Photographs Past + Digital Present

Two women having tea and looking at photographs. Reina Lawrence photo collection, part of the digital archives of the Plainfield Public Library, Plainfield, NJ.

Although I worry occasionally about what will happen to old-style newspaper clippings and photo files, I don’t hate new-style. Digital archives are the most amazing gift to the researcher. For instance, anyone who can remember when unearthing and reviewing vintage photographs meant a special appointment at a special library probably gets a sneaky thrill when paging through a digital photo archive. It’s just too easy.

Here are some of my favorite photo places.

• Plainfield (NJ) Public Library, local-history collections: Near and dear to my heart because I grew up in the town next door, North Plainfield. The collection’s main focus is Plainfield, naturally enough, but a fair amount of images from my hometown can be found here. Beyond photos, the site includes blueprints, postcards and online exhibits. Here’s the link for the photograph search engine.

New York City Municipal Archives. A person could spend way too much time here, and frequently does. The scores of  New York City images are catalogued by topic for easy browsing. In addition, you can go here for information on how to ask for a search of the Tax Photos, which were taken of every building in New York’s five boroughs between 1939 and 1941 and also in the 1980s. They’re not searchable online, but if you know an ancestor’s address in New York it might be worth asking for a search to see if you can order a photo of their house.

The Brooklyn Library’s Brooklyn Collection. The library now has a Flickr site with tons of Brooklyn photos. Some are organized into specific collections; or you can just root around. Not that I would complain about that.

Kindergarten May Day party in Montclair, 1925. Photo by Norman M. Germond, Montclair Public Library's historical photo collection.

The Montclair (NJ) Public Library. This is my hometown now, and it has a beautiful online photo collection, too. The only complaint I have is that it can be a little tricky to navigate to from the main library page. (It’s Databases by Subject/Genealogy-Local History/Montclair Images, in case you were wondering.) But once there, you can have a lot of fun using keyword searches to pull up collections of photos by topic.

Those are some of my favorite photo places. What are yours?


An Irish (/German) Blessing

What’s an Irish-German girl going to post on St. Patrick’s Day?

The classic “Irish Blessing” sung by Germans in SATB, that’s what.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.


The morgue I loved to visit

After college, I had a temporary job as a reporter at the Bridgewater (NJ) Courier-News. It was called a postgraduate internship, which loosely translated as: “We can’t hire any full-timers, but we could use the help for a few months.”

It was mainly fun. Sure, I often had to poke myself awake at municipal meetings, but I also got to cover Ultimate Frisbee tournaments.

And by far, the coolest perk of the job was the morgue.

“Morgue” is newspaper slang for the files of old clippings and photos. Before digitalization, this meant a roomful of overflowing file cabinets. It varied as to how well the morgue was organized, or if it existed at all. There might be an actual archivist on hand, but at small papers, there might simply be a copy editor who got sick of never being able to find reference material, so the morgue was a labor of love.

Pawnbrokers' sales, obits -- the morgue had it all.

I lived for clip file research. Heck, I sometimes made up reasons to check the clips. (I really should have heeded this inner voice and chucked journalism in favor of a career in archiving.)

But today, newspapers are in shrink mode. Papers are closing. Or, like my former employer, they’re moving to smaller, cheaper quarters, with limited space for clip files.

This article, while bringing back memories, is a reminder that in many towns, the priceless resource that is a newspaper archive might be at risk. Fortunately the Courier-News management has donated its holdings to local libraries and historical societies.

But will everybody? What will happen to all that history? Speaking to a Syracuse, NY reporter, author and former newspaper guy Pete Hamill expressed the unique character of the morgues: “They tell you all the detail that historians don’t. How much was a pair of shoes. What did a guy pay to go to the ballpark in 1934 during the Depression. How many people were there.”

Interestingly, at least one business out there has sensed a commercial boon in old newspaper clippings.  A few months back, Kevin Roderick at LA Observed reported on Time Capsule Press, whose owners plan to partner with newspaper managements to package material from their morgues into books. Their debut is a history of the Los Angeles Lakers drawn from the files of the Los Angeles Times.

It’s a definite bright spot of potential for a historical resource that can’t be allowed to disappear.


Linkiness, March 15 edition

Not a good start to the week. Here on the East Coast we’ve been drenched by a truly disgusting nor’easter — a big, soggy storm that arrived on Friday and is still goofing up the neighborhood today. The main casualty in my household is my sinuses, which have been incubating an infection and like the barometric pressure about as much as my cats like the vet. Meh.

Today I am curled up with my laptop, a cup of tea and some leisurely but scintillating reading.

• Last week Herstoryan put up a great contribution to the first edition of the Carnival of African-American Genealogy. This carnival addresses the important question of how documents of slave ownership should be treated by the genealogy researcher. It reminded me of Edward Ball’s 1998 book “Slaves in the Family,” in which he dissected his own family’s slaveowning history, and made a plea for similar families to open their personal archives to further genealogical study. A few weeks ago, one of my daughters asked me, “Did our family ever own slaves?”  I’m fairly sure the answer is no, given their ancestors’ economic status and  immigration timeline. But it can’t be definitively ruled out, an answer which saddened my daughter, but shouldn’t be swept under the rug, especially if it eventually affects someone else’s family research. Herstoryan’s post is great, and she links to a fascinating discussion of this topic opened by Luckie at Our Georgia Roots.

• I’m  a 50-50 Irish-German equation, ethnicity-wise. Interestingly, it was my Irish-American dad who was gung-ho on Deutsch, and he urged his kids to study it as seriously as we dared. Despite many daunting wrestling matches with word order and noun declensions, I eventually managed to get a double degree in German and journalism. Alas, my German has grown very rusty over the years. So I’m reading German-language blogs to polish it up; the Internet is a marvelous thing. Recently I found two genealogy-related sites:  Abenteuer-Ahnenforschung (Genealogy Adventures),  a beautiful blog by Hamburg-based Andrea Bentschneider, and  Timo Kracke’s Genealogie Tagebuch (Genealogy Diary), which has a fun, chatty style. The reading is slow going for me (I’m ashamed how slow), but hopefully I’ll start getting better.

• Finally, in honor of my official invalid status, I offer a handy list of archaic medical terms and their modern translations, always useful when one is evaluating death certificates. Not that I’m that sick. Just … cranky.

But listen, the week has only begun. Here’s hoping for new discoveries and edifying reading.


Ancestral Dish: Soda Bread 101

Top of the morning to you!  Now, kindly put down that cellophane-wrapped loaf of soda bread.

Why is Irish soda bread on a supermarket shelf, anyway? It does not have a shelf life. Heck, it barely has a plate life. It tastes great – but it does not keep. Fortunately, soda bread is ridiculously easy to make, so when it gets dry and crumbly (and it will, it will), you can always freshen things up.

In Irish houses, it was the everyday, cheap bread baked and eaten daily. As Irish cooking expert Rory O’Connell tells Epicurious, it’s the epitome of a daily staple: not pretty, but easy and tasty.

Plain soda bread tends to go fast, which is a good thing, believe me.

In her charming Recipes for a Perfect Marriage, novelist Morag Prunty sums up Irish soda bread nicely: “Every woman found her own way of doing it, and the ingredients were certainly never measured except in the cook’s eye for what looked right. You might be feeling generous the odd morning, and add a handful of fruit or a spoonful of cooking fat if you had it on hand. After a while, you learned how much flour would suit you and how much buttermilk would wet it.”

There are many, many soda bread recipes out there, but the one that made the most sense to me first appeared in 2005 on the foodie site 101 Cookbooks. It’s a good solid blueprint recipe, and at this point, I can say I have a system down. But as Prunty writes, the cook is always free to use her imagination. I expect this bread to continue evolving.

The recipe’s on the jump, if you want to have a go at it. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Read the rest of this entry »


Fearless Females, 3/11: Died in Childbirth

A response to the 3/11 Fearless Females prompt by Lisa Alzo at Accidental Genealogist: Did you have any female ancestors who died young or from tragic or unexpected circumstances? Describe and how did this affect the family?

Anna Held Forster, my maternal great-grandmother, died in childbirth. It’s sad to think how common that phrase is to students of genealogy.

My grandmother Eva, her oldest daughter, was about 18, so by my mother’s reckoning, this happened about 1915.

The baby was perhaps an hour old when it happened. As my mother heard it from Eva, both a doctor and a midwife were on hand – pretty good for that rural corner of Germany. But they could not agree on what to do when the hemorrhage started, and while they debated tactics, my great-grandmother’s time ran out. Her infant daughter survived, along with a widower and eight other children.

Wrenching as it must have been, my great-grandmother’s death was just the first blow. Within the year, my great-grandfather Jakob died and the family dispersed. The oldest son inherited the house and land; the children who could support themselves went their ways. Some of the younger siblings became farm help in exchange for their keep. Two of my great-aunts ended up with the nuns and later took vows themselves. My grandmother eventually met my grandfather, Johann Rudroff, who was intent upon emigrating to America, where, after some hesitation, Eva followed him and married him.

Beyond the details I hope to verify and the dates to double-check are questions I can never imagine the answers to. What was it like when a mother was literally here one moment, gone in another? What did they do with the awful fear of what might come next? Could you convince yourself that eventually everything would be all right?

Decades later, I was in a car meandering the roads near my grandmother’s home village with my mother, my sister and one of my mother’s first cousins, who was driving. We passed a turnoff with a sign pointing to a village whose name I’ve long forgotten. My cousin slowed the car and nodded toward the turnoff.

His father had worked on a farm there once, with one of his sisters, my cousin said.

How old were they, my mother asked.

“Little. Six, seven.” He shook his head. “Not a good time. It was very hard.”



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