Table of Contents
Where Do You Start?
House Research in Your Area
Even Your Subdivision Has a History
- Story: How I Got Started
Supply List for Beginners
- Story: Only Believe Half of What You Hear
“You’re Not Using a Pen, Are You?”
- Story: “Follow That House History Writer”
Surf the Internet
Go to Class
- Story: House Histories Sometimes Mirror Local History
Follow the Paper Trail and the People Trail
- Story: Reach Out and Touch Someone
Take a Genealogist to Lunch
- Story: Don’t Believe Everything You Hear About Your House
Historical Information is Here and ThereLooking at Visual Clues
“What Style Is My House?”
- Story: Houses Are Not Always What They Seem
Where Are the Plans for My House?
Look for Old House Plan Books
Take Snapshots of Your House
Finding Hidden Treasures in Photo Files
Your House Could Be on a Postcard
Finding Your House on Fire Insurance Maps
- Story: Sanborn Maps and Spies
Don’t Overlook Vintage Aerial Maps
Never Pass Up an Old Map
- Story: Finding the Truth on Old Maps
Bird’s-Eye Views Are Not Just for the Birds
How Was My House Decorated When It Was Built?
Using Vintage Architectural MagazinesSearching for Physical Clues
If Your Walls Could Talk
- Story: Does Your Home Have a Secret Room?
Do You Have a Sears Catalog House?
- Story: The Mystery of the Name on the Window
Did Your Home Come from Another Catalog Company?
- Story: The Porch Swing That Was Meant to Be
Have You Tried a Metal Detector in Your Yard?
- Story: Front Doors in the Basement
Digging Up the Past in Old Privy Holes
- Story: A House-Raising Story
Was Your House Ever Moved?
- Story: House Moving Stories
Uncovering the Original Colors of Your Home
- Story: You Never Know What You’ll Find in an Old Basement
My Home’s Not Historic, But I Want to Fix It Up RightUsing Your Address to Find Information
Who Was the Architect for My Home?
Locating Building Permits for Your House
Utility Records Can Provide Clues
- Story: Don’t Let FOI Forms Scare You
Finding the Original Price of Your Home
Contact Local insurance Companies
Thank the Tax Man!
- Story: Tax Records Can Be Misleading
Ask for Street and House Files
- Story: Just Because It’s Written Down, Doesn’t Mean It’s True!
Is Your Home in a Subdivision?
Is Your Home Listed on an Architectural Survey?
Old Address vs. New AddressWhat Families Owned Your House?
House History Equals Homeowners’ History
- Story: Klondike or Bust!
Where and How to Find Deeds for Your House
- Story: A Deed Does Not Equal a House
“Chaining the Title”
What You Won’t Find on a Deed
Understanding Types of Deeds
- Story: Signed With an X
Squeezing Information from a Deed
- Story: Does “Pfingste” Sound Like “Kingston” to You?
Using the Document Information Forms
- Story: Name Misspellings Can Drive You Knutz
Deciphering Old-Style Script
- Story: No Saloons or Asylums, Please
Your Home May Have Been RentedInvestigating Owners to Learn Even More Let Your Fingers Do the Walking
Census Records Yield Fascinating Details
Ask Churches About People Records
Listening to Oral Histories
Look at Any Lists of People That You Find
Going Once, Going Twice, Sold!
Go to Court
God Bless the Mormon Family History Centers
Nothing but Help
Ask About Donor Files
Look for Homeowners in Local History Books
Search for Vintage Who’s Who Books
Don’t Overlook Old Newspapers
Social Directories Tell You Who Was Who
Newspapers Contain Interesting Tidbits
- Story: Seasick Researchers
Farmer’s Directories Left Nothing Out
Contacting Former Owners of Your Home
- Story: Ghostly Faces at the WindowsClues from Beyond the Grave
Death Indexes Lead to Obituaries
- Story: A Ghost Named Julia
Cemetery Indexes Help You Find Obits
Funeral Homes Can Be Helpful
Obituaries Are Marvelous!
- Story: Obituary Information Solves Puzzle
Where There’s a Will, There’s Information
- Story: A Wealth of Information in WillsCurious About the History of Your Land? Going Back to the Beginning of History
Who Owned Your Land Before Your Home Appeared?
Understanding How Land Was Surveyed
Land Measurement Trivia
“N 18.5 Degrees 3 Chains 5 Links . . .”
“Sw 24 Degrees 3 Chains 6 Links, Ne 110 Degrees 12 Rods …”
Untangling Land Measurements
Landownership Maps Contain Landowners’ Names
Agricultural Censuses Yield Farm InformationMaking Your Own History
Put Your Research Finds in Order
Save Your Research and Memorabilia
Start Your Own Photo Archive
Give Something Back to Your Local Historic Society
Other Sources of Information
State Historic Preservation Offices
Regional Depository Libraries
Vital Records Office
Every vintage home has a story to tell. Yours is no exception. Elaborate Victorian mansions, cozy bungalows of the 1920s, and 1950’s ranch-style homes —all have a unique history. It’s there waiting to be uncovered. This book is your first step on this journey of discovery.
Researching the history of your house is part treasure hunt and part jigsaw puzzle. As you find pieces of information, you’ll put them together to create a picture of your home’s history. You probably won’t find the answers to all of your questions. But you probably will find some fascinating pieces of information that you hadn’t even thought about. For example, as you discover information about your house, you will also learn something about the history of the houses around yours and also the history of your neighborhood.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to move into an older home and find that someone had researched all the previous owners of the home, carefully preserved this information, and recorded any changes that they made to the house? Perhaps they saved photos of snowstorms, weddings, etc. that occurred in the house. Maybe they wrote this information on archival-quality paper and stored it in an acid-free box with suggestions that future owners add their photos, remembrances, and research findings. Every older home should have this kind of information. If your home doesn’t, now is the time to start. This book will guide you every step of the way.
Discovering the History of Your House is a starting point—the first step in discovering and preserving the history of your home. If you simply buy this book, keep it in a safe place, and pass it on to the next owner, you have still taken the first step. The research into your home’s past is an ongoing process. Do a little here and there when you get the chance, keep careful records of what you’ve done, and make sure that the next owner inherits your good work.
You are part of your home’s history, as is every change that you make to the house. Future owners will appreciate any information that you can pass on to them, whether it is something that you uncovered about your home’s past, information about changes you made to the house, or photos of events that took place in your home.
There’s a lot of information in this book. Don’t let that scare you. Not every section applies to your house. The line beneath the section title tells you whether the section applies to your home’s age and location. Many sections apply to all homes, but some are more specific. You can decide which sections will help you find the information you want.
You don’t have to do everything listed in this book, and you don’t have to do it in the order in which it appears. Congratulate yourself for just buying this book and thinking about researching the history of your house. It’s up to you how much research you decide to do, and how much you leave for future owners of your home.
Some final words of advice as you begin the journey of discovery into your home’s past—be patient, be polite, but above all . . . be persistent.
“. . . research can be both fun and addictive”
Researching the History of Your House,
Colorado Historical Society
©2002 by Betsy J. Green
Betsy J. Green
The author of Discovering the History of Your House . . . and Your Neighborhood is a former staff editor of World Book Encyclopedia and associate editor of Reader’s Digest. Green is a noted house historian who has been researching and writing about house histories for over ten years. She has taught house history research at adult educational programs throughout the Chicago area, and has written nominations to list buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Green also regularly presents programs to libraries, historical societies, and community groups.
If you’re keen to become an architectural detective, this intriguing book will get you started. Useful tips abound: if, for instance, you’re looking for old photographs of your home, and you live on a main thoroughfare, check out photos of parades that might have passed by; if you’re looking for information on previous owners, make sure to check for variant spellings of their surname in the relevant documents. In addition, the author steers us toward the right government offices and the appropriate library resources. . . . Wouldn’t it be nice to have a copy on your shelves the next time a would-be house detective asks for help?
“Offers a wealth of small strategies for homeowners to discover an array of historical nuggets about their homesteads. ”
“Judging by the letters and e-mails OHJ receives, Betsy J. Green’s Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood could be a runaway best-seller.”
—Old House Journal
“A fun book to read!”
—Genealogy Works Gallery
“A fun, simple, and “user friendly” step-by-step guide to researching the history of a private home. From surfing the Internet, to following a paper trail, Discovering the History of Your House is a welcome and highly recommended primer to finding out everything you want or need to know about the architectural history of your own home, but didn’t know who or how to ask.”
—Midwest Book Review