Ephemera and Why They (It?) Are (Is?) Cool

Ephemera: Items designed to be useful or important for only a short time, especially pamphlets, notices, tickets, etc.

In the genealogy world “ephemera” can include everything from school attendance certificates to Edwardian hotel menus — anything at all, which I suppose is the point. Here is a nice essay about that, from the Independent Online Booksellers Association.

Recently, my cousin Carol Ann generously shared a nifty bit of ephemera — a book of addresses kept by our great-aunt Anna Haigney. Anna (1904-79) was my great-grandfather Joseph’s adopted daughter. A dedicated nurse, she  volunteered her skills to aid victims of the tragic 1944 circus fire in Hartford, Conn.

The book is not an actual address book with alphabetized sections, but a plain leatherette-bound notebook with lined pages, seven  inches long, four inches wide.  It doesn’t include great-grandpa Joseph, which might mean Anna began keeping it after he died in 1938. Or it might not. It doesn’t seem to be a comprehensive list of addresses. It looks more like a quick  reference book where Anna jotted down addresses she thought would come in handy.

Well, this unassuming little book is going to keep me busy for a while. It contains some promising entries that might untangle a lot of nagging questions. But for now let’s just take a look at an entry that fit so neatly into some previous detective work, I got a little misty-eyed, I really did.

See that first name, Cerelia? Very pretty, and unusual. It was also the name of the oldest daughter in the Brant family of Jersey City, with whom was boarding a man named “Joseph Hagney” listed in the 1900 census.

As I whined about wrote in a previous post, the 1900 census has long been the Mystery Zone as far as my Haigney great-grandparents are concerned. Documentation places them with boring regularity in Watervliet, N.Y. up to 1899, and with equally boring regularity in Brooklyn after 1901. But 1900 appears to have been The Year They Were Moving.

So far the one decent census possibility has been the entry in Jersey City for Joseph Hagney, a house painter (which happens to have been my great-grandfather’s occupation according to the Watervliet city directory the year before). A little bit of digging revealed that his landlords, the Brants, also had ties to the Watervliet area.  And I know from the death certificate of Joseph’s son, Leo, that by February 1901, the family had only been living in Brooklyn for five months.

All this added up to a reasonable hypothesis that Joseph was living apart from his family in June 1900, boarding with a family he knew from the Capital District. While it would have been nice to get another piece of information to prop this up, it seemed unlikely. Until Great-Aunt Anna’s notebook, that is.

Now, it’s possible that Anna just happened to know some random person named Cerelia. But Anna’s notebook also contains entries on adjacent pages for “Ursula Cameron,” also in Elizabeth, N.J.,  and “Rose Filoramo,” of Jersey City. And here are the six children of Edwin and Rose Brant, with whom Joseph Hagney stayed in 1900: Cerlia [sic], Harry, Rose, Urslia [sic], Edwin and Margaret.

The hunch seems a lot more solid now. This family is very likely to have hosted my great-grandfather for a while in 1900, and moreover, Anna was still in touch with them decades later.

This is why I wish we all had cousins like Carol Ann, Righteous Friend to Genealogy Wonks™,  who know how interested we are in family ephemera, however ephemeral. How many times does stuff like this get pitched, or put away in a drawer and forgotten? Yet viewed with the right context, ephemera can be a total gold mine.

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