Who Needs This Junk? Ephemera as Family History Evidence 1

Looked at the census, check. Got on a major commercial or non-commercial site, check. I think my research is done at last. I do not think so.

We look first for the standard genealogical information of births, marriages and deaths to determine biological descent (we are leaving out adoptions etc.as that would be another whole column). But there is far more to be found that can illuminate our research.

You should always consider using what we archivists call ephemera. What is it, and why is it important? There are several kinds and levels of ephemera.

Do you have scrapbooks? What is in them? Valentine or birthday or funeral cards? I mention the last because I found family that I thought had lost touch with my direct ancestor, as attending her wake in 1935. What about dance cards? Who signed them – your parents or other ancestors? Did that mean that they knew each other, or frequented the same dance halls? Job cards, if they were musicians? A receipt for a play? These kinds of evidence are not strictly genealogical, but can be considered biographical. They provide a bit of information about the person they concern, adding a bit of color to their lives.

Ephemera can provide information to support a fact that you have found, or disprove it as well. But it also, as I just mentioned, can bring the person back to life a little.

Is the item original, or a copy or derivative? Is the information that it contains primary or secondary? Primary sources are documents and records that were created at or around the time that an event occurred, such as a birth, marriage, baptism or death. Someone with personal or actual direct knowledge, such as a witness or officiant, wrote those records. Primary sources are preferred when obtaining and citing genealogical information because they are more likely to be accurate.

Secondary sources are ones that were created at another time. They could include old letters or books. They are usually created or provided by someone remembering past events, and as such might not be completely accurate. For example, a newspaper clipping is - usually - an after the fact description, and is secondary or derivative evidence.

I have heard it said that information is not "evidence" in a vacuum. A 2012 quote from a web site called Genealogy & Family History Stack Exchange says “A dance card belonging to your great grandmother that lists your (future) great grandfather as a partner several years before their marriage is evidence that they knew one another for an extended time before the wedding. If the name is in the handwriting of one or other of them, then that will constitute a primary (that is, first-hand) source of evidence of their meeting.”

From that dance card, I would draw the conclusion, among others, that the couple enjoyed going to dances. Similarly, a collection of old recipes can give you an idea of what the family ate.

There are ephemeral items that do include valuable genealogical information – think about wedding invites (we made our own, and people still talk about the oddly amusing way that we did it!); or perhaps funeral cards, as I mentioned above. Still another could be a baby announcement. Ephemera can contain useful primary genealogical data: funeral cards, wedding invitations, birth announcements, or sympathy cards. Still, most ephemera items are the day-to-day things – they may have clues, such as train or boat tickets (or, recently, airline tickets).

Ephemera can be “home sources”, which I have seen described as a large number of things: a handmade chest or quilt, someone religious medals, or Scouting memorabilia (my own indicates where and when I was in the Boy Scouts, and what rank I achieved. The strange thing is that I still fit into it although the shirt itself is now 60 years old! But that’s another story.

Example of a Scout uniform; Photo Credit: © Larry Naukam

Other ephemeral materials are things like letters, photographs, report cards, and even old diaries.

Family history data websites can fairly be said to only have a part of complete information about someone, and there is usually much more that can be found by a dedicated researcher. I have heard it described as looking to the past to help explain the present. This is not time travelling to the past in a dream; rather it is attempting to imagine what things were like then, to look at the present. And our present is our descendants past! We look to our ancestor’s lives to try and understanding why they did what they did, and how it affects us.

When I’m lucky, information from these bits of “found ephemera” help build a chain of evidence for a claim such a date or place of birth, marriage, or death. In the past family might live at some remove from their family, and before email or telephone, people wrote letters. They do not change when handed from person to person. They are read and kept.

Even a travel guide from the past lets you look at where your family traveled and what they saw, and some of those places that they experienced might still be in existence today for when you visit.

In our family, and of course in may others some one winds up wit the family’s “stuff”. Such memorabilia could include snapshots, movies, slides and family albums. Please label pictures with names at least! A hundred or hundred fishy years later all old people look the same! A clue that I came upon mentioned that one should keep the drug store film processing envelopes – they could include when or where they aware processed and for whom. Anyone with a cell phone camera, ignore that! Well not really – the cell photos that I take have the metadata of when and where I took them baked in, as it were. Even fabrics get into the mix – what if you found your grandparents’ baby socks, which were pink or blue – that’s what they did back in the day, for baby girls and boys.

I got some ideas from having recently presented with a teacher to other teachers at a digital history seminar. I think that these items should be kept in mind: What specific information, details does the source provide? Who wrote it and why? When was it created? How can this be placed in your ancestor’s life and timeline?

We have to realize that everything can have a back-story.

In sum, you do need that junk!


De Groot, Jerome Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016

Geiger, Linda Woodward, "Skillbuilding: Guidelines for Evaluating Genealogical Resources" [2008], Board for Certification of Genealogists.

Meyerink, Kory L., "Evaluation of Evidence," n.d., ProGenealogists

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 3rd ed. Genealogical Publishing Co. Baltimore MD, 2015

Larry Naukam

About Larry Naukam

Larry Naukam holds degrees in Geography, Library Science, and Divinity. He has written for genealogical publications for 30 years. He is very interested in the intersection of computers and genealogy research

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