History in the walls

When you reach the point in your family history research at which you’d like to start writing some sort of narrative, you might turn your attention to house genealogy.

That’s because as a writer, you can only get so far with vital statistics. Weaving them into a a story about your ancestors’ lives and times cries out for context. If you’re lucky and an ancestor’s former address is still standing, you can really add to your research by learning its story.

Imagine knowing exactly how the house was constructed, how big the yard was, how many neighbors lived on the street, what the view was from the front-room window. It’s possible to learn these things.

Of course, a lot of people, myself included, become curious about old houses because they live in them. Sometimes house history helps an owner undo decades of neglect or bad remodeling. Sometimes it’s just fun.

Here are some basic resources I’ve enjoyed exploring in researching houses:

Tax records. The ultimate starting point for determining a chain of ownership. Tax assessment data will give you the owner of record (though this might not necessarily be the person who actually lived in the house). My town library has the massive yearly property survey books, including lot numbers, assessed values and ownership data. In other places you’d check with city hall.

City directories. Very useful in conjunction with tax records, especially since they can give a more complete view of who actually resided at an address in addition to, or instead of, the owner.

Sanborn (and other) maps. Insurance maps can give amazing details, down to the composition of the roof and the location of windows and doors. They also show a lot of context about the neighborhood, including street layout, schools, churches and nearby businesses. Although Sanborn maps are best known, don’t neglect the possibility that local libraries may hold other detailed historical maps, too.

Other ideas:

The University of Maryland offers a houseful of resources for beginning researchers, some of it Maryland-specific, but also a lot of  great general information and links.

The New York City Tax Photograph database might actually produce a picture of your ancestor’s house.

Case study: The Smithsonian has a neat presentation about 200 years of history in a house in Ipswich, Massachusetts, including tips on being a house detective.