Thursday, April 10, 2014

Family Treasures and the Stories They Tell

By Susan M. Hughes

In February 2014 I joined the American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association as the new Director. Since coming to Upstate New York 14 year ago, I’ve taught many workshops to diverse audiences. One problem I’ve seen in many archives is how to interpret those non-traditional materials found in collections. The following is adapted from a workshop I developed in answer to that problem. I hope it gives you some insight into your personal collections; not only how to make use of them today, but how to make them speak to future generations.   

Family history is more than just birth, marriage and death dates – it’s the story of your family’s interactions with the community.  Sources for these histories, provided by written documentation as well as oral tradition, are valuable to family members, historians, and the community.  The records used to research family history are an important part of our documentary heritage providing a direct link to our common past.  Your family’s history lives in documents like photographs, letters, legal and financial papers, artistic works, news clippings, home movies, diaries and journals. All those materials that document interaction - and sometimes clutter our homes and offices - are the stuff of history. 

Why document? Our story and that of our ancestors is the story of our community, our country and our world.  That story becomes history when it is organized and preserved for future generations.  Documentation is the process of identifying, collecting and making available records of historical value; it supplies researchers with the raw materials of history and ensures a more comprehensive historical record when groups and topics out of the mainstream are included. The decisions we make in the present and will make in the future depend on our understanding – or misunderstanding – of the past. 

Here are some underused but invaluable resources for family history: 

Recipes and cookbooks 
One genealogy magazine stated, “Food equals nostalgia” – how true! Culinary history has become a rich resource used by social historians to understand local, regional and national history.  The sharing and passing-down of recipes ties us to our family, our ethnicity and to changes in American culture. Ingredients can help date a recipe. For example, processed  foods date primarily from the 20th century.  Frozen foods weren’t available commercially until 1924, although canned foods were produced in England as early as 1815. 

Quilts and textiles 
Every quilt has a story that should be told. Many times they were used to record events such as births or marriages, but the fabrics and patterns can give us clues as well. Fabrics can indicate the owner’s economic situation: small pieces sewn together to make a larger quilt patch may indicate a lack of funds so every scarp was saved, while large uncut patches of fabric or fancy paisleys may show a woman who had the means to purchase fabric specifically for quilt-making. When wars ended, many quilters used the fabrics from uniforms of returning and lost soldiers to make quilts. Signature quilts were made as gifts for prominent community members, such as clergy. A census record in thread! Clothing fashions also responded to current events – women’s clothing became less structured and skirts shorter as more women worked outside the home; military styles in both men’s and women’s dress show up during and after wartime.

Artifacts such as vintage tools, toys, artwork, etc. 
Start investigating the stories behind your family treasures. How did it come into your possession and who owned it originally?  Are there stories associated with it?  It seems like nothing evokes memories and conversation like old toys! Toys, like the textiles mentioned earlier, are reflections of popular culture, trends and fashions. And don’t forget about those professional tools – not only who used them, but how they were used. Finally, commemorative items like medals, ribbons or pins reflect the ways in which we choose to memorialize special events. The fact that the item was saved shows the importance attached to it by its owner. Notice, though, that these items are not as personalized as similar items are today which makes recording to whom they belonged and why even more imperative.

Oral histories and "family lore" 
The artifact we’ve just discussed can be our touchstones: they evoke memories and bring forth stories. Oral history is a method of gathering and preserving memories that relies on the spoken word. It is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, now using digital technologies. It presents the opportunity for those people “hidden” from history to have their voices heard and can provide new insights that challenge our view of the past. And don’t dismiss family lore! There’s often a kernel of truth to be found in it, it’s just gotten embellished over the years. 

How do we document using these non-written sources? Documentation often involves creating new records to help fill gaps in the historical record. Think who, what, when, where and why? Standardized documentation forms are very helpful. When encountering a group or collection of items, be aware of items stored together: sometimes one item gives a clue about another item stored with it, similar to what archivists call original order

Silver baby cup engraved "Mary Sherman Pomeroy from Uncle Porter, 1870"
The Pomeroy Collection holds the petite silver cup shown in the photo. It came into the collection in 2002 from an estate auction but, unfortunately, we had no one to interview regarding its origins and the people whose names are engraved on it. Additionally, an elegant silver cup, richly detailed and marked “English Sterling” on the bottom, seems somewhat out of place for rural Cortland County in the mid-Nineteenth Century. Would one have easy access to a purveyor of such an extravagant item?

We started with what we knew: we found a Mary Sherman Pomeroy born 1870 in Brooklyn, NY. Her father was Julius Pomeroy and her mother was Frances Elvena Sherman. Frances Elvena was born and died in Homer, Cortland County, New York - consistent with the location of the estate sale. Furthermore, Frances had a brother named Porter, also born in Homer. That’s our Uncle Porter! But Mary was born in Brooklyn and, as it turns out, that’s where her uncle, Porter Sherman, died. Living in Brooklyn around 1870 would certainly give more ready access to shops in New York City selling merchandise like an engraved silver piece.

Now we had who - Mary Sherman Pomeroy and her uncle Porter Sherman, what - an elegantly engraved sterling silver baby cup, when - 1870, where - Borough of Brooklyn, New York City and the Village of Homer. But we needed why: if Mary was born in Brooklyn in 1870 and Uncle Porter died in Brooklyn in 1901, why did this cup end up in Homer in 2002? An investigation of vital records, census data, court records and other sources helped us piece together the answer.

In 1858, Frances Elvena Pomeroy of Homer, Cortland County, married Julius Pomeroy, a young lawyer living with a relative in Brooklyn. Elvena, as she was known, had an older brother named Porter living in Brooklyn at the same time. Elvena and Julius settled in Brooklyn and baby Mary was born in 1870. Unfortunately, Probate records show that Julius died in 1877, leaving Elvena and 5 children. Soon after, Elvena moved back to Homer to raise her children in the house she and her brothers had inherited from their father in 1869, apparently taking the silver baby cup with the rest of the family’s possessions. Porter remained in Brooklyn until his death in 1901. The recipient of the little silver cup, Mary, married a young man from Homer named Lewis Tuthill in 1895 and moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota where she died in 1908 at age 38, having no children. Elvena outlived both Mary and Porter, dying in 1913.

A little silver cup unveils a family’s history. Who could have guessed it would end up in the possession of a cousin (fourth cousin twice removed, to be precise) in such a serendipitous manner as being spotted at an estate sale by someone who knew Bill Pomeroy’s passion for family history? Mary Sherman Pomeroy Tuthill has told us her story. 

Notes: here are some resources to help you document your family’s treasures

The Food Timeline 
Quilt History Timeline 
Fashion Institute of Technology Costume & Textile Collections 
Solemates: The Century in Shoes 
Graphic Atlas: identification of prints and photographs

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