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.


Bookshelf Essentials

It’s funny; I don’t have a huge genealogy reference collection. I have a lot of books on topics related to my family history – the Irish in New York City, for example.

I also collect books that deal with social history, especially anything that teases out the details of everyday life in the first 30 years of the 20th century. But I have relatively few volumes specifically about the genealogical method. Maybe that’s because there are three that I go to again and again:

Unpuzzling Your Past by Emily Anne Croom. My edition of this classic is very pre-Ancestry.com; later versions tackle the nuances of online research. I still like my edition just fine. Croom focuses on the rock-ribbed foundations of family history research: where to start, what to write down, how to organize it. Her clear, detailed thoughts on summarizing your findings transcend any debates over hard drive vs. three-ring binder. Croom’s book oriented me when I first started jotting down the

messy desk

Yes, my desk is messy. You should see my bookshelves.

few genealogy scraps I knew, and I still turn to it to recall just why a mortality schedule is helpful, or which years New York State took censuses.

The Family Tree Problem Solver by Marsha Hoffman Rising. Once you’ve gotten far enough into family history research to hit brick walls, you’ll love this. Who can resist a chapter titled “Why Did the Census Taker Always Miss My Family?” Her case studies are detailed, interesting and challenge us with new approaches to old frustrations. My only personal quibble is the emphasis on land ownership and its paper trail – a huge resource, but not something researchers with tenement-dwelling forebears can count on! Overall, a wonderful primer for an intermediate researcher.

Evidence! by Elizabeth Shown Mills. This slim little tome packs a big wallop. It is to family-history citation what the Chicago Manual of Style is to term-paper writers. Mills efficiently outlines the process of identifying and properly attributing sources in genealogical research. It’s so important, because once we start writing our findings down for posterity, we really should state clearly why we know what we know, and why total strangers (i.e., our descendants) should take us seriously. Evidence! is a must have for anybody intent upon proper documentation. Which should be everybody.

Feel free to share any other genealogy titles you can’t live without.


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