Genealogy on TV: I make a chart

I’m sure I’ll remember the first quarter of 2010 as a time of shoveling snowdrifts and watching genealogy programs on TV. (A classic case of taking the bad with the good.)

Now that Who Do You Think You Are? has kindly stepped in to replace the Faces of America fix, I was thinking the other day  about how interestingly different they are, beyond the obvious fact that each is about what family history research tells us. Since my inner nerd was roaring, I expressed myself in a chart.

Who Do You Think You Are? Faces of America
Cast size One celebrity. A dozen celebrities.
Pacing Emphasis on scope and sweep – a kind of Amazing Race with genealogy. Steady as she goes – time and care spent upon painting detailed portraits.
Graphics Striking and to the point. The genealogy charts that open each segment and the map sequences are very effective in summarizing the story’s progress in a nutshell. Beautifully lit interviews and effective use of vintage photos – attractive and also absorbing. Call it the Ken Burns effect.
Tone Very “Wow!” Revelations shock and dazzle. Very “How cool is that?” Like swapping stories with a fellow genealogy hound.

I could go on, but I hope you can see that I like both shows very much. They highlight two different benefits of family history research, both important.

Faces builds up more detail about how our individual stories flow into the broad currents of history. Who expertly captures the personal drama of uncovering the story of who stands in the shadows behind you.

And both, no doubt, will win new converts to genealogy as a hobby.

Note: If, like me, you end up with dueling children’s athletic events on the night Who Do You Think You Are is on, don’t forget you can watch episodes at NBC’s official site as well as at And Faces of America episodes are being posted at

Link Love, March 8

My friends, I am officially Oscar’d-out; I can no longer tell the difference between a Best Dress and a Worst Dress. So I will move on to my weekly links. Today we have quirky landmarks, a genealogy freebie and two New York City events of note.

Obscura Day is Coming! March 20! Yes, there is still time to prepare. No, it has nothing to do with the Mayan calendar. It is an international festival of strange, interesting landmarks, each of which will offer a public event on the big day. Some are of interest to genealogists; some are just off the charts. In London, you can trace the course of the long-lost River Fleet; in Boston, you can tour Jamaica Plain’s Forest Hills Cemetery. I don’t know what it says about Philadelphia that they’ve got two bizarre sites on offer, but there you go. You could even organize your own event in your town, if you want. It’s all facilitated by Atlas Obscura, an online compendium of “wondrous, curious and esoteric” places.

Free 1930 U.S. census: In a world where there is no such thing as free lunch, it’s nice to find a free census. This is NOT searchable by keyword or name; you have to browse it the old-fashioned way, page by page. However, it is free. (h/t to Pat Connors of the NY-Irish genealogy listserve.)

And for those of us in the neighborhood, check out these two upcoming genealogy lectures in NYC:

Researching Criminal Relatives: Presenter Ron Arons, author of the book The Jews of Sing Sing, discusses how to track down relatives on the wrong side of the law. Free; 5:30-6:30 PM Tuesday, March 16, South Court Classrooms of the Stephen Schwarzman Building, New York Public Library, 5th Avenue at 42nd Street. The NYPL has more about it on their Facebook page (click on the Wall tab).

Basics and Beyond: This afternoon-long seminar hosted by the Jewish Genealogical Society, Inc. includes presentations from genealogists on censuses and vital records, research organization, goal-setting and online research. The seminar is organized in two tracks, one for beginners and one for more experienced researchers. 1 to 5 PM, Sunday, April 11, 130 East 59th Street, Manhattan. Registration is required; for details see

Last-minute update: Omigosh, NPR has a story about a fish that has lived in a New York City pet store since 1970. Is this the oldest fish in New York City? Is there a genealogy angle? The answers are (A) Maybe; and (B) No, there is not. It’s just too strange to pass up. (h/t westchesterdead)

Treasure Chest Thursday: Ancestral Decoupage

Postcard + log = decoupage, a classic 1970s craft.

This treasure sits at the crossroads of 1970s kitsch and family history. I have had it since the age of 14, when my parents and I acquired it on a visit to Oberailsfeld, the chief village of the district in which my German grandparents grew up. They were christened at St. Burkhard’s, the church whose tower dominates the villagescape.

One of my great-aunts gave the plaque to my mother, who said I could have it as a memento of the trip. And I have had it ever since.

My plaque has survived my many interstate moves, just barely. It was actually intact right up to my last move, the first time I switched states with a tiny child in tow. It kills me that I left it to the mercy of the movers — I knew better, believe me — but somehow my powers of concentration and organization weren’t what they used to be (imagine that!).  And indeed, the plaque had a rough time. It lost some birches and a piece of the sky. But the village is still intact:

Oberailsfeld, a little closer up. See the church?

Decoupage on random bits of lumber is a faded art, I’m afraid. Once upon a time, you couldn’t graduate high school without doing a decoupage project, either by choice or force. And craft shops overflowed with them.

I don’t see a lot of decoupage around these days, except at church jumble sales, so I assume it’s fallen out of fashion. But I still love my plaque, chips and all. It started out as a connection to an ancestral village, but now that my parents have both passed away, it’s also a connection to a long-ago time shared with them.

Armchair time-travel

There is nothing better than a gigantic used-book sale, where you could spend a whole Saturday happily digging. I always expect to come away with a wheelbarrow’s worth of reading.

I don’t always expect to come up with a window into my grandparents’ lost everyday life, but that’s what I found at one book sale.

The window was Daddy Danced The Charleston, a vintage cultural memoir by Ruth Corbett, a veteran ad-agency artist. She also had a huge stash of memorabilia – a perfect source for her history of everyday life, circa 1920-1940.

Writing in 1970, Corbett aimed Charleston squarely at her daughter, a miniskirted mod-squader who giggled at flappers and raccoon coats.   “Maybe she’ll laugh at her getup in 1990!” groused Corbett in her introduction. (No kidding.)

Corbett’s book resurrects vanished fixtures of everyday life, such as:

•     full-service grocery shops

•   irons you had to heat on the stove

•    vacuum-tube cash-carrying systems in department stores

•    oleomargarine you colored yellow with the capsule in the package

These are the details that bring old family stories into clearer focus. Corbett’s book is like the missing text to some of my family photos. Here’s the inside scoop on marcel waves, middy blouses, “Terry and the Pirates” and Fibber McGee’s closet. (If you ever had a mom or grandma tell you your room looked like “the inside of Fibber McGee’s closet,” you now know it wasn’t a compliment.)

Who knew that George VI’s unexpected accession to the British throne touched off a wave of coronation fever that swept everyday fashion in 1937, sparking a vogue for tiaras and brass coronet buttons on blouses?

And who can resist white-hot, now forgotten celebrities like the “girl diva” Marion Talley, “youngest lady to ever trill on the great opera stage”?

I can’t. And the book only cost me a dollar. I guess I got a pretty good deal.

Link Love, March 1

Among this week’s links: a worrisome report about NARA – sorry! – a pair of apologies and an inspiring genealogy search story. (I had to end on an up note.)

Records access: Concerns are growing about changes at the New York facility of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). In 18 months, NARA/NYC will move from Varick Street to a 5,000-square-foot space in the Customs House. It is possible that only about 20 percent of NARA/NYC’s current holdings will move there too, according to one report. Much of the remainder may end up in a storage facility in northeast Philadelphia, to be pulled by request to be transported to New York for researchers. Read this report by Jan Meissels Allen of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. The IAJGS’ Public Records Access Monitoring Committee has a lot of interesting material about records-access issues at the federal and state levels; click here and go to “Alerts Page.”

Mistakes were made: A pair of governmental apologies last week shed renewed light on two traumatic historical episodes, and might interest some family history researchers.

• First, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized for a British program that sent children from London overseas to labor in British colonies. About 100,000 “home children” journeyed abroad from the 1860s to 1939 to Australia and Canada to serve as cheap farm and domestic labor; working conditions were often harsh. “It’s a beginning,” said one Canadian “home child”  descendant.

• Another apology concerns the community of Africville in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a mostly black neighborhood which was dismantled in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal. (Students of Robert Moses’ highway projects in New York neighborhoods might find this story sadly familiar.) Unfortunately the apology by the city of Halifax doesn’t seem to have ended disagreement among heirs over how best to move forward. However, the Africville Genealogy Society backs the current plans for financial and civic restitution, saying it’s what the former landowners would have wanted.

The uplifting part: I promised we’d go out on a high note, didn’t I? Well, it doesn’t get more inspiring than the story of Susan Hadley, a Washington D.C. psychologist and genealogy buff who became determined to unravel the mystery of what happened to her mother’s sister Elinor, the relative nobody talked about.  Elinor was institutionalized in 1936 with a diagnosis of “postpartum psychosis,” and remained so for four decades before being released to live in a group home. Amazingly, Elinor was still alive when Hadley finally tracked her down in Ohio in 2008, and what happened next is just fantastic.

Makes you feel good to have this as a hobby.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 290 other followers