FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

A Little Color

I’ve been working on family histories for the past few months. As I write the stories, I wish that I had more background ‘color’ to put in the stories so that they have more meaning to my descendants and other family members.What kind of ‘color’ should we add to family histories or even our own life history? It seems that in our current generations, we need to add more historical, social and visual landmarks than ever. The modern world changes its ‘skin’ with ever increasing frequency.

We paid over $600 for a VHS video player not that many years ago. The blank tapes were $20 each and we were delighted to have such an innovation in our home. We then moved from our LP records to the miracle of CD’s after spending a fortune on 8-track tapes somewhere in that brief interlude. Now CD’s are all but obsolete. Music comes in digital files that we pack around in a tiny device that may be as small as a 50 cent piece.

A 50 cent piece? How many of you remember them? I can almost guarantee that my grandchildren have not seen one or have even heard of one.

I’m writing on this on a laptop computer, not physically connected to a power source or hardwired Internet connection, but nonetheless connected to the WORLD. Not that many years ago, I built the first kit computer ever offered – the IMSI 8080 if I remember the correct model. I flipped toggle switches to program it! Our children have no reference points to imagine such a contraption, yet I was one of a very small group in the world to have my own ‘computer’ … seemingly not that long ago … (once again…. if I remember correctly).

We need to put a lot of reference points in our personal histories with pictures, maybe audio and video recordings and similar multimedia documents. We always need to include some explanation of what the photos and other inserts represent along with a “when and where “statement. A photo of my IMSI 8080 wouldn’t mean ‘computer’ to my grandchildren. They would probably puzzle over its metal case with its faceplate full of little switches wondering why grandpa included a photo of ‘a box’ in his history without the description associated with it.

Our latest batch of grandchildren are only nine years younger than their older cousins, but the truth is, they are a full generation or more younger in relation to the technology that they will use as they go to school and become teenagers. Will the cousins share very many common technological reference points when they get together and the older ones talk about: “When I was a sophomore in High School, we had or used …..” and “Remember those quaint old times?” They may get blank stares from their younger cousins.

Reference points. Include lots of reference points in your histories. My mother told me that she remembered visiting her grandparents by traveling in a sheep wagon with a little wood stove in it. Every visit was an overnight trip even though they only lived 6 or 7 miles apart. She was born long before automobiles were introduced, and her life spanned on through becoming a jet-setter herself, watching people go into space, walk on the moon and asking me to teach her how to use a computer for her genealogical data storage. How I wish I’d listened more intently and recorded more of her ‘reference point’ stories when she told them.

My grandfather hauled ore in a wagon with a team of horses for a living. Try explaining what that was really like to your grandchildren without a ‘reference point’ photo to go with the story.

How many reference points should I include in my mothers story so my grandchildren will have any comprehension of the radical technological and social changes that occurred in her lifetime? Without photos, sounds, movies, etc., will they have any idea what I’m describing in my text? Will they have any idea what I’m describing in my own life history? Probably not.

It is easier writing about my 2nd great-grandparents than about my parents or myself. Their environment changed but at a much slower rate than it did in the lives of their grandchildren and certainly than it does in the lives of their great-grandchildren. My 2nd great-grandparents need fewer overall reference points in their stories. They need less background ‘color’ about the change of technology, but maybe more reference points about history.

Many of my ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. I often wonder how that impacted their lives and the lives of their families. Other ancestors were on the Mayflower. Did their move to Cape Cod change their ‘world view’ of their environment as much as the Revolutionary War did in the lives of their descendants? I don’t know. I need to study their lives even more than I already have before I can offer an opinion….. But I do know this; if grandpa William Bradford hadn’t written so much about the events in the Plimouth Colony, I would immediately say that the Revolutionary War produced the larger immediate impact in the lives of my ancestors than did the landing of the Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor.

However, grandpa Bradford offered many reference points in his writings to help me understand his environment, while my Revolutionary War Veteran ancestors left few, if any, written comments about their lives. So now, I have to read what historians have written and try to interpolate that information into an overlay of my ancestors lives. Who knows if my interpretation is correct. How much of the color of their lives have I lost from my remote vantage point? Probably a lot, but since they didn’t write about their lives and photos of them don’t exist, it is the best I can do. I need more Reference Points!

As an example, here’s a great story that adds a lot of ‘color’ to memories about a grandmother.

Include lots of reference points in your own stories so younger family members and future generations have some method to aid them in understanding what your environment and life were like. Without the references, you’ll become just another name, date and place in their genealogical databases.

Here’s a reference point for my own children. I grew up singing these songs, because my parents sang these songs to each other and to me as a young man. Enjoy listening to Michael Buble croon a few tunes while you read this missive.

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10 September 2007 - Posted by | Research Tips

1 Comment »

  1. Hi, FamHist. I got a lot out of your post. As a personal historian, how can I describe what a clothesline is/was (though we still use one). What about canning, which was so big three or four generations ago? And that’s only the recent stuff.

    I had never thought of using video as part of it.

    I wonder if some of your relatives and mine might have known each other. They were all here very early–though mine were Tories during the revolution.

    I hope you’ll take a look at my blog http://www.yourstorycounts1.wordpress.com and maybe give me a link?

    Comment by Peg Thompson | 2 March 2008 | Reply


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