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That Quilt in the Corner: Researching Ancestors Through Museum Collections

Everyday items our ancestors made or owned, such as quilts, dinnerware, or furniture, can be a great resource, sometimes even revealing genealogical facts we never knew about. Finding them can sometimes be as simple as a trip to the local library bookshelf.


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You may not think that visiting museums will lead to much information about your ancestors, if they were not famous. Given how little there is in the way of resources about female ancestors, even in public records, you might feel that a museum is especially unlikely to be of help in tracing any women forebears.

Yet, museums can be a rich source of genealogical material, especially on female ancestors. Indeed, small local history museums are often a better resource for researching female forebears than they are for researching male ancestors. The reason for this lies in the materials such museums house. Most contain substantial collections of household items, generally made or at least owned by local families. Most such items are women's possessions, such as embroideries, tea sets, and cookbooks. A small museum somewhere may contain a sampler embroidered by your 7th great-grandmother, or a tea set her niece once used to entertain visitors.

A Surprising Source of Information

You never know what kinds of items are in a museum collection, so when visiting, keep an open mind. You could find needlework, farming equipment, furniture, pots and pans, weaving looms, clothing-just about any everyday item. Items in collections will also generally belong to several different families. Read labels carefully! Also, ask questions about the origins of items on display. You could find out about items that may have belonged to your ancestors, but cannot be definitively traced to them. Many items, however, can be traced with little doubt to a particular person. An item that was found in their house, is described in detail in an inventory, or appears in a photograph with an individual clearly did belong to them. You could, indeed, find something that had been personalized with an ancestor's name--many items of silverware have their owners' names inscribed, while quilts often have the name of the woman who made them written, embroidered, or quilted on them. Virtually every sampler made by a young woman will have her name as a central design in the piece. Inscriptions or embroideries may also contain other useful information, such as the place and date an item was made, which can tell you when your family was living at a particular address. Names on items made by women also give clues to marriage dates. For instance, if your 5th great-grandmother, Mary (SMITH) Jones made a quilt in 1828 and signed it Mary Smith, you'll know that she had not yet married your 5th great-grandfather, Elijah Jones, at that date. This information can help you to search for marriage records for this couple much more efficiently than you otherwise could have.

Local museum curators are also great people to ask about local lore. They may have heard many oral traditions, giving a picture (often richly embroidered with some tall tales) of the more colorful aspects of life in town.

Even if you don't find any items that belonged to your own ancestors, just looking at items that did belong to their friends and neighbors can give you a profound sense of their world. In a small town, where everyone knew each other, there is a good chance that your forebears once drank cider from that cup on the corner shelf, helped quilt that bedspread in the upstairs room, or sat listening to that piano in the parlor.

Look in Less Likely Places

Don't limit your research to museums in the town where an ancestor lived. Items from their household could be in the collections of larger regional museums. Handicrafts created by an individual could also be in a museum devoted to that particular craft. So, be sure to check folk art and quilt museums. You may also wish to see if local colleges and universities have collections of local history artifacts. If an item made by an ancestor is particularly distinctive, it could also be in a national museum that has a folk art, needlework, or furniture collection.

In many cases, you don't have to travel to be able to see an ancestor's handiwork. Searching for items from an ancestor's household in large museum collections can be easy to do at home. Books and catalogs published by the museums themselves are the best starting point. Also, be sure to read books on American folk arts. Well-illustrated volumes, available at many local public libraries, often contain information on thousands of individual items in collections across the country. The most in-depth coverage is in volumes devoted to a single craft or even era, such as 19th century quilts or 18th century pewter. Browse through these books, looking at the photo captions, which often identify who made the item in the picture, where, and when.

Items owned or made by an ancestor are fascinating genealogical finds. These items reveal personalities and lifestyles, and sometimes even provide vital data, such as dates and places of residence. With a little reading and a little legwork, you may be pleasantly surprised at the fun, and productive, time you can spend researching the past through that quilt in the corner.

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.

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