Holiday Genealogy Gift Ideas Pt. 1: Visual Family Timelines

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary presents the first in a series of genealogy holiday gift ideas: a project to create a historical visual timeline of one or more of your ancestors’ lives.

The countdown clock to the winter holidays is ticking, and if you want to have time to prepare a genealogy gift for your family, you had better get started.

But if you’re like most people, finishing a family history by a looming deadline is a daunting task. So don’t overwhelm yourself—pick a “doable” genealogy project, one that can be completed in a weekend and long before Christmas, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah.

Places of My Ancestor’s Life Booklet

The first genealogy gift idea I’m presenting (there will be more in upcoming blog articles) is a project to create a historical visual timeline of one or more of your ancestors’ lives. You can do this by taking images, presenting them in chronological order, and making them into a small booklet.

I’m lucky to have an impressive collection of images from my family’s past, but don’t worry if you don’t have the same—let GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives and public images from the National Archives tell your tale by supplementing the story with period images of places your family frequented.

photo of an old house with the caption "If These Four Walls Could Talk, They'd Tell a Thousand Tales"

Source: from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

1) Step one is to pick a creative title. If you are stumped, you are welcome to select one of these.

  • Ancestral Home Towns
  • If Walls Could Talk
  • Life in the Past Lane
  • Gleanings from Grandma & Grandpa’s Lives
  • Now and Then: A Look at Where They Lived and Where We Live
  • Old House Tales
  • The Past Is Present Again
  • What Did Our Ancestors’ Home Towns Look Like?

2) Figure out where your ancestors were during specific eras. Create a timeline showing birth, marriage and death dates, but focus on the “dash,” or what occurred between birth – death. (See Linda Ellis’ copyrighted poem at her website www.linda-ellis.com/the-dash-the-dash-poem-by-linda-ellis-.html.)

3) Target hometown hangouts. Did your family get married in a special church or synagogue, or attend special events such as rodeos or the World’s Fair? Did they conduct business at the market, sail from a wharf, or travel cross country in a wagon train? Use these clues to match locations to events that corresponded to their lives.

Enter Last Name

If you can’t find anything pertinent, find something from a person who had a strong influence in their lives. For example, this photo was taken on a family visit to Poland in 1999. Our guide was a history professor who said that Oskar Schindler lived in the apartment building to the left. If your family was affected by the Holocaust, you have my permission to use it in your visual timeline with proper credit.

photo of the Krakow, Poland, apartment building where Oskar Schindler lived

Photo: the Krakow, Poland, apartment building (on left) where Oskar Schindler lived, taken in 1999. Source: from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

4) Are any sites still there that would be familiar to your family? Search for un-copyrighted images in public archives and older newspaper archives. You might also try searching HistoryPin to find images and see what these places looked like in the past. Then contrast those images with current photographs that you have taken yourself or have permission to use. Tip: network on social media sites to see if any friends can take out-of-your-area photos for you to use.

5) Add historical maps to pinpoint events and locations during your ancestors’ lives. Everyone loves to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors and you’ll find an interesting selection in GenealogyBank’s Historical Maps section.

map showing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's trip to the Pacific coast, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 4 October 1937

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 4 October 1937, page 2

6) Compile your image findings into sequential order. Add appropriate captions, and consider keeping them short to inspire the younger set to pursue genealogy.

7) Create a family history scrapbook, or upload this new family heirloom to an online service that creates photo books on demand. Your family will enjoy this special genealogy gift for many years to come.

The following are examples to inspire you.

Massachusetts

If your family came early to America, they probably went through Massachusetts or settled in one of that state’s many historic cities. Perhaps they visited the house shown below, that was built in 1666 and still owned by the Moulton family in 1905. Its style is reminiscent of the John Howland House, built the same year in Plymouth.

article about the Moulton family home, Patriot newspaper article 13 October 1905

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 13 October 1905, page 12

New Jersey

Because of its delightful history, the Trenton Times ran a series on “Old Landmarks Around Town.” If you have Trenton roots, take time to read them. Example Number 48 below, reprinted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, displays a Quaker meeting house that existed when Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776.

article about the Quaker meeting house in Trenton, New Jersey, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 29 July 1897

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 29 July 1897, page 3

Pennsylvania

There are few states in our country with more history than Pennsylvania, and especially Philadelphia. So pull photos of Philly’s past, along with supplemental articles and advertisements.

Enter Last Name

An example is this advertisement for the Franklin Restaurant and Cafe which opened in 1842 at 105 Chestnut Street. Although no longer there, click the link to see where this address is in relation to the Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing.

The Franklin Restaurant and Cafe, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 13 June 1842

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 13 June 1842, page 1

By 1897, many of Philadelphia’s early landmarks were disappearing. This old news article mentions a familiar view at the southeast corner of Broad and Chestnut Streets.

The caption notes that there was a railroad ticket office in this building, and that it was the setting for the old Cornucopia Restaurant which fed the populace in large numbers. If your family was in this area during the 19th Century, it is likely they partook of at least one meal in this establishment, or met at the tavern that had been there previously. Taverns were popular meeting places and served as backdrops for many of the meetings of our founding fathers.

Old Landmarks Disappearing, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 29 July 1897

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 29 July 1897, page 3

Diaries and Journeys

If you find enough material from your ancestors’ home towns, stop there. However, an interesting addition would be to add images from journeys made across country, or quotes from period diaries such as this one:

13th Oct. (1858). A drive of six miles brought us to Paint Rock, where we pass into Tennessee. Near Paint Rock we pass the chimney rocks, a great curiosity; they are in North Carolina. The Paint Rock is said to be 1000 feet high and appears to lean over the road, in fact looks dangerous, but I presume it was planted there until eternity by our Creator. Day’s travel 18 miles. We take the road to Dewetts Bridge, and camp for the day.

—from the diary of John C. Darr

See: http://www.argenweb.net/pope/wagon.html

If your family journeyed west or elsewhere, get inspired by weaving their travels into your tale. Include memories of the adventure, and if you are not fortunate to have a family diary, quote one from the time period. Add images such as prairies, wagon trains or even locomotives, many of which are found in old newspapers.

article about antique trains, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 9 July 1893

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 9 July 1893, page 23

Happy Holidays to one and all, and good luck with your holiday genealogy gift projects!

Related Genealogy Gifts Articles:

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5 ‘Must-Haves’ on a Genealogist’s Dream Christmas Gift List

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott lets his imagination loose and dreams up five fantastical genealogy gifts he’d like to receive this Christmas.

As lovers of genealogy and our families’ history there are two things we can all take for granted: the first is that we are always on Santa’s “Nice List,” and the second is that there are always a multitude of new gadgets, books, and gizmos that we put on our list for Santa when this festive time of year rolls around. One of my very favorite Christmas gifts was from my wife, and was a “one-a-day” genealogy calendar with this quote on January 1st: “I used to have a life and then I started doing genealogy!”

Recently, while I was searching through GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, I got into the Christmas spirit—and I spent some time thinking about what my Genealogy Dream List for Santa would be if I ever got on the Jolly Old Elf’s special list: the one titled “These genealogists were SO nice they get whatever they want—money is no object!”

These are my five dream genealogy gifts, inspired by newspaper articles I read:

Ground-Penetrating Radar Unit

  • My own Ground-Penetrating Radar Unit for those cemeteries I visit that are not very well marked or not marked at all. Cost: around $40,000—but I am only asking for one! You see I was reading an article in a 2005 Vermont newspaper that told the story of some local folks using ground-penetrating radar to try and locate Native American remains.

Abenaki Remains Lie in Alburg, page 1, St. Albans Daily Messenger newspaper article 19 December 2005

Abenaki Remains Lie in Alburg, page 2, St. Albans Daily Messenger newspaper article 19 December 2005

St. Albans Daily Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont), 19 December 2005, pages 1-2

Google Street View Car

  • How about a Google Street View Vehicle with a camera for viewing any place on earth when I want to see where my ancestors used to live? Cost: Google headquarters did not return my call asking for their pricing for one of these vehicles—but I am sure, dear Santa, you have all the clout you need, even with Google, to make this happen. After reading an article in a 2008 Illinois newspaper, I decided to add this vehicle to my list. By the way Santa, I hope you are up-to-date on this technology, since I have learned that Google now has their Street View cameras mounted not only on cars, but also on snowmobiles, trolleys, bikes, and even backpacks.

Genealogy Tip: There is an app that will overlay Google Street View with historical images called HistoryPin. It is free to use.

Google Map Feature Now Gives People Close Look at Rockford Streets, Register Star newspaper article 28 March 2008

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 28 March 2008, page 31

NASA Spy Satellite

  • I also “need” my own NASA Spy Satellite, so that I can get truly awesome aerial views of anywhere on earth my ancestors might have lived (and I bet a few terrific sunrise and sunset photos in my free time). Cost: $500 million in 1988 dollars. Just so you know Santa, I got this price tag from an article in a 1988 South Dakota newspaper that referred to a “Lacrosse” model satellite. I realize the price may be a bit higher now than in 1988, but I like the comment in this article that a Lacrosse satellite would provide “extremely sharp” images. So please, Santa, if you have to modernize this request, keep the “extremely sharp” images requirement in mind.

Genealogy Tip: Google Earth may be the next best thing for aerial views. It is free to download and use.

Invisible Shuttle Countdown Clock, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 29 November 1988

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 29 November 1988, page 8

Top-of-the-Line Magnifying Glass

  • A really top-grade Magnifying Glass is also on my list. I got the basic idea for this from a fascinating article about the use of magnifying glasses in ancient times, from an 1893 South Carolina newspaper. I’m not interested in just any magnifying glass, however—I have discovered that there is a Swarovski Crystals magnifying glass encrusted in jewels. This would look just lovely on my desk! Even though the advertisement I read didn’t list the price, I am sure you can swing getting me one, Santa…or maybe a matching pair so that my wife doesn’t feel slighted!
Evidence of the Existence of the Magnifying Glass in Ancient Times, State newspaper article 10 September 1893

State (Columbia, South Carolina), 10 September 1893, page 6

“Wayback” Machine

  • I have just one more gift request if you would, Santa. If the spirit moves you to assign some of your elves to working on a new, sure-to-be-popular gift, how about this idea? My inspiration came from a 1981 California newspaper article titled “All-Time Top 40 TV’s Best? Try These.” I noticed the inclusion of one of my favorite shows as a youngster, Rocky and His Friends, which triggered my imagination. I recalled that my favorite segment on the show was “Peabody’s Improbable History” and his instruction to his assistant, Sherman, to “Set the Wayback Machine.” The more I think about it, the more I am sure every genealogist in the world would stand in any line necessary to get their own Wayback Machine. It’s a surefire winner—and my last Christmas gift request.
Rocky and His Friends, San Diego Union newspaper article 25 October 1981

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 25 October 1981, page 211

So tell me…what would you have on your Ultimate Genealogy Christmas List for Santa?

GenealogyBank Gift Memberships

All kidding aside, there is one practical gift you can give yourself or the genealogist on your Christmas shopping list: GenealogyBank is now offering Gift Memberships!

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