The Stuff of Life: Artifacts

Recently, my great aunt died. We were close--she had a great memory and we had some wonderful conversations about our family history. After she passed, I offered to go to her place and sort some of her belongings.

I quickly discovered that my aunt was meticulous. Almost everything was sorted into resealable plastic bags and labeled, particularly artifacts from her early childhood:

Vest knitted for me by the Tantes (Bertha and Vera)

My baby blanket

Embroidered tablecloths from the Middle East, gift from Jon

Card from the flowers delivered to the hospital when I was born. (It was cut up and the pieces were carefully collected in an envelope.)

Or, my personal favorite, a woman's cigarette lighter from the 1920s. It looked like two brass tubes of lipstick stuck together. Stuffed inside of the lighting mechanism was a tiny, rolled-up piece of paper that said, "My mother's cigarette lighter," in my aunt's handwriting. Talk about thorough.

But this is a genealogy blog.

What does all of this have to do with research?

Buried in boxes and albums, on the backs of photographs, in letters, and even embroidered on clothing are the answers to countless genealogical questions. Now, because I knew my great aunt pretty well, I know the names of her parents, her close friends, her aunts and cousins. But if I didn't know those things, my great aunt's belongings would have been valuable clues.

Take the knitted vest, for example.

It was child sized, maybe big enough for a four- or five-year-old. The label said it was made by the Tantes Bertha and Vera. "Tante" means "Aunt," which could indicate either an aunt or great aunt. The size of the sweater suggests that the Tantes were alive when my great aunt was a little girl, so perhaps in the late 1920s. With this information, I could go looking for Tante Bertha and Tante Vera in the 1920 census.

Not bad for a sweater vest, is what I'm saying.

When somebody close to us dies, the last thing we're likely thinking about is the stuff on their bookshelves, in a closet, in the attic, under a bed. Sometimes things of value get thrown away or lost. But if we're lucky, maybe one or two seemingly unexceptional items can offer clues that lead to new discoveries about our ancestors. So, next time you're stuck on a genealogical problem, look at the things you've inherited from relatives. What are they? Is there an inscription? Why was this item important to your ancestor? Do the materials, size, shape, or construction hint at a time period, place, or former owner?


The sweater vest

By Tantes Bertha and Vera