Tag Archives: family history

Come & Hear My Genealogical Quilt Story on Jan. 29

"Tracing a Stitch through Time" with Lisa Rickey, Jan. 29, at 1:25 (click to enlarge)

“Tracing a Stitch through Time” with Lisa Rickey, Jan. 29, at 1:25 (click to enlarge)

Do you have an heirloom or antique item and wish you knew more about its creator or owner?  If the item is signed and dated, or if you at least know the name of the person rumored to be associated with it, you may be able to find out more—and an archives can help you!

I will be sharing my experience of one such research adventure this coming Friday, January 29, at the Wright State University Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies’ 3rd Annual Quilt Show Celebrating Quilt Stories.

In my presentation “Ida Grady’s Sunburst Quilt: Tracing a Stitch through Time,” I will describe how I researched the creator of an heirloom quilt. Given just a few original clues at the beginning — a name and date on the quilt itself, along with a vague sense that the quilter may have been a relative — I used local history and genealogy research to discover how the mysterious Ida Grady was connected to her family.

I will talk about some of the different types of historical records that were helpful and how the information contained in each one was applied to solving different pieces of the puzzle.

The antique quilt that started it all – “Sunburst” (1934) by Ida Grady – will be on display throughout the quilt show, as well as on hand during the presentation.

The presentation takes place on Friday, January 29, from 1:25 to 2:20 p.m. in 156C Student Union, Wright State University. The event is free, and the public is welcome. Visitor parking is available just outside the Student Union. To view the full schedule of speakers and activities for the multi-day quilt show & for more information, please visit the quilt show’s event page.

I hope to see you there!

(This post was modified slightly from the original post – also written by me – published January 22, 2016, on the Wright State University Special Collections & Archives “Out of the Box” blog.)

This is a great story, unfortunately…

This is a great story.
Unfortunately, it’s my ancestor’s story.

I finally got around to watching last week’s episode of TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? The program, sponsored (at least in part) by Ancestry.com, follows the journey of a celebrity (one per episode) in learning more about their family’s history.

Last week’s episode (August 23) was about actor Bryan Cranston (Malcolm in the MiddleBreaking Bad, etc.), and a segment of it took place here in Dayton, Ohio, where one of Cranston’s ancestors was a resident at the Soldiers’ Home (now the Dayton VA Medical Center).

I was hoping to see some familiar faces in the Dayton segment, as I know that in addition to the folks at the Dayton VA, some of my friends (and fellow Dayton history preservers) at the Dayton Metro Library and the Montgomery County Archives & Records Center provided assistance for the episode. However, only one Dayton person made it on screen — Tessa Kalman of the Dayton VA – and I confess I do not know her.

Without giving away ALL the details of the episode — which I think you can theoretically watch online here — and which is not the reason I came here to write, anyway — I will say that there was a bit of a theme to what was revealed in Cranston’s ancestry: fathers who abandoned their families.

At the beginning of the episode, Cranston expressed that he hoped he would find something exciting, something that would make a good story, though he acknowledged that something that makes a good story probably wasn’t actually so good for the people it actually happened to.

My mind immediately went to the story of a particular great-grandmother, before I even knew what the rest of the episode would entail.

Cranston finds that his grandfather had a first wife and a daughter that he’d never heard of (the daughter died of TB as a teen); the grandfather left this family, enlisted in World War I a few years later, and later went on to have another family with Cranston’s grandmother. A more distant ancestor did something similar, abandoning a wife and son in Canada and eventually enlisting in the American Civil War.

At about that point in the episode, Cranston observed: “This is a great story; unfortunately, it’s my ancestor’s story.”

If I ever write a book about the story I’m thinking of (my sister Sara keeps telling me I should write books), I’ll have to remember to put that on the flyleaf or something (credited, of course)…

The story pertains to my great-grandmother Nunziata. She was born in Italy and later immigrated to Ohio.

Before Nunziata was married to my great-grandfather, she had a first husband named Silvio, who abandoned her. He left her pregnant with a daughter he would never even meet. He eventually went back to Italy himself and served in World War I.

Silvio may or may not have died fighting in the Alps. I’m not being cute; I’m really not sure. I have a clue that seems to indicate that is indeed how he met his end, but I’m not completely sure it was him. On the one hand, I kind of hope so, because “that’s what you get for abandoning your pregnant wife and leaving the country, jerkwad.” On the other hand, if he hadn’t done so, I probably never would have been born. So…there’s that.

Nunziata married and had 3 more children, one of them being my grandmother. She died at age 24 of tuberculosis, leaving those 4 small children (age 7 and under), including the daughter by her first husband. That daughter also later died of tuberculosis, at age 19.

my great-grandmother Nunziata

my great-grandmother Nunziata

That’s Nunziata in the image above, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. I find it difficult to believe that as the face of a woman aged 24 years or younger (because Nunziata died at 24 so could not be older than that in any photograph)…she looks so much older. But I know that people of the past tended to look older, sooner, because life was harder then — especially if their lives were harder than average. And from what I know about it, she certainly had a tumultuous life.

There’s more to the story than what I’ve written here — well, isn’t there always? There’s always more to any historical story than we could ever know. But in this case, I mean, there’s actually more to this one that I do know but have elected not to share. I recently found out many more details about this woman with the short and dramatic life. But when I excitedly recounted these recently discovered gold nuggets of information to my father — it was “a great story,” after all — he did not seem to share my excitement. To be honest, I think he may have even been less than thrilled that I had uncovered them at all — 100-year-old details that even he didn’t know, yet I think he would have been content to have never known. Anyway, I doubt he would be too happy if I laid them all out here.

But getting back to Cranston’s story and that concise little sound bite: “This is a great story; unfortunately, it’s my ancestor’s story.”

I guess I was just glad to hear someone else say that — to recognize a really enthralling story for what it is, but yet, even though it’s got the makings of a great tragic novel…it’s not fiction, and more than that, it’s something that happened to not just a real person, but to someone in your family. And that in addition to being justifiably mesmerized by “the story,” you should probably try to remember to be at least a little bit sad about it, because for somebody (actually more than one somebody) that wasn’t just a story; that was their life.

Ida Grady’s Sunburst Quilt: Tracing a Stitch through Time

In January 2009, my Aunt Jeannie sent me an antique quilt that had belonged to my Grandma Coriell.

The quilt, entitled “Sunburst” per a label stitched in one corner of the quilt top, is a hand-pieced, hand-quilted “scrap” quilt, approximately 75″ x 77″ (roughly queen-sized).  (Scrap quilts usually involve lots of small pieces and use up “leftovers” from other projects, and usually have a lot more “randomness” and variety than non-scrap quilts.)

Sunburst quilt by Ida M. Grady, 1934

“Sunburst” quilt by Ida M. Grady, 1934 (click to enlarge)

Detail of hand-quilted pieces on the Ida Grady Sunburst quilt

Detail of hand-quilted pieces on the Ida Grady Sunburst quilt (click to enlarge)

Although my grandmother did make quilts, we knew that she had not made this one. We knew because the quilt was “signed” by someone else—a woman named Ida M. Grady. It was also dated 1934, which, talented as my grandmother was with all things sewing-related, was probably a little early for her to have made a queen-sized quilt, as Grandma was 8 years old in 1934.

Hand-stitched quilt label Sunburst, made 1934, Ida M. Grady

Hand-stitched quilt label: “Sunburst, made 1934, Ida M. Grady” (click to enlarge)

By way of explanation, Aunt Jeannie said: “I hope you can find a place for [this quilt] or pass it on—Grandma could tell you who Ida M. Grady is. I think a relation of your great-great-Aunt Louise…?”

Unfortunately, as often happens, I waited too long to ask Grandma about Ida M. Grady. Before I “got around to it” with wanting to figure out the mystery of this quilt, my Grandma died in June 2010. My Grandpa didn’t know who the woman was, and neither did my mother. I do have other older relatives I could ask, but I’m not close with them to the point of actually picking up the telephone to just ring them up and ask.

Plus, research (rather than people) is really more my thing anyway. So I decided to see whether I could figure out who Ida Grady was on my own using some of my favorite tools for genealogy and local history research.

So, I made a mental list of what I actually did know about the mysterious “Ida M. Grady”:

  • Ida was definitely alive in 1934, and she was also most almost certainly an adult at that time, because she made this rather large quilt.
  • Ida seems to have at least known, and possibly been related to, my grandmother’s family.
  • Since my grandmother’s family has all lived in Portsmouth, Ohio, since pretty much the dawn of time (OK just since the mid-19th century), it seemed pretty likely that Ida Grady also lived in Portsmouth. It was a good place to start, at least.

So I searched the 1930 U.S. federal census records on Ancestry for an Ida Grady in Scioto County, Ohio.

There was one. Exactly one.

Joseph and Ida M. Grady, 1410 Offnere St., Portsmouth, Ohio, 1930 census (click to enlarge)

Joseph and Ida M. Grady, 1410 Offnere St., Portsmouth, Ohio, 1930 census (click to enlarge)

Ida M. Grady, age 67, wife of Joseph T. Grady (age 76). Residence, 1410 Offnere Street. (That is on the east side of Offnere, roughly across from Melcher Funeral Home, in the block just south of Greenlawn Cemetery.)

1410 Offnere Street, Portsmouth - recent image from Google Street View (the white house with red shutters)

1410 Offnere Street, Portsmouth – recent image from Google Street View (the white house with red shutters)

Brilliant!

At first, I thought there might be some connection to my grandparents with regard to the geographic location, as they had lived only 1 block away (literally one block east) at 1326 Park Avenue for over 20 years. But they didn’t moved to Park until 1963. (And like I said, Grandma was only 8 years old in 1934.) Might they have known Ida as a neighbor or gotten the quilt at an estate auction? I don’t particularly know my grandparents to have ever attended any such thing, but it was a possibility of something they might have done, especially if it was happening right around the corner.

Then again, Ida would have been pretty old in 1963 if she was 67 in 1930. So maybe not her. Maybe a descendant who inherited the house? Then again, my grandmother had 7 children in 1963, not a lot of extra money, and the ability to make her own scrap quilts. I can’t really see her buying a random scrap quilt at an estate sale.

Obviously, I kept looking.

I found Joseph and Ida Grady again on the 1910 census, living at 1416 Offnere. (I wonder if this was really a different house, or if there census-taker made a mistake or if there was some address renumbering. If doesn’t really matter.)

In addition to Joseph and Ida, the household also included their adult daughter Pearl Zeisler and grandson Howard Zeisler.

Joseph and Ida M. Grady family, 1416 Offnere St., Portsmouth, Ohio, 1910 census (click to enlarge)

Joseph and Ida M. Grady family, 1416 Offnere St., Portsmouth, Ohio, 1910 census (click to enlarge)

Wait… Pearl Zeisler. I know that name. Why do I know that name? I’ve heard it before… I’ve seen it somewhere.

On a picture. I’ve seen it on the caption of a picture. This picture:

Pearl Zeisler with Oscar's grandchildren, 1953 (photo # sc003_E3-0077, cropped)

Pearl Zeisler with Oscar’s grandchildren, 1953 (photo # sc003_E3-0077, cropped)

(Omigod, don’t you just love the look on her face?) The above photograph, from my Grandma Coriell’s collection (yes the same grandma who owned the quilt), is captioned as depicting Pearl Zeisler, along with several children from my grandmother’s extended family, in 1953. (I do have all the names — they’re on the photo caption — but in the interest of privacy, I won’t list them, though I will tell you that the part of the infant on the right was played by my mother.) According to my mother, this photograph was taken at the home of my grandmother’s father Oscar (apparently that chair is unmistakable). The children are (some of) Oscar’s grandchildren.

Finally! A link! I already knew that my grandmother’s family knew Pearl Zeisler—I have photographic evidence of it. And so now I have discovered that Pearl Zeisler’s mother was Ida Grady, the mystery-quilt-maker.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Then I found the Grady family on the 1900 census. They lived on Offnere Street, but 4 blocks further south, at 1015 Offnere. (Man, these folks really loved Offnere Street.) That would have been on the west side of Offnere, just south of U.S. 52-east, where the road dips down for the railroad underpass, and where that little strip mall has been all my life (and now includes a Family Dollar store, apparently).

There were Joseph and Ida and their daughter Pearl, as well as another daughter named Nina.

But wait, what’s this…? Check out who’s living next-door at 1017 Offnere:

Joseph and Ida M. Grady, 1015 Offnere St., Portsmouth, Ohio, 1900 census (click to enlarge)

Joseph and Ida M. Grady, 1015 Offnere St., Portsmouth, Ohio, 1900 census (click to enlarge)

If you’re actually related to me, you probably recognize the names and you might be doing a little dance in your chair like I did. If you’re not, you are probably slightly befuddled (were you expecting a dead president or something?), so I’ll explain.

William and Katie Emnett are my great-great-grandparents. Their son, little George O. (George Oscar– everyone called him Oscar), age 5, was my great-grandfather. His daughter Sally Coriell was my grandmother, the one who owned the Ida Grady quilt that started this whole quest. Oscar’s sister Louise (also listed above) was the “great-great-aunt Louise” that Aunt Jeannie thought was somehow connected to this quilt…

So Ida Grady and my Emnett ancestors were neighbors. I suppose that probably explains how they knew one another. I suppose they might have known one another first and chosen to become neighbors (that happens! ask my husband). Actually, Joseph was a boilermaker, and William was a stove molder. I admit I’m not really sure what either of these entails, but they sound like they could be part of the same or at least related industries. (They certainly sound more similar than, say, a stove molder and a doctor.) Anyway, I’m wandering off into real speculation here, so let’s return to the facts.

At that point, I was content to believe that I had found the connection. I had certainly found a connection. The Gradys and the Emnetts were neighbors, so they must have known each other. (I even had cute little visions of Nina and Pearl Grady baby-sitting my great-grandfather and his siblings.) And at some point Ida Grady gave one of the Emnetts a quilt, which was eventually passed down to my grandmother.

So you’d think, “case closed,” right? I actually kind of did think the case was closed, but I was still sufficiently interested in this Grady family as to keep searching for more information on Ida. For instance, who were her parents?

I found her death certificate on FamilySearch — she actually died in May 1935 at age 72, only about a year after completing the quilt. The death certificate listed her parents as Alexander Dunkin and Elizabeth…well, it looked like Dunderpre to me, but that didn’t make much sense.

Ida Grady's parents, as listed on her 1935 death certificate

Ida Grady’s parents, as listed on her 1935 death certificate (click to enlarge)

That just made me all the more determined to find other sources and find out what that funny-looking “D” word actually said.

Then I came across Ancestry member Karen Engleman’s online family tree, which included Alexander Duncan and his wife and their daughter Ida. (Without going into too much detail here about the parents, trust me, I did find some other things too, and this spelling of Ida’s mother’s name seems to check out.)

Ida’s mother was Elizabeth DeGear.

DeGear.

There’s that genealogist “spidey sense” tingling again. I know that name.

I clicked on Engleman’s tree listing Elizabeth DeGear’s parents. Peter DeGear and Catherine Hibsher.   OK, now I know I’ve seen these names before. So I clicked down the list of Elizabeth’s siblings until I found one that was further familiar— Mary.

Mary DeGear and her husband Nicholas Gable. I know those two. It has been a while since I was knee-deep in much genealogy, so although the couple was ringing a major bell in my head, I still couldn’t place them.

(I was away from my main computer, with my genealogy software, at the time, so I couldn’t just call up these people in the family tree software and get the link right away.)

Children. Did Engleman list any children for Nicholas and Mary Gable? Ooh! They did! Just one on the list, but it was the one I needed to snap my brain into gear enough to solve the puzzle: George W. Gable.

George Washington Gable. I remember this guy.

He died youngish. Like 40. I remember thinking it was kind of funny that his wife Frances Adeline Ingles married another George W. afterwards. George W. Bonzo. (I’d be willing to bet his middle name was probably also Washington, but I never did learn for sure.)

And this second marriage prompted what in hindsight is kind of a funny story, but probably wasn’t at the time. When my grandparents were first married, my great-grandfather Oscar said to them (as the story goes) something along the lines, “You know you two probably shouldn’t have gotten married, as you both have Bonzos in your family tree…” (Initial mental reaction: A little late to tell us now, pops, don’t you think?) As it turns out, although my grandfather was descended from a Bonzo, my grandmother is not—she was descended from this Frances Adeline Ingles and her first husband George Gable, not her second who was George Bonzo. George Bonzo was no relation to my grandmother. But his wife was.

So, getting back to the point at hand, let’s regroup. What have I told you in a roundabout way? If Ida Grady’s mother was Elizabeth DeGear, and my grandma Sally Coriell (who had Ida’s quilt) was descended from Elizabeth’s sister Mary DeGear…….then…..Ida Grady was in fact a distant cousin of my grandmother’s.

Oh, but it gets better.

Ida was related to my grandmother’s MOTHER Ollie. Frances Adeline (Ingles) Gable Bonzo was Ollie’s grandmother. Ida and Frances were first cousins.

But the earlier connection I found was to my grandmother’s FATHER Oscar, who lived next-door to Ida when he was a boy.

So there was a double connection between Ida Grady and my grandmother, the owner of Ida’s 1934 Sunburst quilt.

Here, this should help (when in doubt, draw it out):

The Ida Grady connection, handwritten diagram (click to enlarge)

The Ida Grady connection, handwritten diagram (click to enlarge)

(A teeny, tiny, romantic part of me has gone so far as to wonder—not even speculate, but just wonder—if Ida Grady could have even been the link that caused Oscar and Ollie to meet. Ida’s cousins bring little Ollie to visit and she happens to meet little Oscar who lives next-door. And in 1921, she married him. Stranger things have happened. Oh if only I had any proof! What a great story that would make. And it would certainly up the significance of Ida Grady and her quilt to me, if I could truthfully say, “Without this woman, 100+ of my relatives would never have been born, myself included…” But….pure dreamy speculation.)

I know this has been a long, convoluted entry. It was a long, convoluted journey, and you didn’t even have to hear the things that were only in my head. (OK, who am I kidding? You have totally heard — er, read — most of them…)

But I want to wrap things up with a brief but coherent biography of Ida M. Grady, the woman who made the antique quilt that “started it all”—-as coherent a biography as I was able to piece together (no pun intended) from various sources — which I should really list here, but in the interest of space…—in general, the sources were local government records on Ancestry and FamilySearch, Ancestry user Karen Engleman’s family tree, Ida’s obituary from the Portsmouth Daily Times (thanks for emailing it to me, Portsmouth Public Library!), and some data from Find-A-Grave. With a few edits, this comes from the information sheet I wrote up and submitted with Ida’s quilt for the Wright State University Women’s Center quilt show last week:

Ida May Duncan was born June 11, 1862, in Portsmouth, Ohio. Her father Alexander Duncan, a Scottish immigrant, died of tuberculosis in 1872, leaving Ida’s mother Elizabeth with a teenage son and 3 little girls. In 1881, Ida married Joseph T. Grady, a boilermaker. Ida does not seem to have worked outside the home; her occupation is always listed as housewife. She was a member of First Presbyterian Church, where she was active in the Missionary Society and taught Sunday School.

The Gradys had two daughters, Nina (b. 1883) and Pearl (1886-1974). Nina married Leonard J. Gehrling and lived in Ironton. Pearl married Fred J. Zeisler and seems to have lived in Portsmouth.

In January 1935, Ida fell on the steps at her home at 1410 Offnere and fractured her left leg. Ida died May 7, 1935, at Portsmouth General Hospital, from (according to her obituary) “complications following a broken hip and stroke of paralysis.” She was 72 years old and seems to have lived her entire life in Portsmouth, Ohio. She is buried in Greenlawn Cemetery, just up the street from her home.

Ida M. Grady completed this quilt in 1934, when she was approximately 71 or 72 years old, and it was probably one of her last accomplishments before she died in 1935. If she had not signed her name to the corner, I would never have stood a chance of learning anything about the quilt’s maker, who she was, or how she knew my family.

Ida Grady's Sunburst quilt on display at the WSU Women's Center Quilt Show, Jan. 30, 2015

Ida Grady’s Sunburst quilt on display at the WSU Women’s Center Quilt Show, Jan. 30, 2015 (click to enlarge)

Morals of the story?

  • Sign your art! If you make a quilt (or anything else), find an unobtrusive and non-destructive way to permanently add your name and the year
  • Document quilts (or any art) you make or that you have. (I’m talking about writing down more info about the item than you reasonably could — or should — attempt to record physically on the item itself. More details! Provenance!) Do this while there are still people around who know the info, whether that’s you or a relative. (The International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Nebraska has some handouts on this. I’ve actually started my own “Quilt & Craft Documentation Archive” for quilts and other projects I’ve made. But that’s another blog post.)
  • You can learn a lot even when you have what seems like just a little bit of information. Go forth and research!

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing this story unfold (again, no pun intended- ack, I’m terrible!) as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.

Archivist’s View on Baby Milestone Photos

I’ve been seeing more and more of those “baby milestone” (or “baby month-by-month” or “baby growth-progress” or “hey look how much bigger I am!” or whatever you want to call them) photos, especially on Facebook, lately.

I’ve seen a lot of creative things that I would never have thought to do. (Seeing as I don’t have kids, it hasn’t come up, though I suppose some of them might have worked for my cats when they were kittens, had I thought of it…but alas, I think that ship has now sailed! Much to everyone’s disappointment, I’m sure.)

Anyway, I think these “watch me grow” baby photos are great, and I enjoy seeing them. But as an archivist and family historian, I happened to notice that most of them don’t always seem to include some really obvious basic information that I would really like to see on them: name, date, and age.

I was particularly baffled by the missing names and dates, especially if a photo included a lot of other information written on a little sign or chalkboard (love the chalkboard idea!), such as: weight, length, likes & dislikes, cool new tricks, etc. Although, some of them don’t have much writing at all—just a sticker on baby’s chest or back with the number or months or just a stuffed animal for scale (with the months indicated somewhere in a text description rather than in the photo itself).

I talked to some mom friends about this — in the course of asking them if I could use their baby’s photos for this blog post (we’ll get to that in a minute — didn’t want to completely lose your attention by putting all the cute baby photos at the top) — and I did get some enlightening answers:

Some of them plan to put all of the baby photos into a photo book (say “the first year”), which obviously would have baby’s name and info printed in it, but just not in the photo images themselves. Definitely a cool idea.

Someone else mentioned that some moms don’t like to put their baby’s name out there on the Internet. OK, I get that. I can see how that kind of thing might lead to “creepers” or even identity thieves.

But if I’m looking through your random box of photos (or, God willing, a drive full of your digital photos) 50 years from now, and all I have are these original images without any explanation, what I would love to find is: a name (even just a first name), date of the photo (including year), and the age captured in the image itself. That would be awesome. As an archivist or family historian, that would go a long way towards making sure that I was able to identify this baby — especially if, as we’ll see in the example photos below, you have more than one baby and they bear a strong resemblance to one another!

OK, that’s all I’m going to say about it, because I certainly don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing anyone. I am thrilled with all of you who are making this effort to take the month-by-month (or whatever you call them) baby pics! And thank you for sharing them — both on Facebook in general and (more specifically) for this blog. But it was just something that struck me as interesting, and I thought maybe some of you hadn’t thought about the 50-years-from-now-unlabeled-photo-in-a-box thing yet. (After all, I’m sure a lot of you are kind of sleep-deprived, particularly in the beginning, and busy all the time! All the more reason I applaud you for taking the time to do these cute photos!)

So now, I’ll get to what everyone actually came here to see—-the baby pics. (To reduce any creeper danger, I’m only using the mommies’ first names! Thanks again, moms!)

The two photos below are of Gina’s babies use the “stuffed animal for scale” technique but no writing in the photograph itself. She makes a photo book for each child. (I love how the stuffed animal starts out so much bigger than the baby and then shrinks…oh wait. Haha!)

Gina's Baby #1

Gina’s Baby #1

Gina's Baby #2

Gina’s Baby #2

Sarah’s been using two techniques: both the stuffed-animal-for-scale, as well as the chalkboard method. I love that she has the date and all those other little details on her chalkboard. She also said she was making a photo book.

Sarah's baby, stuffed animal

Sarah’s baby, stuffed animal

Sarah's baby, chalkboard photo

Sarah’s baby, chalkboard photo

Beth B. is also using a chalkboard — a really cute chalkboard at that!

Beth B.'s baby

Beth B.’s baby

Beth P. made a sign—and she included the date, with year! Hooray!

Beth P.'s baby

Beth P.’s baby

Mollie has been doing monthly photo comparisons between her two babies — putting the current monthly photo for the younger one next to the same monthly photo from the older one. Love it! And wow do they look alike!

Mollie's babies

Mollie’s babies

One more thing— In the course of attempting find information on the Internet about these baby-growth-photos, I found this article/post with some more cute baby-growth-photo ideas (some of which I haven’t seen my friends doing) and this one about baby time-lapse videos (which are a bit of a different thing but the goal is similar).

Special thanks to Gina, Beth B., Beth P., Mollie, and Sarah for letting me use your babies’ photos to help illustrate this post! Couldn’t have done it without you — well, maybe I could have, but it wouldn’t have been filled with cute.

Sure it’s genealogy; it’s just not mine!

I don’t know what it’s been about the past few weeks, but I’ve been somewhat inundated with emails stemming from this blog recently. Now, when I say “inundated,” okay, it’s still only been about one a week or so. (I think there have been 4 or 5 separate reach-out emails in the past month.) But that still seems like “a lot” when sometimes it’s weeks or months in between receiving those kind of communications.

It was a variety this time, too:

  • One was thanking me for the Howard Forrer story. (You’re so welcome; thank you for enjoying it!)
  • One was: Can I use your  Bessie Tomlin article in this non-commercial digital history project I’m doing? (Yes you can, thanks for asking first, & your project sounds awesome!)
  • Two were family history related: Do you know anything about my rather noteworthy Dayton relative so-and-so? (No, actually, I don’t, but here are some suggestions of where else to look.)

I love these. You have no idea.

Not just because they make me feel like a rock star for (apparently) writing an interesting story or a well-researched history or bio sketch. But because it’s proof positive that there’s somebody else out there who cares about these people, places, and events.

Sure, hypothetically, I know that such people probably exist out there somewhere. And sure, I see the search terms on my blog statistics page that tell me people are looking for these things (and finding me). But when you sit down to actually take the time and write me an email — even if it seems half selfish because you’re really writing to ask me something — it makes  my day. And I’m happy to help you if I can.

But getting back to the title of this post. Over the past couple of years with the blog, based on the emails and comments I receive, usually with reference to the people I write about, I often have people asking me if these are my relatives. I guess it’s because they can tell that I’ve taken much care to write these lovingly detailed biographical sketches of them. After all, why would anyone do that if it wasn’t their own family?

Well, the short answer is that I did all that research in order to write the the biographical sketch portion of archival manuscript finding aids, and my boss gave me permission to re-post them here, my intention being additional discoverability for the collections. To write these biographical sketches, I used the collections themselves (duh, what better than a primary source right there in my hands?!) as well as genealogy research techniques to fill in the “Wait, who’s Aunt Sarah?”-type gaps. (You can read the longer versions of essentially this same explanation in my posts from May 21, 2012, and Sept. 2, 2011.)

But anyway—again—why would anyone go to such lengths to write these detailed, foot-noted, multi-page biographical sketches? After all–you caught me, fellow archivists–I admit they are probably longer and much more detailed than what was strictly necessary to fulfill my obligation of providing some biographical/historical context for the researcher via the finding aid.

But I can’t help it. I love these people. These wonderful, colorful, real people, who lived in the past, whose papers, whose stories, I’m holding in my hands (unless it’s photos- then in my gloved hands). They suck me in. I want to know them. I want to “get” them. Who are they? How do they fit together- with this “stuff”? with the other people they talk about? with the community where they live? Er, I mean, lived.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of genealogy anyway. My grandma got me started on it, and I’ve been interested in it — oh dear God, I just did the math at this very moment — over half my life. But unfortunately, I couldn’t write such detailed biographical sketches about most of my own ancestors (at least, ones from the same time period as the Bio Sketches I’ve written here), even if I wanted to — and believe me, if I could, I would.

But I just don’t know their stories. And I don’t have the diaries and letters and other documents needed to “fill in the blanks” in between the official records (birth/death records, census, city directory, etc.). The manuscripts I would need just don’t exist. Or, if they do, I haven’t found the relative that’s stowed them away yet.

So, if you’re one of my relatives and you’re holding out on me, now would be a good time to speak up, please. I swear I won’t try to guilt you into giving me the docs; I just want a look. (And probably some photocopies.)

And while we’re at it, same goes for the owner of Sarah (Howard) Forrer‘s diary. It’s mentioned in other sources, but it’s currently “lost to history.” If anyone has it, I’d love to see it.

And there I go again, getting wound up about the history of people who aren’t even my relatives. Which seems to baffle the genealogists who email me, thinking they must have found a distant cousin in this girl who has made such an effort to document the life of their ancestor (or great-uncle or whoever).

Nope. Just doin’ it for the love of history, folks. And for the love of these super-cool people whose “stuff” I’ve been charged with arranging, describing, and preserving.

But don’t worry. I don’t mind if you think I’m a distant cousin. And I promise not to laugh or anything when I have to tell you I’m not. Keep those emails coming. I’m always thrilled to “meet” someone, anyone—genealogist, historian, whoever—who still cares about these long-dead people that I’ve cared about. And if I can help you, I will, and I’m happy to.

Book Un-Review: Intimacy and Italian Migration

I hate book reviews. I hate writing them. I don’t really like reading them. But I recently finished reading a history book I picked up at the library (with my fancy new Wright State University staff library card!) several weeks ago, and I wanted to tell you a little bit about it. So…whatever you want to call that.

A few years ago (it must have been pre-2011 because I wrote about it), I decided I finally wanted to get down to business on trying to understand more about my Italian American history: really specific stuff about Italian immigration, legal hoops they had to jump through, typical family life, etc., etc. And in the course of that, I read two books that were extremely helpful and interesting: Coming to America (1990) by Roger Daniels and Italy’s Many Diasporas (2000) by Donna Gabaccia.

So when I saw a new book with Donna Gabaccia’s name attached to it on the library’s “New Books List” in December, I decided to check it out (literally – I know, haha, library humor). The book is called Intimacy and Italian Migration: Gender and Domestic Lives in a Mobile World (2011) and is edited by Gabaccia, as well as Loretta Baldassar.

I have to say, it wasn’t what I was “hoping” for or what I expected—but that’s my own fault, honestly. If I had investigated a book review (sigh) or even the back cover or the table of contents, I might have realized it probably wasn’t going to include what I was hoping for (more on that in a minute). But I it was like an “impulse buy” (er, impulse borrow) based solely on my existing positive (and, I emphasize, still positive) opinion of Gabaccia. Kind of like if you checked out J. K. Rowling’s new book simply because it was Rowling and then acted all surprised when it wasn’t like Harry Potter, but if you’d read the description, you would have known that. (I have not read Rowling’s new book, just FYI.)

Anyway.

The book includes many interesting articles on Italianness and gender roles, motherhood, marriage, and domesticity. I think my two favorite chapters were “Calculating Babies: Changing Accounts of Fertility Decisions among Italians in Melbourne, Australia” (by Pavla Miller) and “Love Crossing Borders: Changing Patterns of Courtship and Gender Relations among Italian Migrants in Germany” (by Yvonne Rieker), both of which included a lot of oral history and interviews, not to mention subject matter that I found particularly intriguing.

I was also pleased to read in general about “chain migration” — which may have been mentioned in those two previous books but I had perhaps forgotten — and there was talk about “campanilismo,” a term I know I’ve read about before and find positively delightful. (That must sound like an insane way to describe how I feel about those words, but I suppose it comes from having observed something in your own family history over and over again and then finally finding out there’s an actual TERM for it: what joy at finally putting a name to something!)

Intimacy and Italian Migration was a very interesting, informative, and well-written book, but as I said, not what I was hoping for — which could be somethin that simply not exist. If, after I’ve described it, anyone can give me a recommendation for something that may cover what I seek, I’d be glad to have it!

My grandfather Renato was born in Italy. He came to America on the eve of his 21st birthday (that’s a whole other thrilling tale) in 1934. His mother Pia and younger brother Vasco had already immigrated to America in 1933. But his father Quinto came to America in 1920, when Grandpa was 6. To the best of my knowledge, based on the records I’ve found and the story I was always told, Quinto stayed in America for years — like a decade — before returning to Italy to (basically – though it involved a lot of hoops – again, a tale for another time) bring his wife and two sons to the U.S.A.

I remember the first time I heard — from my parents, many years ago — that that’s how it went down, thinking, “What the hell? That seems kind of weird. To just leave your family for years?” Now that I’m older, learned a lot more history, and read the aforementioned books, I realize it wasn’t weird at all for that to be the way with Italian immigrations. Apparently, it was downright common. But my initial knee-jerk reaction of “My god, that must have sucked!” still seems pretty valid. I’m sure it did suck. On many levels.

And so, I’ve wondered from time to time, about a lot of different aspects of how that…worked (or, didn’t work?), particularly with regard to my great-grandparents’ relationship. How do you go from being married with two kids to just not seeing each other for 10 years? Did they write letters? Did they even know how to read/write? I honestly have no idea; it’s probably more likely for him than her, but I really don’t even know. Even if they knew how? Could they afford it? It can’t have been cheap to send international letters, not to mention the time lapse of sending them trans-Atlantic by boat. This is all assuming, of course, that they…well, liked each other. I mean, part of me wants to make the terrible joke about the stereotypical Italian couple that drives each other crazy—(cue movie reference to that scene in Under the Tuscan Sun where Chiara’s mother says of her husband, “I hate him half of the time”!)—but I mean, hey, with all I just learned about semi-arranged or downright arranged marriages in Italy back in the Day (or, quite a long time after what one would really consider “The Day” – scary recent), it’s entirely possible that…hell, maybe they never liked each other to start with? I’m just saying…I have no idea. (They look relatively content in this pic from 1938, though, don’t they?)

Quinto and Pia, 1938

Quinto and Pia, 1938

But that’s some of what I was kind of hoping to read about when I picked up Intimacy and Italian Migration…something “older,” I guess, than what most of the chapters actually discussed. And perhaps it simply doesn’t exist, for the simple truth of the circumstances under which those relationships were forced to take place. If you were a highly educated and filthy rich 1920s Italian, you weren’t going to be in that situation because you either (a) didn’t need to go to America for a “better life,” because yours was pretty darn good already; or (b) if you did need/want to go to America, maybe you had the money to plunk down for all those passenger fares right from the get go (all U.S. anti-immigrant laws and quotas aside, of course- again, a thrilling tale for another time); or (c) at the very least, you could probably go home to visit more often or afford to send lots of letters, and your probably-also-higher-society wife could probably read them and write them (I’m guessing?). But poorer immigrant husbands and wives were probably too busy working, taking care of themselves and (in the wives’ case) the children (to whatever extent possible), without a lot of time (much less knowledge or resources – I don’t know if the particular two in question had it or not) to write or keep letters or diaries that I so wish I could read.

I’ll probably wonder forever. Because some things just don’t exist. I’m pretty sure that if Pia and Quinto had left letters or diaries that I could read, I’ve have them in my hands by this point. But if there’s anything out there along the same lines (but from different people), I’d be interested in reading that.

I suppose my interest in history has (almost) always come back around to being interested in people “I know” — or have seen pictures of in the family photo album or their names on my family tree — or have held their handwritten documents in my hands. This is just another instance of that. I hear (true) stories, and I want to fill in the blanks.

Okay, not a great way to end a book un-review, but… I’ve run out of steam. Honestly, that’s not quite true, but if I don’t cut it off here, I could ramble for hours (pages) about these people. And I’m sure nobody wants that. Or, if you do, ask me questions, and I’ll write more. 🙂

Post-mortem photography

This might seem an abrupt change in direction, from last week’s silly and frivolous post about hotties in old photos, changing over to this week’s post to, well, dead people in old photos. But nevertheless, here we go.

(Disclaimer: I will be sharing a few examples of post-mortem photography from my own photograph collections near the end of this post. They’re not graphic at all, but if you prefer not to see any actual photos of dead people, you might want to bail before you get to the end. Let the record show that I warned you.)

Back in May when I was writing my “Hair in a Book” post (5/24/2011) about the several locks of hair I found in an old Bible, I kept coming across the term “memento mori” – which, loosely translated from Latin, means “reminder of death.” That was one of the primary reasons people kept locks of hair – as a memento of a departed loved one. That sort of memento was particularly common in the Victorian era, a time when sentimentality and high mortality converged.

Another type of memento mori was post-mortem photography; that is, photographs of deceased individuals. Now, I actually had seen some examples of post-mortem photography before (we’ll get to that in a minute), but I did not realize it was a relatively common practice (or at least, that’s what I understand to be the case based on what I’ve now read about it).

In the Victorian era, mortality rates were higher and photography was…well, it was within the reach of many but was mainly conducted by professionals. People might hire a photographer to take a picture of a deceased person who, especially if it was a child, may never have been photographed while living, so this post-mortem photo was literally their last chance for a photo of that person. We might think this seems strange today, but death was much more a part of everyday life back then. Eventually this type of photography became much less common in America by the early 20th century because the subject of death has become uncomfortable to discuss, let alone photograph.

I won’t attempt to cover all the details of the history of this custom, but if you want to know more, you may find the following sources interesting:

  • “Post-mortem photography,” on Wikipedia.
  • Elizabeth Kelley Kerstens, “Secure the Shadow…Ere the Substance Fades,” Ancestry Magazine 23:5 (Sept./Oct. 2005), online.
  • Various works by Stanley B. Burns, including Sleeping Beauty (3 vols); here’s his web site and his blog.

According to Stanley Burns (Sleeping Beauty, 2nd ed., 1990), post-mortem photography in America in the 1930s-1940s was “mainly being done by immigrant, ethnic, and certain lower-class groups”. Furthermore, he calls the era of 1935-present “the age of amateurs” and states that “almost any aspect of funerary process, from casket to graveside, is seen.”

That pretty much sums up what I found in my grandfather’s photograph collection.

(If you don’t want to see the pictures I mentioned before, now might be a good time for you to leave.)

My grandfather was born in Italy in 1913. He immigrated to the United States in 1934. His parents had immigrated shortly before he did, and the family settled in Portsmouth, Ohio. His mother died in 1941 and his father in 1952.

Grandpa had several photographs each from both his parents’ wakes and funerals. I remember how odd I thought this was, when I saw them for the first time several years ago – when Grandpa was still alive. I had never seen these types of pictures before.

Great-grandmother's funeral, in the parlor, 1941

Great-grandmother's funeral, in the parlor, 1941

Great-grandmother's funeral, at the cemetery, 1941

Great-grandmother's funeral, at the cemetery, 1941

One of the photographs from my great-grandfather’s wake even had my grandfather in it — standing next to his father’s open casket.

Grandpa and great-grandfather, funeral, in the parlor, 1952

Grandpa and great-grandfather, funeral, in the parlor, 1952

Great-grandfather's funeral, in the parlor, 1952

Great-grandfather's funeral, in the parlor, 1952

Great-grandfather's funeral, at the cemetery, 1952

Great-grandfather's funeral, at the cemetery, 1952

I wondered whether this practice had anything to do with Italian customs, since I had never seen anything like it before. Perhaps this is common in Italy, I wondered. In the case of these particular pictures, it can’t be because they didn’t have other pictures of the individual — because I have seen several other pictures of both these people, while they were alive. So I guess I just don’t know. It’s too bad I didn’t think to ask Grandpa, “What was your reason for taking these pictures?” while he was still alive. But alas, I didn’t…and in 2008, he died, also.

I wasn’t sure what the reason was for his post-mortem pictures of his parents, but I thought maybe he’d be pleased if he knew that somebody thought to take a post-mortem picture of him, too. But, like all the articles have said — and as we just sort of know — people can be weird about death, and you don’t often see post-mortem photographs anymore. So at my grandfather’s wake, I asked my father if he would mind if I took a picture — I didn’t want to weird anybody out — and with his permission, I snapped a few. Here’s one of them.

Grandpa, at the funeral parlor, 2008

Grandpa, at the funeral parlor, 2008

I like to think Grandpa would be pleased. After all, he’s looking pretty sharp in his Knights of Columbus uniform. I have another photo in which you can see two of the Knights standing guard on either side of him. In still another, my cousin’s little boy is having a sit on the prayer kneeler…which everybody thought was pretty cute at the time. I was glad the photographing went over well with the family. I certainly didn’t want to upset anybody…but at the same time, it was one of those “last chance for a photo” moments. (Again, we have tons of pictures of Grandpa while he was living. But I just thought…in case I ever do find out there was some real significance to the photos he felt the need to take of his own parents and that maybe he would have liked one of himself, it’s not like I can go back in time and take the pictures later…)

In parting on this subject, I will leave you with the only other post-mortem photograph I have ever found (i.e., besides the ones of my great-grandparents). This one is of a tiny baby in a wooden casket — probably an example of one of those cases where no other photo of this person ever existed prior to death.

baby girl in casket

baby girl in casket

The photo is not dated, but I have guessed it was probably from the 1920s or 1930s. The writing on the back is in Italian, but I can’t quite make it out. I think some of the words must be misspelled, because I am usually pretty good with an Italian dictionary or at least Google Translator. And I’m not getting much from the words on the back of this picture, besides “povera mia” or “my poor girl”. If anybody would like to take a stab at translating it for me, let me know, and I’ll send you the image.

So…I’m curious. Has anyone else found any of these in their collections? Apparently early ones can be difficult to recognize as post-mortem photos because the subjects were often posed in lifelike positions. I’d be interesting in hearing what others have found in their collections, because as I said, until I found these in my Grandpa’s photos, I had never even heard of such a thing, let alone seen one.

** EDIT ** Here is a scan of the back side of that photograph of the deceased infant. Thanks to Theresa for offering to try and translate it for me! (I have tried myself, but I think either the handwriting or the spelling — or both — is what’s defeating me!)

Back of the Baby Girl in Casket photo

Back of the Baby Girl in Casket photo