Step Six: Search for Social History

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This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Bust Your Brick Wall Challenge

Now that we’ve defined our brick wallcreated a timeline, evaluated our existing evidencesearched for new evidence and resolved conflicts, the next step in the Busting Your Brick Wall Challenge will be to resolve conflicts in the evidence we have before us.

History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul. ~Lord Acton
 Your ancestors were not names and dates and places. They were real living, breathing people just like us. They had joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams. They made choices and just like us, they sometimes made the right choice but sometimes made the wrong one. To truly understand our ancestors, we need to get social. We need Social History.

Why Search for Social History?

If you go and have a look on the about page of my website The Social Historian, you will find this definition:

Social History is not concerned with politics and wars, or kings and presidents, but rather with the lives of ordinary people. It is a view of history from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. Looking through the lens of the past will enhance your understanding of how people lived, worked and played in their daily lives. It is often the minutia of someone’s life that tells the story of who they were and what they believed in. Beyond names and dates, those who came before us have a story to tell, and by learning about their time and place and how they lived in it, we can add to our understanding of who they were.The Social Historian

Where Do I Start?

Everyone’s family is different but the basics are the same. We’ve answered most of the who questions, the when questions and the where questions in the previous five steps but in this step, we need to try to understand why your ancestors did what they did, and how they lived, by using social history. We need to look at the facts and the events in their timeline in the context of the social history of their time and place. We need to research their interests, their neighbourhood and their occupation. We need to understand if they were rich or poor or somewhere in between by learning about the economics of their period in history and by comparing them to their neighbours, friends and acquaintances. We can’t make assumptions and judgments about them based on the reality of the here and now, but rather we need to frame our reference by the history that surrounds them.

In short, we need to get to know our ancestor as if they were our neighbour and we could talk to them over the back fence.

People, Family and Society

Butchers ShopOur ancestors lived in a society, just like we do. We spend time with friends. We go shopping and sometimes we go to church. We go on vacation. Sometimes we get restless and bored. We get involved in our community, or join clubs or activities.

So did our ancestors.

Check out some of the posts over in Community and People on The Social Historian to get some ideas about what you can research.

Domestic Affairs

Next to work, our ancestors spent most of their time in their homes. What were they like? How did they live? What can you learn about the family from the way they were at home, out of the public eye?

There is a section on Domestic Life over on The Social Historian. You could also learn about what they did for fun, how they kept house, what they wore and what they ate, how they felt about their home and their land.

Temporary hospital in black and whiteBirth, Life and Death

Beyond the dates, your ancestors rejoiced about birth and grieved over death. In between, they lived their lives. What was that like?

Check out disasters, crime and medicine over on The Social Historian or research some other topic pertinent to your ancestors.

Work, Wages and Economy

Like us, our ancestors probably had to work to survive. What did they do? Who did they work for? What was their job like? Were they well off or struggling to get to the next pay day?

Check out occupations over on The Social Historian or research the economy of the area they lived in. Find a diary of someone who worked at the same occupation or a book or magazine about what they did to earn their living and try to reconstruct their average work day. Was their job difficult or easy, boring and repetitive or challenging? Did they work long hours at a factory or were they self-employed, always struggling to find work? Was their occupation dangerous? Was it seasonal? Why did they choose to work in their trade? How many different occupations did your ancestor work in over their lifetime? What wages would they have earned and what would those wages have meant in terms of supporting themselves and their family in the economy of their time and place?

Community, Religion and Government

While it is normally not considered to be good manners to talk about religion or government, families certainly did when they gathered around the dinner table. What did your ancestors think about the issues and events in their time?

Check out emigration and military and game changers over on The Social Historian or look for subjects relevant to your family. What religion did they follow? Were they devout or did they just ‘show up’. How did any new government legislation introduced throughout their life affect them? Were they active in their community or did they mostly keep to themselves?

Library BooksWhat Resources Can I Use?

The best resources for social history research are ones that were created in your ancestor’s time, since these will let us understand their time and place without the bias of the present.

Use a variety of sources to get a complete picture since just like in our time, writers often wove their own attitudes, prejudices and points of view into what they wrote.

When it comes to diaries or letters or even newspaper articles, while it would be great if these were about your ancestor, it is still very useful to find these types of materials about other people who shared something with your ancestor that were written in your ancestor’s time, from somewhere near to where they lived. For example, if your ancestor was involved in WW1 and you want to find out more about what he went through during the war, there are many diaries written by WW1 soldiers that have been transcribed and made available online including some posted on firstworldwar.com. There are also many letters from soldiers at the front that have been transcribed and published including some that were shared on the Canadian Great War Project website.

    • Read old books on Google Books or on the Internet Archive.
    • Browse old newspapers.
    • Find old diaries and letters, even if they are not about your family.
    • Read well researched fiction from the time period.
    • Search for theses and scholarly research on relevant subjects.
    • Use Wikipedia. Not only is a great resource for an overview of any subject, the reference links at the bottom of articles are great resources for further reading.
    • Look for websites specializing on an aspect of history that relates.
    • Look for images and audio and even video that speaks to your time and place.

Immerse yourself in your ancestor’s day-to-day existence to really get to know them. Only then can you attempt to answer the why and the how questions about the events in their lives.

Researching Social History on My Brick Wall

Since I’m always writing about social history, I’ve already covered a few topics that relate to my Brown ancestors. George Brown was a file cutter, an occupation that has similarities with the occupation of  file grinders which I wrote about on TSH. I also did some newspaper research and found out quite a bit about the labour unions in Sheffield and I found an excellent description about a main road named Scotland street in the Brown’s neighbourhood. I also learned quite a bit about coaching (of the stage coach variety) when researching an article about Manchester Street Improvements and as inn keepers, my ancestors were no doubt involved in the coaching trade. There are no shortage of topics that I could research to get to know my Brown family better and as I uncover relevant stories, I will add links to them here.

To learn more about getting social with your ancestors, subscribe to The Social Historian bi-weekly newsletter for the hottest resources, tips and tricks to take your social history research to the next level. Tell the stories of your ancestors with the empathy and understanding you gain from learning about their place and time.

Brick Wall Challenge
Write a post about researching social history related to your brick wall ancestors and share a link in the comments below.

Barbara J Starmans is a social historian, freelance writer and obsessed genealogist living in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada and has been doing genealogical research for the past 35 years. She is a graduate of the National Institute for Genealogical Studies in Toronto, Canada with professional learning certificates in General Methodology and in English Records and recently become an instructor for them with an intermediate course on Social History.

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