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Looking for Social History

Social history allows us to look at our family tree in a more interesting way. By incorporating the events of the time with our ancestors, we can actually look at our ancestors a way that brings them to life and helps them become three-dimensional people, aside from just birth and death dates.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Gena Philibert-Ortega
Word Count: 817 (approx.)
Labels: Social Aspect 
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Social history allows us to look at our family tree in a more interesting way. By incorporating the events of the time with our ancestors, we can actually look at our ancestors a way that brings them to life and helps them become three-dimensional people, aside from just birth and death dates. Social history makes genealogy interesting for the non-genealogists in our family.

So what is social history? At a basic level it is combining the events that took place in history with our ancestors' lives. It's imagining what it must have been like to live during World War II and have your young husband sent off to fight in a foreign land. Social history helps us better place our ancestor in such events as the 1918 flu epidemic, World War I, and the day women were given the right to vote. Just as we may remember what we were doing when Kennedy was shot or when the planes hit the towers on 9/11, our ancestors lived through events that changed or affected their lives.

There are history web sites that mark events that can help us bring our ancestors to life but there are also littler known sites that document events or life in earlier times that can also be interesting in looking at our ancestors. The following are some ideas that contain information for ancestors of long ago and more recently.

Malls of America is a blog that documents the history of malls. This is a fun look at malls in the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's (http://mallsofamerica.blogspot.com/). When I looked at this blog recently, it included a picture of Inland Center Mall near my hometown in California. That brought back memories of my grandparents and my younger days. This web site has some great links including a link to the Sears archive, http://www.searsarchives.com/, which includes information useful to genealogists such as histories and images of Sears' houses and information about the historical Sears catalog.

A part of some of our familiy histories, that many of us might want to forget, is the role state mental hospitals may have played in an ancestor's life. Various sites help to document the history of these facilities. What is interesting is some even have old postcard images of these hospitals that give you an idea of what these places looked like. Alex Wallerstein has a web site that includes his collection of mostly California postcards of state mental hospitals at http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~wellerst/collection/. With each postcard he has a few lines of history or facts regarding that facility. Another web site that includes information on asylums can be found at http://www.abandonedasylum.com/.

The Victorian Web, http://www.victorianweb.org/, is a great site to use to better understand your Victorian ancestors. Topics covered include, science, technology, religion, gender, social history, entertainment, politics, and philosophy. A look at the gender category reveals information on pregnancy, fashion, rights, and economics. These short essays will definitely help you understand your Victorian ancestor better.

If your grandparents told you stories about the Great Depression, there are several places where you can not only learn more about the Depression but review pictures taken during that time. The Modern American Poetry web site at http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/depression/depression.htm, has photos, timelines, and background information on the Depression years and the effects of the Dust Bowl. In addition, they host an online art gallery of drawings and paintings from artists of the time, including Diego Rivera, Conrad Albrizio, and Robert Minor. Just viewing the art gallery and the photos available through this site gives you the sense of doom and despair that filled this era. One of the somber realities of looking at these images is the affect these times had on children. In the photo gallery portion of the web site it states, "Children of migrant workers typically had no way to attend school. By the end of 1930 some 3 million children had abandoned school. Thousands of schools had closed or were operating on reduced hours. At least 200,000 children took to the roads on their own." You can read more about these children who became a class in and of themselves as hobos, from such webesites as Riding the Rails, http://www.erroluys.com/frontpage.htm, and the online exhibit from the National Heritage Museum at https://www.nationalheritagemuseum.org/Default.aspx?tabid=405.

The internet provides opportunities to not only learn about the Great Depression and see pictures from that era but to also learn more about the music of the time. This Land is your Land: Rural Music and the Depression, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~1930s/RADIO/c_w/cw-front.html, the web site documents the rural music of the depression and its evolution to County and Western music that we know today.

When trying to add social history to your family's story look for books at your local library or online through a bookseller that covers that topic. Use Google to enter a phrase that best describes the time period and explore web sites that will provide you information and may lead you to additional resources.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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