Family historians must be prepared for the many diverse languages that impact our rsearch.
When we must deal with foreign languages, unfamiliar alphabets or archaic handwriting, we need to be prepared or know where to find help. As we learn to read these alphabets and handwriting, we can understand how and where mistakes were made in our names.
Reading through online passenger manifests and census images for the names we know can be enlightening. I skipped over someone named Menchel Tallelsy until I looked at the actual manifest image - It was our cousin Mendel Talalay. The D was scrawled and the transcriber thought it was a separate C and H, instead of the correct D. I recognized TALLELSY immediately as TALALAY, but then I've been looking at even stranger forms of this name for a long time.
The more you look at old handwriting, the better you'll be able to read it. There are also some excellent online resources for this task, listed at the end of this article.
If you can, start with records or documents in a language you know to become familiar with the challenges.
No matter how good you think your eyes are, use a magnifying glass. I never understood why people in the library always had them. After some major eye strain, I went out and got one myself.
A journalist's motto, and a genealogist's, is always "Do Not Assume." Read carefully and slowly to decipher the words. Ask others to read a listing and see if they can decipher. Several pairs of eyes are always better than one.
Check your document for confusing letters and see if other words on the same page might have them. If the letter form is in a word you can read, use it to decode the others. If days and months are indicating, they can be useful in decoding letter combinations to unravel the other puzzles.
If you can, scan the document and use a program like PhotoShop to enlarge specific words and then crop individual letters to print out. You'll have a handy-dandy poster to hang on your wall.
I've participated in two recent transcription projects of Israeli cemeteries totalling 85,000 burials in two major cemeteries. The records were in Hebrew and needed to be transliterated into English for JewishGen's searchable Online World Burial Registry. The golden rule is always to transcribe whatever is there, exactly as is, complete with errors, but since Hebrew is a phonetic language and usually written without vowels, the names are open to interpretation.
When the names were recorded, the often Eastern European clerks were faced with names to record and spell in Amharic (Ethiopian), Farsi (Persian), Greek or Spanish. In our transliteration, we needed to try to discover the ethnic origins of unusual names, the pronounciation and correct English spelling.
In general, transcribers in large projects need to be familiar with common names and places with fcompetiency in historic handwriting (paleography). Those who are familiar with certain ethnic common names and handwriting may see the letters clearly and unambiguously. Others, with no frame of reference, have a more difficult time. However, the errors may eventually help and provide more information. Keep your originals original. You can always refer to the original and the error when analyzing your findings.
For good practice, read through a wide variety of passenger manifests. Some are beautiful examples of calligraphy, while others are scribbled with leaky pens, complete with ink blotches. With many names on each manifest, you can review them and train your eyes. If you come across a familiar name or place, use those clues to decipher other names.
Check online and at specialty websites for handwriting aids. Avotaynu has some transcription manuals for different languages. Your local Family History Center has finding aids, alphabet charts, abbreviation lists and more. Collect those pertinent to the countries and languages you are searching.
A CONFUSION OF LETTERS
Confusing letters are not only found in the middle of words. The initial letter may also be hard to read and lead to running up the wrong research road or coming to a brick wall. In some intensive work with the Ellis Island Database, before Steve Morse's One-Step Pages www.stevemorse.org were developed, I discovered these letter groups are often confused.
I,J; S, F, P; D, C and H; F, H; J, I; K, R; S, L; O, Q; P, R; U, V; W, M, V, U; b,f; d, el; j, I; k, t; s, l; t, c; ss, fs, ps; w, vv; y, g, q.
Also think about what certain letters sounded like in various languages, particularly when the speaker had an accent: B-P; D-T; F-P, F-V, G-K, J-Y, S-Z, V-B, V-W, W-R. C-S, CH-SH, R-RR, L-LL.
Vowels are also a problem. I, IE. EY and Y can be substituted for each other. AI-AY-AJ all sound the same. A name that begins with an A can begin with an O or other vowel, so check each spelling.
I've listed some examples of language aids online. There are many more. Try to look at some that focus on your family origins. I'm interested in hearing your comments and what you've found. If the database you are searching has the option for "contains," try using the name written without the first letter.
Handwriting Analysis for Genealogists
Graphology for genealogists may give you some personality clues about your ancestors.
Denmark - Alphabets & Handwriting Styles
Danish documents may be written in heavy black German-style Gothic letters. Try this link for assistance.
English Handwriting 1500-1700
A Cambridge University free class with high-resolution document images and exercises.
UK National Archives - Paleography
England again, this time 1500-1800, with assistance for reading and transcribing old documents in an online interactive tutorial.
Tutorial on historical handwriting, 1500-1750, and assistance with other problems.
FamilySearch Handwriting Guide - German Gothic
Germany used Gothic handwriting into WW2, it was used in 1700s Czechoslovakia, 19th century Scandinavia and the Baltics (Latvia, Estonia).
Moravians - German Script Tutorial
German script from Moravia.
Old German Handwritten Scripts
Although the site is in German, it isn't that hard to navigate. There are documents, alphabet fonts and other helps to read old German handwriting.
The Internet is an amazing place, continually collecting information from people around the world.
The sheer amount of information can be overwhelming, as we discover family pages, cemetery data, photographs, family trees and more documents.
If you consider yourself a good online researcher, you can go directly to Yahoo or Google or other general sites. However, the mass of information returned can be impossible to get through, much could be irrelevant to your genealogical quest, but you might turn up an undiscovered gem or two.
Who among us hasn't Googled themselves and watched in wonder as our lives seemingly scroll down the page? There is so much in cyberspace, but how do we find relevant data?
As discussed in the past few articles, spelling is a major problem. For some people, the trouble is very basic - they can't even spell "genealogy." To see how many people are in the same boat, search for geneology, geniology, geneaoplogy, geneologie, genlogy or other even more creative forms on the major search engines and note how many times the error pops up in various websites.
Search engines are what we work with, with specific techniques and tips to access the desired data. If you organize a good search, you'll limit the junk, and focus on useful information.
There are general search engines and indexes, genealogy search engines and indexes, and specific ethnic resources.
General Search Engines and Indexes
These include Yahoo, Google, About.com and others, online encyclopedias, library sites, newsgroups and message boards to name a few. It doesn't hurt to search each one, but be prepared for much irrelevant information.
Genealogy Search Engines and Indexes
These include the massive compilation of sites at Cyndi's List, and other sites like Distant Cousin, Genealogy Pages, GeneaLinks, Genealogy Home Page, Gengateway.com, Genealogy Search, and Genealogy Portal, About.com's focused genealogy pages. These sites offer links to other listings of links and resources. While these are free, don't forget Ancestry.com which is a subscription for-fee website with masses of databases, links, resources.
Additionally there is the Ellis Island Database, and also Steve Morse's One-Step Pages for navigating, many US and Canadian sites, and many ethnic-specific resources including Jewish, British, European, Eastern European and those farther afield.
For Jewish resources, there are a host of sites, beginning with JewishGen www.jewishgen.org, and continuing with Jewish Records Indexing-Poland, Jewish Webindex, Cindy's List - Jewish, Harry Leichter's Jewish Genealogy list, Judaism 101 - Hebrew Alphabet, JewishLink.net
Jewish Calendar, Jewish Migration Histories Timeline, Sephardic resources, Holocaust research, Avotaynu's Consolidated Surname Index, and many others.
And as good as all of these are for a variety of reasons, you'll have to search each one individually, which can be tedious, for hundreds of searches for each family of interest on as many websites as you can find.
Wouldn't it be great to search, at once, hundreds of genealogically relevant websites? MyHeritage thought so, and now you can search for all the names and their variations in some 1,200 genealogy-specific databases, with only one simple click at MyHeritage Research - a focused genealogy search engine.
For each search, click on up to 10 spelling variants at a time, save searches to avoid backtracking or duplication, and schedule automatic searches to alert you to new data.
It queries Websites, databases, archives and message boards; covering all gtypes of genealogy records including census records, family trees, immigration records, military records, medical records, cemetery records, court, land and probate documents, and other informational sources, such as newspapers, telephone directories, and more.
And because MyHeritage has a team of dedicated genealogists, they are always looking for new sources to include, and which automatic searches will pick up. For the current list of databases, click here.
Click here to start learning about MyHeritage's super search engine Megadex™ which will help you find richer information about your ancestors.
For example, if you are searching for Williamson, you'll also need to search for Williemson, Williamsen and Williamsohn, because names have evolved and the names are written differently in various languages and countries. Other errors or variants in spelling may be due to hard-to-read handwriting, transcription, transliteration and typing.
Soundex is a phonetic system that's been around since 1918 and assigns numbers to letters, enabling a "sounds alike" method, but not all databases work with Soundex. Conducting a Soundex search means you will retrieve many false positives which are irrelevant. And it may not pick up Villiamson or Wilhelmson, which would be relvant.
Megadex was invented by MyHeritage to overcome these challenges. It shows you the most common spelling variations, and allows searching for a subset of variations in a single, one click search that covers most major genealogy databases on the Internet (as well as those which do not support "sounds like").
When you click, you'll get a screen with multiple choices. Check off the ones you want to search first (up to 10 at a time):
As the search is performed, the results for each database will show up, and you can select which ones to look at. You receive a long table of results, and can start working immediately on them without waiting for the entire table to load.
There are two very convenient features: You can save each search, which helps eliminate duplication or back tracking of work already done and you can also schedule automatic searches to find new results, as databases are updated frequently.
Why don't you try a search now? How many hits did you get? Were they useful? Readers are invited to write in and comment on their experiences with Megadex. Let me know if you've encountered any problems.
If you are searching for names from particular ethnic, religious, cultural and social communities, do some investigative reading. The clues in articles and on websites may provide more information for your quest.
Here are some quick tips for various groups. There are many other useful sites to be found with some patient Internet searching.
Readers are invited to let us know about other useful sites. I look forward to reading your comments and questions.
Excellent article on the permutations, categories and much more.
Good article on given name patterns and surnames.
Unusual patterns, farms, homesteads, patronymics and matronymics.
Detailed name categories: occupations, locations, physical characteristics, saints, objects, regional diminutive, suffixes.
Interesting site detailing ancient names and meanings, and naming patterns for children.
JEWISHGEN, for many resources on Jewish names.
Check the numerous InfoFiles, Family Finder and other resources.
A good explanation of confusing naming patterns concerning the usage order of paternal and maternal family names, given names and more.
ncludes first names, farm names, Sami ethnic minority, immigrants and more sources.
A good compilation ofPolish naming customs including German, Jewish and Ukrainian.
Traditions and information on Norway, Denmark and Finland, with more resources.
Early naming practices, such as patronymic, clergy, nobility, crafts, emigrants and more.
Vietnamese naming practices.
For a host of other interesting articles, click here :
ASIA (Mongolia, India)
BYZANTIUM (Roman Empire)
EASTERN EUROPE (Croatian, Czech, Hungarian)
ENGLAND (many articles)
FRANCE (Paris, Breton, Brittany, Occupations, Given Names)
ISLAM/MIDDLE EAST (place names in Spain and Portugal, Jewish, Andalucia)
ITALY (Pisa, Renaissance, Jewish Rome, Jewish Milan)
LOW COUNTRIES (Flemish, Frisian, women)
SCANDINAVIA (language, Finland, ancient)
SPAIN/IBERIA (Andalusia, Catalan, Valencia, 15th-16th century, Portugese, Moorish place names)
WALES (10th, 13th, 16th centuries, women, Cornish).
WHY IS IT SO HARD?
Your family name has evolved since it was adopted. It may represent your family's sojourns in different countries, its spelling and pronunciation may have changed, and it may have been changed following a recent immigration.
Other factors, as mentioned in the previous article, are easy to understand. Spelling wasn't engraved in stone, people were illiterate or not literate in the common language of a specific area. Our ancestors didn't know how to spell their names and government officials were responsible for recording the names in registers or in important documents.
The official wrote the name the way he heard it. Perhaps the official was elderly and deaf in one ear, or your ancestor had a speech impediment or an accent. When your ancestor's cousin came in to record a later birth, however, a new younger official sat behind the desk, one whose hearing was excellent and the cousin spoke clearly.
When immigrants moved to a new country, they often changed their names. They wanted to make it easier for themselves, their neighbors and employers to spell or pronounce their names, and for official documents. If the original names were written in other alphabets - such as Cyrillic (Russian, Bulgarian etc.) - they were phonetically transliterated into English, providing many new spelling possibilities. Accents or dialects further complicated the choices.
When specific letters or combinations of letters in an original language could not be understood properly in a new language, the immigrant tried to simplify it, but variations can be traced to those with difficult-to-understand accents and imperfect knowledge of English, in the case of U.S. immigrants. Thus, a name was pronounced one way and recorded another way. In fact, a search of a family through utilizing city directories might show how the immigrant kept changing his or her name. My great-grandfather, whose original name was TALALAY, used TOLINE in his petition for citizenship (and it explained why it took me years to find it!), changed to TOLIN and finally to TOLLIN, while his brother adopted TALLIN.
Immigrants sometimes felt that if they translated their name, it would be simpler. It might have been as easy as simply translating the old name into the new language. In Israel, a family named Mandelbaum (almond tree) in Europe may have selected Shaked (almond in Hebrew). Some immigrants wanted a complete break from their former lives, or they may have been escaping from conscription in the old country and still afraid of officials who might come looking for them - this alone was enough reason to adopt a new name.
At some periods in certain countries, people of certain ethnicities were forced to adopt surnames imposed on them. When able, they'd drop the new names and return to the original or a "better" one in their subjective opinion. Others wanted to avoid persecution and, to hide their nationality or religion, adopted less-ethnic names. At certain times in Europe, for example, Jewish marriages were not recognized by the civil authorities (although couples had religious marriages). Thus registrars recorded the children's family name as the mother's maiden name. Upon immigration, the person began to use his father's name.
WHAT TECHNIQUES HELP?
Searching for variations and permutations and eventually locating the original name takes time, sometimes lots of time. Here are some tips:
Don't just read the name silently, speak it and try to spell it phonetically. Ask others to speak the name. Try this experiment: ask a young child to write the name as you say it. Their phonetic interpretation may be helpful.
Try to translate the name back to its original language using an online translation site, like Babelfish or dictionaries. If possible, check surrounding countries or in the case of Eastern Europe and its changing borders, see what the name is in the various languages used in one geographical location.
Vowels and initial letters. Names beginning with H or a vowel need attention. Depending on the language, the H may be dropped or added, and a name that begins with one vowel may begin with any of them; A/O or I/E are the common vowel substitutes. Check all possible variations.
Be careful with Eastern European-origin names beginning with J - this could also be transliterated as I, E or Y; a final E, S or Z may have been dropped or added; there may be one or two Ns at the end or one or two Ms in the middle.
When working with indexes, human error may be the culprit. Transcribers suffer from eye strain, put their fingers on the wrong keys, even write in the wrong column. I've seen records where the field was "Marital Status" and the answer was "Russian" - an obvious error. A transcriber might transpose certain letters. Try to see the possibilities by writing down the name. Under it, write various transpositions of all the letters, including the first one. Other errors are easily understood by looking at your keyboard, where nearby letters are confused when fingers are placed on the wrong keys.
When thinking about alternative spellings, try prefixes, suffixes and different endings.
When you search online, always choose "sounds like" or "alternative spellings" or "Soundex" to increase the returns and possible success. When using MyHeritage's powerful search engine which searches 1,200+ genealogy databases with one click, you'll see many alternate names from which to choose.
Another remarkable program devised by Edward Rosenbaum and called Name Permutations, will list hundreds upon hundreds of name variants, categorized bythe number of changed letters, from 1 to 6 or more, including first letter variables. It provides variations that will not be picked up by other search engines. It is shareware and has a nominal cost.
If you are dealing with immigrants to America, however, please do not believe that your ancestor's name was changed at Ellis Island. Nearly every genealogy conference offers a lecturer addressing this great urban myth. No cases have been found where an immigrant's name was changed by an official at Ellis Island. The person may have adopted a new name the minute he or she walked out the door, but it wasn't changed by an official on Ellis Island.
Passenger manifests were prepared in Europe by staff who understood many languages, and these manifests were used to merely check off the passenger as he or she went through Ellis Island, and inspectors, often foreign-born themselves, were assisted by translators who spoke 60 languages and dialects.
In 1898, one of my family's first immigrants arrived, changed his name from TALALAY to TOLLIN, and wrote home about it. Those who followed also adopted the new name almost immediately. Another story told in many family branches was that the immigrant was told by a fellow traveler - who spoke some English - on the ship, that the new immigrant would have to change his name immediately as no one would give a job to Mr. Tell-a-lie. Every immigrant ancestor told this story to his and her children and grandchildren. We believe it happened to Mendel in 1898, he wrote home and everyone knew the story. Most TALALAY adopted TOLLIN or TALLIN, although there are some other variations.
The next posting will focus on international naming patterns.
Do you have a story about a name change in your family? Readers are invited to share stories, questions and comments. I look forward to reading your comments right here.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Genealogists and family historians are nothing without names. Names are what we need. Without an all-important name, we cannot go back in time.
Newcomers might think that their family's current name has remained unchanged since surnames were adopted. That simply isn't the case and names have continually evolved for many reasons. Perhaps the most elemental is that spelling just wasn't as important back in the far past when most people were illiterate.
Surnames and their spellings been affected by ethnic naming practices and patterns, social class and immigration. Your name may be a simple variation, an Americanized or Anglicized version, or one that has been "invented," with no relation whatsoever to the original.
While some names have been traced for hundreds of years in a general geographic region, other quests require major sleuthing skills, along with detailed knowledge of specialized ethnic, social, cultural, religious and historical events.
There are many reasons why we can't find the names we know must be there … somewhere. The main reasons why these continue their game of hide and seek are due to misspelling, translations between languages, names not spelled as pronounced, changed (but not at Ellis Island - a major urban myth), etc.
This multi-part series of postings will address common problems and how to get around the obstacles.
For most of civilization, surnames were simply not necessary.
China claims the first use of surnames in 2852 BC. In the 11th century, European surnames are recorded. As an example, Spanish Jews first began to use surnames in the 1100s, and in the 9th century in some cases, according to archival and notarial records. In most of Europe, however, Jews were not required to adopt surnames until the early 19th century.
As long as the world's population remained small and localized in villages, it was enough to know that in the village of Smalltown, David was the shoemaker, Simon the baker, Thomas the barrel-maker (cooper) and John the blacksmith. Since there was only one resident following each occupation, the townspeople required only the artisan's first name (given name). Everyone knew each man personally and where his business was located.
When the village began to grow, or villagers moved to larger towns or into cities, there may have appeared several shoemakers named David, bakers named Simon, coopers named Thomas, and smiths named John.
A single name wasn't sufficient. David decided to adopt his craft as his name: David Shoemaker. Simon found there were already several bakers with his name, so he decided to use his father's name as his surname - Simon Johnson (John's son). Thomas also took his craft as a name: Thomas Cooper, and the blacksmith became John Smith.
In the Middle Ages, family names are generally in four categories:
1. Patronymics are family names formed from a father's name ("son," son of) - a common device. Less common except in Scandinavia and Iceland are matryonymics formed from a mother's name ("dottir," daughter of). In the British Isles, some commonly used prefixes or suffixes are Mac (Gaelic), Fitz (Norman), O (Irish) and ap (Welsh).
2. Location, location, location: People were also identified by geographical features such as a river, forest, valley or a major building like a CHURCH or CASTLE. If a man lived in the western part of the forest, he may have been called WESTWOOD or FOREST. People also used their town of origin after moving to a larger population center, so those individuals we described above might just as easily have taken the name SMALLTOWN. This would be helpful when former neighbors visited and tried to locate the family.
3. Some omnastics (the study of names) scholars believe 10% of all names are based on physical characteristics or personality. Origins may be in medieval nicknames for body shape (tall and thin), hair (or not), beards, deformities (one eye, lame), hair color (red) or even character. A strong man might have been called ARMSTRONG, a short person was called SMALL.
4. Occupational names come from crafts or trades. MILLER ground flour, TAILOR made clothing. COOPER made barrels. In other countries, look for translations of such occupations: TAILOR is KHAYAT (Farsi) or SHNEIDER (Yiddish). MELNIK is miller (Russian).
Over the centuries, spelling and pronunciation changed, presenting contemporary genealogists with real challenges.
Different branches of a family may carry different names. Many contemporary English and American surnames have numerous variants. When researching a surname, remember to work back through the generations to determine the original name.
The next posting in this series will focus on names following immigration, the impact of accents on names and search techniques. Future postings will investigate naming patterns, origins, meanings and will provide links for additional research.
Readers are invited to post any questions or comments about names in general or specific names. I look forward to reading your comments.
I spent many hours as a high school and college student in the famous lion-guarded New York Public Library, researching term papers on the use of music in Shakespeare's plays and other less esoteric topics.
During one of many visits, I picked up a dust-covered book - the title now forgotten. Out fell a postcard photo of a blue-eyed soldier. I immediately recognized him as my grandfather Sidney (Szaje) Fink as a young man, when he served in the Jewish Legion's 39th Royal Fusiliers in Mandate Palestine, 1914-1917.
According to the card's inscription and address, he had sent the card to his sister Dora in New York City.
I had not yet developed a sense of family history, just a sense of returning that which didn't belong to me, so I replaced the card in the book and re-shelved it. Today, I realize this was misguided.
When I reached home, I told my mother who called my grandfather and told him the story. Everyone asked why I hadn't brought home the card as it clearly belonged to us. Fortunately, another relative had a duplicate photo. Perhaps this incident helped point me to genealogy.
Our Brooklyn basement held all kinds of treasures stored over the years. One rainy weekend, I looked through an interesting box or two and discovered my grandparents' ketubah (Jewish wedding contract). I ran upstairs to show my mother, then returned it to the - of course - unmarked box, as it clearly belonged to my grandparents.
By now, you probably realize that I never found it again. I wish I had it today. Who was it that said, "Youth is wasted on the young," or "Experience is something you learn after you need it" ? Was this another step along discovery road?
Perhaps the most dramatic incident concerns the 300-year-old Talalay family history brought from Mogilev, Belarus by one of the last young relatives to leave for America. I l first heard about it while tracking down older relatives who had mentioned it. Eventually, a small handful of people were located who had seen it and touched its pages in the 1950s.
The man was living in Florida and, on occasion, had shown it to visiting family, although his own daughters had never seen it. Fortunately, some relatives who had seen it were artists, and they described in detail unusual calligraphied pages, some ancient, in various languages and scripts, large pages bound in a sort of album. Each of the relatives repeated what the man had told them, "This is 300 years of our family."
When he died, the album disappeared, probably a result of someone cleaning up by just throwing everything out. Later, the younger daughter said she had never seen it. The elder daughter, who might have known something, had been in a nursing home for years and could not communicate.
My cousin Victor Talalay, who recently died in Toronto, and I had collaborated for more than a decade trying to reconstruct our family history, and we spoke frequently on our great sadness regarding this lost priceless collection. We knew we would never be able to completely reconstruct it, but during the time we worked together we obtained many archival documents, including hundreds of records from the National Historical Archives in Minsk, Belarus.
Over the years, various hidden treasures have come to light for other families in other places,. In 2002, an 1811 letter written by Thomas Jefferson to his cabinet secretary was found in a Massachusetts attic. The secretary's distant cousin had died in the home, necessitating a detailed estate inventory. Other documents, including the valuable letter, were located.
Here are some suggestions to keep in mind if you are ever in charge of clearing out the home or apartment of a deceased relative, or you are asked to help an elderly relative move to a retirement or nursing home. Checking the dusty corners of a large home or a small apartment may unearth family treasures which may otherwise be lost forever.
Remember that individuals who suffer from senility, or Alzheimer's, tend to hide things in improbable places. Those with ordinary "packrat" family members have the same searching job. People who grew up during the American Depression or were refugees or Holocaust survivors may have had the habit of hiding valuables, "just in case." Allow sufficient time to do a proper search, or you may throw out valuable family history.
*Look everywhere, behind and under things, on tops of closets and in corners.
*Look for greeting cards, photographs, family documents hidden in old books or between old tablecloths.
*Anyone who has ever changed a light switch knows there is a handy-dandy little space back there that can hold jewelry.
*All old handbags and briefcases should be searched.
*Clothing, in closets or in drawers, could contain important items hidden in pockets or linings.
*Stories abound of people hiding valuable jewelry in the linings of window curtains or long-stored coats.
*Those famous shoeboxes on bedroom closet shelves are always a place to look for photographs, currency, documents.
*Check seat cushions and pillows of furniture - those with zippers have easily accessible hiding places.
*Do look under large rugs. While the edges might have been moved for periodic cleaning, it is possible the larger rugs were not completely moved, and something is under there.
*See a large pendulum clock on the wall or a Grandfather-type floor clock? Open it and look inside, lots of space for little items.
*Check between mattresses and box springs, inside pillows.
*Look at the backs of paintings and mirrors on the walls.
*Old trunks and suitcases may have markings of previous travels or hold other family treasures.
*Always look through old books before discarding them. Hold them upside down and fan the pages. Check front and back covers for handwritten notes. Everything and anything could have been used for a bookmark.
*Religious books, such as Bibles and prayer books, could contain notes on important family happenings.
*Kitchen canisters of flour or sugar might hold interesting items.
*Check covered sugar bowls and teapots.
*Check the freezer for valuable items hidden in containers or plastic baggies inside frozen food boxes. I once put jewellery in a frozen vegetable box in the back of my freezer because I couldn't get to our safety deposit box one day. Yes, it was silly - thieves don't go through your frozen green peas, or do they? - but I couldn't just leave it around. I remembered to remove mine the next day. Your relative may have left it there years ago!
*Remove drawers from dressers and turn them over to see if documents might have been attached, or items have fallen into the bottom of furniture. Check the backs of furniture.
*In the bedroom, check jewellery box linings for things that might have been slipped inside.
*Check vases. I once knew someone who threw spare change and other items into a large vase on the table in the entry of her home.
*In these hi-tech days, and the increasing percentage of seniors with computer access, consider checking CD cases.
If and when you do find something of interest, document where you found it, how you found it and store it properly so it doesn't get lost again. If the items are documents and photographs, make working photocopies or photographic negatives, and store the originals in a safe place in acid-free, archival folders. "Safe place" here means a place where it can be located again. How many of us have put an important items in a safe place - so safe that we never found it again?
If you have suggestions to add concerning places to look, have made some surprising discoveries or have other comments, I look forward to reading them.
A great way to learn about genealogy is to attend a major event where announcements are made regarding new resources and databases, authors hold book-signings and vendors show off new software or important updates.
The name of the game is networking with research colleagues and international experts. Each event covers programs in many categories or focused on a single region (Eastern Europe) or subject (computers). Some are aimed at professionals, and many schedule beginners' sessions.
From two days to an entire information-packed week or longer, they attract ever-growing numbers of participants. In 2007, events will take place in 22 U.S. states, Toronto, Montreal and British Columbia in Canada, as well as London and even two cruises devoted to family history.
Here are some upcoming meetings; click on each website for more information.
If technology is what interests you, there are two annual conferences in March, so you can plan for 2008:
Carl Sandburg College (Galesburg, Illinois) will hold its Genealogy Computing Week in March 2008. Classes - limited registration - are held in state-of-the-art computer labs. The just-completed week offerd such topics as Deedmapper (working with land records), online military research; promoting, publishing and preserving your research; online Swedish church and vital records; using Ancestry and more.
The Computerized Genealogy Conference at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), in March 2008, is designed as a how-to guide for everyone - beginner, intermediate and advanced. The goal is to help everyone learn how new computer programs and advancements in existing programs can assist in genealogy and family history work.
This year's 10th event featured such speakers ias Dick Eastman of Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter and Alan Mann of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, in addition to representatives introducing new Mormon family history databases and programs.
On the other side of the Big Pond, in London, the Society of Genealogists will present its three-day Family History Show and Who Do You Think You Are?, from Saturday, May 5 - Monday, May 7. Some 15,000 visitors are expected, including family historians, military history buffs, and those interested in house history, historical travel and other topics.
The exhibitor area will feature: the Society of Genealogists' Family History Show; The Family History Zone for everyone from novice to advanced historian; The Military Zone for military memorabilia, information and specialist products; House History Zone - resources to research homes and buildings; Lifestyle Zone - where fashion, work and sport history come together; and the Historical Travel Zone - special interest destinations every historian wants to visit.
A major US show is the National Genealogical Society annual event, this year set for Wednesday, May 16 - Saturday, May 19, in Richmond, Virginia. Co-hosts are the Virginia Genealogical Society, the Fairfax Genealogical Society and the Genealogical Research Institute of Virginia. The event brings together genealogists and family historians from around the country and beyond.
The Quebec Family History Society is celebrating its 30th anniversary with the largest English-language genealogical conference ever held in Quebec. Roots 2007 - An International Conference on Family History Research will take place from Friday, June 15 - Sunday, June 17 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Well-known speakers will discuss all aspects of family history research, computer demonstrations and a book fair.
The Federation of East European Family History Societies' conference is called "Access Your Ancestors: One On One Will Get It Done," and takes place from Thursday, July 12 - Saturday, July 14, in Salt Lake City, Utah. This year's event features individual consultations by appointment with experts and Family History Library staff. Thursday evening's event will be "Got Culture? See, Hear and Experience Your Ethnicity."
The 27th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, the premier event of the Jewish genealogical world, runs from Sunday, July 15 - Friday, July 20, also in Salt Lake City. It is hosted by the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, and always includes announcements of major resources and new databases.
This year's event offers some 100 speakers and 200 program sessions of all types, networking with international researchers and experts, a film festival, breakfasts with experts, computer training workshops, photographic exhibits, a resource room, meetings, luncheons and programming for many special interest groups (regional/topical), vendor room, tours and the extensive resources of the Family History Library.
Program categories include: Eastern/Central/Western Europe; Eretz Israel (pre/post-1948); Genetics/DNA; Holocaust; immigration/naturalization/migration; Jewish history/sociology; methodology; Sephardic/Mizrahi; non-European (e.g. India, China); photograph/document preservation; rabbinic research; repositories; South/Central America; technology/Internet resources; U.S./North America (includes specific locales) and Yiddish theater/Jewish music.
At last year's 2006 conference in New York City, more than 1,400 international participants attended 280 programs.
Designed for advanced, experienced researchers, the National Institute on Genealogical Research takes place from Sunday, July 15 - Friday, July 20 at the National Archives in Washington DC and College Park, Maryland. It is designed as an intensive program offering on-site examination of federal records.
This year, the program focuses on commonly used immigration, military, land, cartographic, African America and non-population census records, and includes presentations on lesser-known but useful federal records. One day will be at Archives II in College Park, with optional evening sessions at the Library of Congress and the DAR Library. With limited enrollment, this popular event sells out months in advance.
Does your family include Germans from Russia? Then you might want to attend the 37th International Convention of Germans from Russia Heritage Society , Thursday, July 19 - Sunday, July 22, in Bismarck, North Dakota. Planned are workshops on genealogy, customs, history and using today's technology.
The Federation of Genealogical Societies conference is set for Wednesday, August 15 - Saturday, August 18, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. This year's theme is "Meeting at the Crossroads of America."
I promised you a genealogy-themed cruise - there are really two!
The Third Legacy Genealogy Cruise, sponsored by the Millenia Corporation (Surprise, Arizona), will sail on the Carnival Spirit from Vancouver B.C. to Hawaii (Kona, Kauai, Hilo, Maui, Honolulu) from September 19 - October 1. The event focuses on Legacy Family Tree software and other Millenia products with expert Geoff Rasmussen and other speakers, including Dick Eastman.
The Third Genealogy Conference and Cruise www.WhollyGenes.com/cruise.htm, hosted by Wholly Genes, Inc. (Columbia, Maryland), will set sail from October 28 - November 4 on the Caribbean Princess. The event attracts more than 400 family researchers who learn about research methods, tools, techniques and software from a list of prominent experts.
Onboard experts will include John Grenham (Ireland), John Titford (U.K.), Dick Eastman, Hank Jones, Megan Smolenyak Smokenyak, Cyndi Howells, Sandra Hewlett, Robert Charles Anderson, Marcia Hoffman Rising and Tony Burroughs.
Do you have a question about genealogical conferences or want to share your experiences at these events? Do you want to inform fellow readers about other conferences? I look forward to reading your comments.
Your grandmother had one.
So did your mother.
I'll bet you also have one.
In the back of a high closet shelf, in the basement, in your attic, you have some kind of a container. It may be an old metal box that held cookies a lifetime ago, an old shoebox or hatbox, a modern plastic container with a snap-on lid, or even a handy-dandy sealed plastic bag stuck in a drawer.
The contents may include dried flowers, holiday and life-cycle cards, and many old photographs. If this is your personal collection, you'll likely know who the people were and when the image was taken. That's good.
However, these treasured possessions may have belonged to your great-grandmother. She, if you are very fortunate, may have written lightly in pencil on the back. The lady in the strange hat is Cousin Helen, you learn, but you've never heard of anyone with that name.
If you are even luckier, the inscription may indicate that it's a holiday gift from "your dear brother in London." You've never heard of anyone who had a brother in London.
If your relative was somewhat obsessive, he or she may have recorded the names, dates and places on each photograph. In this case, your genealogy colleagues around the world will congratulate you on your good fortune!
Likely, however, the container is filled with old photographs, not a one identified.
Why should they be? Their owner knew who every single person was and how they were related, but their owner's been gone for 20 years or more. You weren't interested in family history when they were alive.
In any case, their owner could simply not comprehend that, decades into the future, someone would be interested in these old images and what they represent.
Most probably, your ancestor merely wanted to drive you crazy by saving what seem to be valuable images and not identifying a single one. "Why should I make it easy for them? Let them work at it!"
Let's hope that you will break this chain of unknown images.
Here are some guidelines to help you preserve the contents of those old boxes.
First, realize your ancestor did you a great favor by keeping the prints in the dark to avoid fading, even though they may have been stored in unfavorable conditions in garage, basement or attic. In the old days, when pencil was used more than today, those inscriptions on the back did not eat away at the photos.
Many late 1880s-early 1900s photos are in good condition because they were carefully developed, but many modern 1950s-1970s photos have disintegrated, turning magenta, with the advent of low-quality machine processing.
Electronic media is always under discussion. Life expectancy of these is a matter of uncertainity. How many people do you know with old reel-to-reel tape recorders, Beta videos or eight-track tapes?
Experts advise scanning old photos onto good-quality CDs for back-up, and also having a professional photographer make negatives from the images.
Once a set of negatives is made, new prints can be ordered and the original stored safely. The originals, negatives and prints should be stored correctly in acid-free envelopes, archival plastic sleeve, matted or boxed.
Do's and Don't's
- Never glue down a photo; never use tape, except for special archival tape.
- Never use an album with adhesive pages, where photos are placed on an adhesive backing, and covered with a plastic sheet. It is impossible to remove them without major damage. Scan pages if possible, take digital shots, or ask a professional photographer to copy individual photos.
- Never write on the photo back with a ballpoint, hard pen or hard pencil. Use a very soft pencil, write lightly, or use a special soft-point pen. Never write on the front, or circle a person in a group! Use a tissue paper overlay and write names on that.
- Black-and-white prints have longer lives, especially if protected from light. Discolored modern prints cannot be preserved, but may be scanned; color adjustment may be possible.
- Old slides with glass covers retain humidity and condensation. Mold and fungus produce black spots. Scanning can save the best; copy to CDs for backup.
- Work with CDs and photo copies; keep originals out of the light.
As your research proceeds and you find more family, share your photos and ask to see theirs. They may have the same photograph but details may have been recorded on their copies.
MyHeritage has great photo-handling capabilities and you can upload your photographs to the website and see if any matching images are in the database. Go to Face Recognition, click Try It Now, upload a photo and click Run Face Recognition.
I checked my grandfather's photo to see if there were any matches, and composer Bela Bartok popped up at a 73% match.
How can you tell the year or place of an old photograph?
Old European photos generally are mounted on a card with the photographer’s name and address. That's one clue. The photographic process used gives dating hints, and clothing details, interior decorations or hair styles offer more information.
There are books with dated photographs arranged by decade to compare images by details, such as More Dating Old Photographs 1840-1929, published by Family Chronicle magazine.
The introduction, by expert Maureen Taylor, provides details on photographic processes, papers, formats, clothing (sleeves, buttons, collars, neckware, etc.) and hair styles for men, women and children.
Light Impressions Direct - Archival supplies and answers to questions.
American Museum of Photography - Interesting content.
City Gallery - A guide to using photographs in genealogy research.
Sally Jacobs' Practical Archivist blog offers good tips.
Do you have an photograph-related question? I'll try to answer it and look forward to your comments.