Names and Family History

Last week NPR and CBC played a number of a stories focusing on feminism, the life of working women, and women’s right.  Many of these stories were linked to the fact that Friday March 8th was International Women’s Day.  The abundance of discussion relating to feminism and women’s rights cause me to think about the history behind family names and the impact name taking another last name can have upon family and personal history.

A lot of family history is tangled up in a last name.  Family names can connect you to a genealogy, a cultural identity and to a general sense of family.  Granted the patrilineal nature of family names in Western culture connect individual to a specific type of family history, a history connected by the males of the family. 

Other than the personal impact of changing your name (eg. being identified as belonging to a different family group) name changes can also have a significant impact on historical records and digital footprints. In the case of historical records if  a complete set of birth records, marriage certificates and death records are not available it can be difficult to gain a complete picture of life prior to marriage.

Family names used pre-marriage have a tendency to drop off the face of the earth in certain types of records, photographs, legal documents following marriage, personal correspondence, etc.  Genealogy is typically far easier if you are attempting to follow a family line of males than females. In older records where married women were identified by their husband’s name (Mrs. Robert Scott instead of Sally Scott) finding out information about personal identity becomes even more challenged. 

What about in today’s abundance of digital records?  What happens to your digital footprint when you change your name?  I suppose it depends on the type of digital record.  It’s possible to change your facebook profile, twitter account, and google profile to reflect a name change.  You can easily include both last names in these instances.  However, digital records which you didn’t create typically can’t be altered.  For example that news article that mentions your work isn’t going to be altered to reflect your new name.  And what if your new last name is overly common? Would you be better off continuing your digital identity with your less common pre-name change last name?

I’m don’t have a definitive answer. A lot depends on personal preference and what’s important to you as an individual.  Changing your name can have impacts well beyond how your write your signature.  Adopting another person’s family name can impact your sense of family identity, digital identity, and family history.  On the other hand, a name is just one of many things that make up an individual’s identity.

Family Heirlooms: From Cutlery to Adornments

Who else has a relative who collects spoons?  In many instances these relatives tend to be older, female, and the spoons tend to be hanging in a wooden/glass display case of some sort.  My mother, grandmother and a number of aunts all collected spoons at one point or another. 

Theses spoons were often purchased while away on vacation or as a gift when someone else went away.  The spoons come in all shapes and sizes, but most tend to be silver and have a delicate look about them.  They are clearly decorative and not your everyday soup spoon.

Often a spoon collector has a personal story or memory associated with each spoon.  These stories are rarely recorded and often not remembered by anyone other than the collector.  Following a death, many children have given away spoon collections that once represented pieces of family history and material culture. 

I think the lack of appeal of spoon collections to younger generations is one of the reasons why I was so interested by the idea of spoon jewelery.  This Christmas my Mother gave my sister and I spoon bracelets.  These bracelets weren’t made from her spoon collection, but I’d like to think that they were made out of special occasion cutlery that once held a place in a family’s life.

Evening Star Spoon

Each bracelet was accompanied by a card which detailed the make of the original cutlery and a short history of spoon jewellery.  My bracelet was made from a 1950s Evening Star, Oneida Silverplate spoon (pictured at right).  The Evening Star spoon is definitely not as decorative as many of those in typical spoon collections, but it does look as though it belongs to a ‘nice’ antique silverware set, that was maybe only used on special occasions.  

So why make jewelery out of spoons? Spoon jewelry isn’t a new fashion trend, but apparently dates back to the 17th century.  Early spoon jewelry is said to have been predominately rings and was made by servants who had stolen flatware from their masters. Another history claims sailors in the navy would sneak silverware away from a ship galley to make engagement rings for their girlfriends. 

Personally, I like the idea of reusing objects that once held significance to make an item that is cherished by someone else.   Jewelry made out of antique objects that are no longer valued by a family seems like a great way to provide a second life to a family heirloom.  It makes me wonder about how other family collections could be re-purposed—eg. that overwhelming set of teacups your aunt has been storing for years.

Introducing the Archive: Greeting First Time Visitors

The overwhelming majority of visitors to the archive I work at have never been inside an archive before.  Many of the visitors come from outside academia or are undergraduate and high school students stepping into an archive for the first time.  In addition to being new to archives, many visitors are searching for documents relating to their personal or family history. 

How do you frame the uses and potential research value of an archive to new visitors? 
This is often the ‘elevator pitch’ for the archive and includes a condensed version of services, resources, and archival holdings. We emphasize that staff are available to help new researchers, that material is available online (and we can provide instruction on navigating the site), and that material can be copied for research purposes. 

If the visitor is a student, we often point out potential research topics in their field of study, suggest relevant publications, and encourage them to ask questions.  We also remind students of hours and that we aren’t open weekends.

Additionally, all visitors can take a contact card which has our website, email, and phone information on it.  We also have more in-depth pamphlets for those interested. 

How to you facilitate non-academic research? 
Since the majority of our visitors are not engaged in academic research, our reading room contains material to help people research family history.  We have reproduction photo albums which visitors can flip through, media clip binders (copies of newspaper articles), and copies of frequently used government documents which visitors can flip through at their leisure.

Typically, people researching family histories are able to find necessary material without staff ever having to pull anything from the archive.  This cuts down on staff work and the use of reproductions helps preserve original documents and photographs.

How do you greet new visitors at your organization?

Photo credit: Dublin City Public Libraries

Pest Control and Your Family Photos

Mice, silverfish, cockroaches, and a whole pile of other creepy crawlies can do serious damage to your collection of photographs, letters, scrapbooks, and family memorabilia.  This damage can take the form of nesting, eating, and burrowing in your paper based materials.

Most libraries and archives maintain stringent Integrated Pest Management (IPM) systems to protect their holdings from unwanted pests.  These IPM systems are often far too time consuming and expensive for the average person to undertake.  So what can you do to protect your family’s history?

Storage

  • The majority of pests like dark damp places.  Whenever possible avoid storing items in basements, garages, crawlspaces, or attics.
  • If you know where pests may be entering your house, eg. poorly sealed windows or doors, block off the entry route. 
  • When practical store items in sealed containers NOT cardboard boxes that will deteriorate when wet and can easily be entered by most pests. 

Eliminating Pests

  • Preventative action is better than reactive action, but where necessary there are methods you can take to try and eliminate pests. The method you choose will also depend on what type of pest is in your collection and how comfortable you are with each pest control method.
    • React at the first signs of pests – droppings or signs of nesting.  Do not wait for the problem to get worse.
    • Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) has a great chart (page 1 and page 2) that outlines which type of control method is applicable to each pest type.
    • CCI’s full pest management guidelines can be seen here.

What other methods have you used to protect your family’s photographs and documents?

Full Disclosure: This post may have been inspired by encountering my cat playing with a mouse in my living room this morning.