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From Prose to Form: Making Your Family History Come Alive

Tips for giving your family saga life and meaning.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 520 (approx.)
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Maybe you've been the family genealogist for years and your family has been urging you to put all this information into a sensible format. Maybe you feel a sense of duty; after all you have spent all these hours gleaning this information, so something worthwhile should be done with it, right? Or maybe you have a genuine desire to write your family history.

Whatever the reason, you are wondering how to make your family history something more than just a boring list of numbers and begets.

Social history is the answer. So you are asking yourself, What is social history? Social history is the study of lives or ordinary people. Social history places your ancestor within the context of his or her social and historical surroundings. Social history will be the element that enables your ancestor to become a three-dimensional character, a real person. Social history is the bridge between statistics and your ancestor's world. Your ancestors lives consisted of more than dates such as birth, marriage, and death. Social history allows you to discover how they lived their everyday lives.

So what are some of the aspects of social history? Social history can encompass every thing from clothing and entertainment to the occupations of your ancestors. What did their clothing look like? How was it made? What kind of games did children play? What social activities did the adults engage in? What kinds of foods were common for not only that era, but that region? I attribute my study of genealogy to a beloved great aunt who recorded the story of my great-great grandfather as he worked as a wagon teamster for the Majors Company, as he was bitten by mining fever and worked the Comstock Lode, and as he encountered historical characters such as Buffalo Bill and Mark Twain. The record of his life took up only ten to twelve typewritten pages, but it also spanned several generations, and was liberally sprinkled with social history. She made the past come alive and I give great honor to her memory for it.

Other topics that you might want to add include religion and what the community was like at that time (How did it look? What businesses or landmarks were present?). You might not have a photograph of Grandma or Grandpa's house to include in your family history, which is fine. Find a picture of a similar type house of that day and use it as an example. Community pictures such as stores they shopped at or churches that they worshiped in will be much easier to find because they were common to more than one person. Check the state archives and historical societies as well; they may have pictures of community buildings of that day that would interest you.

What inventions were created in your ancestor's era? You might want to utilize a few liberties and fictionalize your ancestor's first use or encounter with these items. What laws were common of the time? How did they celebrate holidays? The list of questions is endless, but don't be afraid to explore the road of social history. If can become the backbone of your family saga.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

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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