Thursday, March 15, 2012

Find Old MA House Photos in the Forbes Collection

The Varnum House in Lowell from the Forbes Collection
at the American Antiquarian Society
Harriette Merrifield Forbes (1856-1951) is better known by taphophiles for her photographic documentation of gravestone carvings than she is for her interest in architecture. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a collection of old house and structure photographs that she had taken between the 1890s and the 1930s.

Known as the Forbes Collection, it is housed at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The collection includes 800 negatives of 575 structures, mostly houses, from Middlesex and Worcester Counties in Massachusetts from the 17th and 18th centuries. The photos capture early New England vernacular architecture.  There is a geographic place index, name index as well as a subject index. It is not clear to me (short of counting the links) as to whether whole collection is viewable from the index or not. Additionally, the photos are viewable one by one, with no links going from one photo to the next. So expect to do a lot of forward arrow and back arrow clicking if you want to browse the collection.

If you live in either Middlesex or Worcester County and your house dates no later than the 18th century then you should check this valuable resource for early 19th century photos of your home.  Visit the Forbes architecture collection online and if you have any further questions about the collection please contact the American Antiquarian Society.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My Next Big Adventure

I am very excited to be starting a new adventure. This one was too hard to resist.

A few  weeks ago I did a short post on the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts. The Fairbanks house has the unique distinction of being the oldest timber frame house in the United States. Imagine how a house historian would feel living within a half hour of the oldest house in America!

I finally realized I was missing an incredible opportunity. I felt this house could have a lot to  teach me about history, architecture, research and how people value historic houses.

This Spring I signed up to be a docent for the 2012 open season.  The program is run by curator Meaghan Siekman and the training started in February. During the training sessions I will learn about the family, the house's place in history as well as details about architecture and museum pieces.

I am both excited and terrified at the same time. I am really excited to be able to learn about the house and view it on a regular basis. When I work with private clients I typically only get to see a house a few times. Now I will be able to learn and observe on a weekly basis. I am also excited to work with tour groups. I love meeting people and I'm sure I will learn a lot from the many people who will come through the house. Undoubtedly they will include Fairbanks descendants, historic house lovers and hopefully some archaeologists, historians and architectural historians as well. I hope I will be able to learn from them just as they are learning from me.

I am slightly terrified, however, at the thought of trying to remember 8 generations of Fairbanks family history. On top of that I will need to know architectural details and information about the museum pieces. But my excitement is greater than my fear and I can't wait until the house opens and the tours start in May.

If you're coming to Massachusetts in 2012 put the Fairbanks House on your list. You just may have me as your tour guide!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Top 3 Reasons to Check Vital Records

Marriage record of Charles Diggs and
Sarah Grandison, Norwood, MA, 1897
When researching the history of our homes we are anxious to learn who the previous home owners were. We are also curious about the stories of the lives of those who lived there. Census records provide a rich resource to learn about the families who shared our homes. Therefore, you might be tempted to skip research on vital records. After all, you can't learn as much from those as census records, right? Think again! Vital records are key to ensuring you are uncovering the correct stories about former residents.

Here are the Top 3 Reasons to Check Vital Records:

1) Missing Family Members

While it's true that census records can provide occupations, location of birth, marital status, naturalization status and much more, they are only recorded every ten years. That leaves a very large gap between each census. Prior to the 20th century there was a much higher child mortality rate. That means children could have been born and died between census years. A census record showing a family with two children may have actually been a family of eight children originally. In order to accurately reconstruct the families that lived in your home you need to know the entire story. Vital records will allow you to appreciate more fully the families who lived in your home and the hardships they endured in life.

2) Differentiate Between Two Men

Families that are prolific in certain areas, regardless of their ethnic background, tend to produce a lot of children and grandchildren with the same name. Add into the mix common surnames that are found everywhere and you can have a real challenge on your hands with men of the same name in the same time period in your town.

Which John Hill is the one who lived your house? Vital records can start to separate the identities of the two men. It is very unlikely that two men will have exactly the same birth date and death date. Nor will they have the same parents (though their parents very likely could be siblings). Nor will they marry the same woman, though they could marry women with the same first name.

Vital records will provide you will the building blocks to differentiate between men of the same name. Look for birth dates and parents' names on birth records, spouse's name, place of birth and parents' names on marriage records. Likewise check death records for age, birth place, parents' names, marital status and the surviving spouse's name. The information available will vary depending on the time period.

3) Find Probate Records

Probate records are a must for house historians. If you haven't checked probate records you are missing half the story of your house! Probate documents will include wills that reveal details about the family, guardianship documents for men who left orphaned minors behind and estate inventories that provide a window into the items that former residents had in their homes.

Probate records are indexed alphabetically by surname. Other information provided will be the document type, year of the filing and the location.

Without knowing the date of death from vital records it could be very difficult to determine which William Smith is the correct one. Did your man die when he was 25 or 85? Instead of having to sort through two John Hills as in the example above you may have to sort through ten William Smiths over a 70 year time period within the same town.  Also, vital records will reveal the name of the spouse and children of your former homeowner. Locating those names in the probate documents will confirm that you have the right man.

After you have done your deed research, go ahead and check census records! But make sure you stop and research the vital records before moving forward. It will save you time and ensure that you are researching the right families.

Full marriage record of Charles Diggs and Sarah Grandison, 1897, Norwood, MA. This image
has been altered to show the record below the headers.
Source: (click image to enlarge)

Image Source: