was preserved like a time capsule with all its contents intact. My mother has the hospital receipt from when I was born, and pulls it out to marvel at how cheap babies were back then.

Thanks to the Internet, one can "own" ephemera while avoiding the burden of preservation. An email correspondent sent me images of an 1891 letter from Edward Denham of New Bedford, Mass., to Augustus Dunham of Paris, Maine, requesting genealogical data for a family history Denham was compiling. My great-great-grandfather living in the town next door received an identical letter (he mentioned it in his newspaper column), but his copy probably ended up heating the coffee pot. He did, however, respond, and his contribution to Denham's work included details I've found nowhere else. I've often thought that, if I could get my hands on his response, I would be finding the Holy Grail of my genealogical ephemera collection.

Marty Weil

Without wise forbearers like yours, we’d all be swimming in a river of paper and an ocean of school hall passes and other useless flotsam. Thanks for this brilliant and clever write-up on ephemera! You took a page out of my book, so to speak, and brought it to life like only you can. I'm very pleased that you found my blog worthwhile.

Bill Blunt

Don't give up home finding that elusive letter, Chris!
My genealogical highspot of 2006 was being able to re-unite two sets of correspondence between a distant relative and amateur genealogist in South Africa and his English relative, my mother's cousin.
Written between 1918 and 1933, the letters are a real insight into the pre-internet days of genealogical sleuthing, with a typical time-lag of 12 weeks between sending the first letter and getting a reply.
A bit like using AOL when their server's down, I suppose.


Good point, Marty. What makes ephemera so appealing is its rarity, as well as its arbitrariness. The best finds are often those you aren't even looking for. Sure, it would be nice to find the movie ticket stubs from your parents' first date, but the speeding ticket from their third date might tell an even better story.

Thomas, thanks for taking time out from your writing to stop in. I do find it amazing what was accomplished by genealogists before the arrival of computers, or even typewriters. They possessed two admirable traits: patience and immunity to writer's cramp.

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