[Editor’s note: Family history expert Thomas MacEntee ponders the evidence left behind about the hobbies and pastimes of our ancestors.]
My nightmare as a genealogist: after I die, my family finds my research papers and files, dismisses them as “that genealogy junk” and summarily disposes of them—quickly and efficiently.
Perhaps you’ve already done the same with some of the items you’ve found related to an ancestor. Did you really know what you had in your hands? Did you understand its importance to your ancestor and why they actually left it behind?
Many of our ancestors had hobbies, belonged to civic and fraternal groups, and even performed volunteer work, all of which were important to their lives. It is likely you will find evidence of these activities as you research your family history. You may encounter actual physical items you receive from other family members; or you may find items online during the research process.
Our Ancestors Had Diversions
For many of us, genealogy is a hobby and something we took up at some point in our lives. Your ancestors likely had hobbies as well. Several men in my family caught the “radio bug” starting in the 1920s and became hobby radio engineers—some even went on to radio school! Other hobbies include amateur astronomy, model railroading, ham radio and stamp collecting, as well mechanics and engineering.
If you come across a trove of items related to a hobby, ask other relatives if they can add information about the person and why they took up the hobby. Find out why this pastime was important to them; also see if it was a stepping-stone to a career or line of work.
Fraternal and Civic Groups
A rich source of information about our ancestors can be found in the papers, photos and items related to their participation in fraternal and civic organizations. Some groups might be local or some national, such as the Grange, GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) and many others.
Keep in mind that many of these organizations required a big time commitment from our ancestors and not just from the head of household! A fraternal group might have the husband on its board but there was likely a ladies auxiliary group as well. Items you might find include pins, ribbons, sashes, flags as well as paper ephemera (flyers and event cards) and photos.
Once you’ve found these items you may need to work on identifying the name of the group and the local chapter. Then take to the Internet to learn more about meetings, annual conventions and other events. Google Books (http://books.google.com) has many yearbooks and other published works related to fraternal and civic groups. You’ll also find helpful information on deciphering symbols used on grave markers, especially when it comes to members of the Masons and other groups.
Don’t Forget Volunteer Work!
You may think of volunteerism as taking place during wartime or natural disasters, in response to humanity’s call for help. The fact is that for many of our ancestors pitching in and volunteering skills and services was part of daily life. They knew that their community would not survive if it weren’t for such groups of men, women and children who took time to lend a hand.
What evidence of volunteer work should you look for when handling papers and other items from an ancestor? You may find the obvious, such as certificates, awards and even pins and medals honoring their service. Also look for papers, such as committee lists, meeting minutes, event flyers and brochures.
All of these items should be digitized and then incorporated into the compiled life history of your ancestor. Arrange the items chronologically, if possible, and create a timeline of their volunteerism. Scan what you can, make sure the digital files are secure, then work to preserve the important documents and items using archival materials.
Realize that your ancestor not only found volunteering rewarding, but that their community may have thanked and recognized them for their work. Again, it was important to them so it should be part of their family history.
Pause, Ask and Proceed
So as you work on your family history, get in the habit of pausing before you dismiss an item or group of items as “not important.” Ask yourself, “Was it important to my ancestor?” and then proceed accordingly. At the very least, consider scanning items before tossing them in the trash in case you determine at a later date that the document was an important part of your family’s history.