Using Social History To Fill In The Gaps In Family Histories

by Bob Brooke

When most people begin to write their family's history, they usually focus on the family part of it, namely the genealogy-who begat who and so on. But family history consists of two words: family, which relates information on a particular group of people, and history, which relates that group to what was happening at the time any individual in that group was living. More often than not, this history, called social history, is the study of a family's past from the perspective of the men and women involved, examing the roles they have played in the making of their community from kitchen to corporate office.

Interpreting the history surrounding an ancestor's life involves all the inhabitants of the community in which they lived. Thus, interpreting the reality of the affect history of community on a family's history leads to both finding hidden family ancestors and developing a better understanding of their lives. Writing a purely genealogical history is not only boring but gives little insight into the people involved. So family historians usually need to fill in the gaps by doing research in social history books, local historical societies and museums.

In the last 10 years or so, many books on social history have been written. Some, like Rockin' in Time: A Social History of Rock-and-Roll by David P. Szatmary or Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain, tell the story of the raucous 1960s. Others, such as A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony by John Demos, tell about life among the first settlers in America. And still others reveal what life was like for a particular group of people, such as A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances by Laura Schenone for women or A Social History of the Asylum: Mental Illness and Its Treatment in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century for the mentally ill by Thomas G. Ebert. Each of these books and many others can help the family history writer to fill in gaps left by incomplete information gathered from family members.

Some family history writers prefer to wander through museums to see interpretative exhibits on life in a particular area or time period. One such museum can be found in the small town of Wenham, Massachusetts. Unlike a local historical society collection, The Wenham Museum ( ) bills itself as a museum of social history, concentrating on those who lived, worked and played along Boston's North Shore since the 17th Century. Through exhibits focusing on local life, including ice tools used in the mid-19th-century Wenham ice industry, it explores the lives of everyday people.

In addition to objects, it also has a substantial photographic collection, including albums from Wenham families, consisting of mostly tintypes, and single daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and stereographs. The main part of this collection consists of 3,636 glass plate negatives, mounted prints and postcards by Benjamin Howe Conant, depicting people, places and events in the Wenham area between 1890 and 1918.

The museum's centerpiece is the late 17-Century Claflin-Richards House, connected to the main museum and one of the oldest homes in Wenham and earliest dwellings on the North Shore in which three centuries of artifacts and furnishings reflect family life in a small New England village. With over 10,000 pieces of clothing, including the donated wardrobe of a local woman with 300 pieces dating from 1920 to 1960, plus accessories and textiles from the Victorian Era onward, including day dresses to wedding gowns, parasols to brooches, bed linens to quilts, the Wenham Museum's costume and textile collection, exhibited both in this house and in the museum's galleries, provides a look into the lifestyles of ordinary people. Changing exhibits, such as the current one called Perilous Passage, which explores life at sea, help to keep visitors coming back.

Social history has also gone high tech. Who Built America, a definitive social history of the United States available on two CDs, offers a new way for family history writers to experience history. Produced by the American Social History Project at the City University of New York and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, it lets users reach through the text to thousands of original source documents--audio, video, and text. Imagine not just reading about the invention of cinema, the aftermath of slavery, or the birth of the women's movement, but seeing The Great Train Robbery in its entirety, hearing a young boy's searing account of a lynching in rural Florida in 1902, or watching suffragists march up Fifth Avenue. And that's only on the first CD, spanning the founding of the nation to the beginning of the 20th Century.

The second CD of Who Built America takes a look at the tumultuous years between 1914 and 1946. Spanning two world wars and the Great Depression, this CD presents a comprehensive and engaging social history of the period through the voices, visions, sounds, and recollections of the era. The CDs cost $18.95 each and are available on the Internet at

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