One of my favorite books is Jack Larkin’s Where We Lived: Discovering the Places We Once Called Home, (Taunton Press, $40.00). When I pass by an old house I can’t help but wonder about the everyday lives of the original occupants. Larkin lets us peek into that past with gorgeous photographs and fascinating stories. Houses, schools, slave quarters, houses of worship, public structures, and even outhouses. It might sound strange, but his book makes me think about my grandmother.
Every Sunday, we’d take my father’s mother for a drive. The sole purpose was to visit all the places she’d once lived. Most of them were gone. There were just holes in the ground where the houses once stood. One look at my grandmother’s eyes told me she could imagine those ghostly structures. She’d look out the window, a silent witness to her past. Now, of course, I wished she’d shared those memories with us.
A good number of the photos I’ve found for sale show families standing in front of their dwellings. They posed with the pets, their laborers and their horses. Lacking a place or a family name makes it difficult if not impossible to document those images.
Knowing the place would make it easier to find the property. A local history expert could help. There are architectural historians, local genealogists and passionate hobbyists in cities and towns. They love documenting the past in their part of the world.
If you own a photo of a family with a dwelling, take your research to the next level. Tell the story of the family and the house. Here are a few tips:
Did your ancestor own their house? City Directories often use abbreviations that state a person rents or owns.
Use that information to find tax records and land documents for data on costs and layout of the land.
Consult maps to see where your ancestor’s house once stood. Sanborn Insurance maps the layout of the house and details its construction materials.
Find your ancestors in a census record and discover who lived in their house or neighborhood.
Search for pictures of houses in their town by the Library of Congress . Many of the records of the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) a WPA project are available online. Check out the list of resources at the back of Larkin’s book. He includes instructions for finding resources in the HABS database.
Track down the places your ancestors lived and see if they are still standing. Using Google Maps I discovered that my ancestral homesteads are now parking lots and gas stations.
If ancestral houses are still standing, take pictures. Consider donating copies to the local historical society.