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.


Quick Takes

• Good lord, 33 years! That’s how long this package was lost before showing up at the address of its intended recipient in Anchorage, Alaska.And it contained genealogy notes, too. At this rate the package itself is probably a genealogy artifact.

• What a nice early Christmas present: Elizabeth Shown Mills launches a beautiful website, Historic Pathways, showcasing her work, for which “important” seems far too inadequate an adjective. Best of all, she tells you how to cite everything on there.

And another thing …

… related to SSDI:

See, here’s another industry that uses the SSDI: Insurers. This article explains how insurers in New York State use the SSDI in order to make  death benefit payouts to survivors more promptly, and how they use it to make sure they don’t pay annuities to dead people. (Thanks to Actuarial Opinions for forwarding the link.)

You’d think the insurance industry would be upset about limiting access, too. Although perhaps they figure it’s no problem to them, as they can buy the data they need for themselves.

Updated, with another Deep Thought: Yeah, this is probably why you aren’t hearing from the banking and legal professions on this one, either. They’ll have the information anyway, as they can afford to purchase their own databases. Whereas the little guy who’s trying to find out where Grandpa disappeared to — oops, sorry. Thanks, Senators!

SSDI: Time To Get Mad

So last month I (among many, I know) was wondering about where all this rumbling about the SSDI was going to lead. An eye-catching story from the Scripps Howard News Service had focused on cases in which the Social Security numbers of dead children were used to claim them fraudulently on tax returns, and legislators were mentioned as being very concerned. Given the trigger words like “children,” “fraud” and “safety,” it seemed reasonable to await another shoe dropping.

Well. This week Ancestry.com pulled free access to the SSDI. It’s still available to subscribers, with Social Security numbers removed from individuals who have died within the past decade. Kimberly Powell summarizes what’s going on here, reporting that the move appears to be prompted by a petition from Sens.  Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), Bill Nelson (D-Florida) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Illinois).

The other essential post is Megan Smolenyak’s reasoned and eloquent defense of the SSDI as a readily available research tool. It contains much that I searched for in vain in the Scripps stories — including an attempt to assess exactly how many dead children’s identities are stolen by strangers each year. The number appears to be far lower than the instances in which children’s identities are stolen and misused by their own parents. This finding,  if it continues to hold up, reinforces my impression that a rather emotionally manipulative campaign is achieving a panic-stricken result.

How to achieve some organized pushback? Who else besides Megan is pointing out the ways in which the SSDI is used to prevent fraud? What institution is responding on behalf of the researchers for whom the SSDI is an essential tool in discovering lost identities, reclaiming the John and Jane Does, repatriating the remains of long-dead military personnel?

One last thought: Ancestry.com is, for better or worse, synonymous with “genealogy” for Jane and John Q. Public. But I’m afraid this situation may be highlighting a bit of a problem: Big-business genealogy may not equate with genealogy advocacy.  It’s very tough when senators come calling and a national news service is writing frightening stories. But Ancestry, with that iconic brand name and a base of the enthusiasts who made its fortune, could certainly be in a position to educate panic-stricken lawmakers and push back on news stories that paint incomplete pictures. If it wanted to.

Meanwhile, you and I can educate ourselves by reading the summaries from Kimberly and Megan. Then we can write to the senators listed above. Hey, somebody has to.

Santa: Best Writing Coach Ever.

“Oh, and you must not forget the Kris Kringle. The child must believe in him until she reaches the age of six.”

“Mother, I know there are no ghosts or fairies. I would be teaching the child foolish lies.” …

“Yet you must teach the child that these things are so … Because the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. … Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination.”

This is a scene from Betty Smith’s novel  A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, in which the just-born heroine’s Grandma Mary explains to an exhausted, disillusioned new mother why flights of fancy are still worth the effort. It is still, for my money, the best apologia out there for letting the Santa story survive — or letting it take root at all.

And no,  I haven’t forgotten Frances Pharcellus Church’s* immortal letter to Virginia, another indelible defense of spirit over materialism. But Grandma Mary’s words carry an irresistible blend of practicality and joy that has resonated for me ever since I read them as a teenager.

Old-school anticipation: Me and my big brother, John.

Most of the parents I know don’t fight the Santa story; it would be like trying to stopper Niagara Falls. You can be the biggest rationalist out there, but then the kid hits preschool, the weather turns cold and there is no stopping the Santa stampede. Perhaps that’s wrong; I suppose you could dig in your heels and let your three-year-old be the one to tell all the other three-year-olds in the nursery school that it’s all a fake. I have not met anyone with that sort of internal fortitude.

But still, every child reaches the day when Santa leaves for good. There is always a classmate or an older sibling to do the deed. There is always that moment of shocked disbelief, followed by dawning comprehension. In particularly stubborn cases, the Rationalist Cop has to produce physical evidence — trotting the defiant Santa believer over to peek in the secret gift cupboard two days before Christmas Eve. Very few cases of defiant belief survive that.

In really stubborn cases of days gone by, the believer could always write to the New York Sun.

But with the Sun and Mr. Church long departed, The Parent must take the question: “Is it true? Is there really no Santa Claus?”

I don’t remember exactly what I said. I remember what I felt, which was resignation, and numerous connected thoughts:

A. It had to happen.

B. Our household had had a longer than average Santa run as it was.

C. Thank Rudolph I wouldn’t have to hide packages all over the place anymore.

What I also felt, surprisingly, was gratitude. For the story, for the fun of it, for the blind belief and the inevitable growing up. And above all, for the foundation of fancy this early journey into mythmaking has given my two tale-spinning daughters as they write their own scripts and stories.

I think Grandma Mary had it right.  The child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination.

*In case you have ever wondered, as I have, where the “Pharcellus” came from, apparently it was a gift from dear old Dad. According to the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Frank Church was born in 1839 in Rochester, N.Y. to Baptist minister Pharcellus Church and his wife, Chara Emily (Conant) Church.

Pointless Fun: T-Shirt Of Note

Is this not a great idea for a T-shirt, Anglophiles?

It comes courtesy of the good folk of Lichfield, an English cathedral town beloved by 18th-century hipsters including Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and Erasmus Darwin. I believe Dr. Johnson is cavorting on the shirt logo with his drinking buddy biographer Boswell. I don’t know if they’re still making them, but goodness, what a fashion statement.

Via the lovely blog Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington, which unfortunately appears to be on hiatus at the moment, but whose archives contain amusing musings about 18th-century personalities and culture.