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A Genealogist In The Archives

Monday, October 22, 2018

Vertical Files...What Are They?

"31 Days of Tips from The Archive Lady"

DAY #22

Vertical Files...What Are They?

In the movie Forrest Gump, actor Tom Hanks playing Forrest Gump says "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what your going to get".

In the archives world it can be said "Vertical files are like a box of chocolates, you never know what your going to get".

Vertical files or Subject files as they are sometimes called can be located in most state and local archives, historical society collections, genealogical society collections, libraries and in some museum collections.  What exactly are vertical files? 

Vertical files are a collection of documents and ephemera that are put in file folders which are then put in filing cabinets and cataloged by surname or subject.  These files could contain just about anything that can fit into a file folder.  Most repositories will create an index by the title on each folder but most of the time what is inside of each folder is not cataloged. Vertical files are sometimes seen as a "catch all" or a "hodgepodge" for all those documents that don't really go anywhere else but should not be discarded.

Vertical file drawer in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Genealogists should be encouraged to ask the archive if they have vertical files. These collections of records could be very valuable for genealogy research. Some archives don't always advertise that they have a collection of vertical files, so it's important that the researcher ask the archivist specifically about this collection. 

Usually you will have to request the files that you would like to look at and the archivist will retrieve them and bring them to you, sometimes only one or two files at a time. Then you will be allowed to go through what is contained in the file and make copies of what is important.  Once you have finished with the file, give it back to the archivist who will then bring other files that have been requested one or two at a time.

            Contents of Parker Surname Vertical File at the Houston County, TN. Archives

Next time you are at your local archive, ask if they have vertical files "you never know what you are going to get".



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Saturday, October 20, 2018

Preserving Old Family Letters

"31 Days of Tips from The Archive Lady"

DAY #20

Preserving Old Family Letters

Stationary, envelopes, postage stamps....what am I describing? Yes, an old fashioned, handwritten letter.

Handwritten letter from Mattie to Miss Alice Reynolds dated October 25, 1903.
Located at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Today, most of us write emails, Tweets, Facebook posts and texts to communicate with our family and friends. When was the last time you sat down and wrote an actual handwritten letter and mailed it to someone? This type of genealogy record source is what I call a "rare genealogical record source" because while the old letters still exist there are practically no new records of this type being produced.

As genealogists, what do we do with these old letters that we have in our family collections? We preserve and archive them!

Before the actual physical archiving starts, I always encourage genealogists to scan or digitize their letters and to transcribe them word for word, that way once you have physically archived them you don't need to handle them as much. Handling them with your hands can cause damage over time if the items are handled a lot.

Original envelope for letter by Miss Mary Carpenter with post mark of December 17, 1889, Erin, Tennessee.
Located at Houston County, Tennessee Archives

When archiving old letters, it is important to keep the original envelope with the letter if it has been saved. There is valuable genealogical information on the envelope that you want to save. My advice is to remove the letter from the envelope, flatten the letter and put both the letter and the envelope into an archival polyester sleeve or into an archival page protector. Store them in an archival file folder or in a 3-ring binder and keep in a dry, dark place where it is preferably as cold as possible. Heat and humidity can destroy your documents, so it is always a good idea to store your records in a cold environment.

Now, how do you find old letters in archives, libraries or any of our wonderful repositories that hold genealogical records? This task can be a bit difficult but if you are diligent you might just get rewarded.

Most old letters will be found in Manuscript Collections. These collections of records are usually arranged by subject, surname or with titles such as "John Doe Papers 1871-1922". Once you have identified a collection that interests you, then you need to look at the finding aid. The finding aid is a document that is produced by the archivist and is an outline of what the collection is all about and will include a list of what is contained in each box. Most of the time the box list is not detailed by what each piece of paper is in each folder but rather it will say "Folder #1: Correspondence 1871-1888". You will have to open the file and read through the correspondence to see if there is anything of interest to your research.

Greeting card with letter sent to Mrs. W.T. Smith of Erin, Tennessee dated 1919.  Notice how small this letter is next to this cell phone. Located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Lastly, let's not forget postcards! Our ancestors were avid users of postcards of all kinds. The preservation methods described earlier in this blog can be used with postcards. Also, postcards will be found in Manuscript Collections the same as old letters. Postcards come in all shapes, sizes and kinds. There are even postcards made from photographs. If you are looking for a photograph of your ancestor, just maybe there is one out there that is on a postcard. 

Postcard to Master Marshall W. Wynns in Erin, Tennessee from L.F.J.
        Located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

While the art of letter writing is no longer in fashion, we as genealogists have an opportunity to peer into our ancestors lives by reading their wonderful letters. The information that could be contained on our ancestors letters help us to put "meat on the bones" of the ones we are researching and helps their story come alive!



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Friday, October 19, 2018

Tips for Small Storage Spaces

"31 Days of Tips from The Archive Lady"

DAY #19

Tips for Small Storage Spaces

Let's face it, as genealogists we can collect a lot of "stuff"! Even if we try to digitize all that we can and do away with as much paper as we can, we sill have genealogy "stuff".

Lyle Family Records Collection, Houston County, TN. Archives

A storage space tip that I can give you is to use nesting boxes. In fact, Gaylord Archival has produced a NEW line of nesting boxes that are great for small spaces.

Nesting boxes are smaller boxes that fit into a larger box. This way you can preserve several different items in small archival boxes and then nest those boxes into a standard archival storage carton.

Gaylord Archival Nesting Boxes

Now you can preserve your smaller family heirlooms in their own box but yet fit these nesting boxes into one large box that fits nicely on a shelf in your closet where it is cool, dark and dry, just the right climate conditions to preserve such items.

Each box is sold separately so you can mix and match box sizes or choose multiples of the same size box to suit the needs of your collection. Once you have filled the smaller boxes you can then layer them as you would like into the large archival storage carton.

Gaylord Archival Nesting Boxes

You can purchase these very useful nesting boxes from their catalog on the
Gaylord Archival Website:

Or you can purchase them from

I have chosen to use these nesting boxes for the Fenton Glass Shoes that I inherited from my Mom after her passing in June of 2017. I have 20 of them which I have wrapped each one with archival tissue paper and put each one in a separate nesting box. Once all the glass shoes have been boxed, I then put all the nesting boxes in the standard archival storage carton. These precious family heirlooms are now protected, preserved and in one box that stores very nicely on my closet shelf.

Fenton Glass Slippers

So, if you have a small space to store your family heirlooms, I would highly recommend Gaylord Archival's NEW Nesting Boxes!

Remember: It's Not All Online, Contact or Visit an Archive Today!!


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(Disclaimer: Gaylord Archival provided me with nesting boxes to try out for this blog post and review.)

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Store Records in the Archives

"31 Days of Tips from The Archive Lady"

DAY #18

Store Records in the Archives

The Mercantile or sometimes called The General Store is where many of our ancestors shopped. There would have been so much to see in these kinds of stores. The penny candy on display in the candy jars, a barrel of crackers, the wheel of cheese and of course the caskets. Yes, I said caskets!

Wiseman & Sykes General Merchandise Letterhead, ca. 1933, Houston County, TN. Archives

Today, when we walk into the mall or our favorite grocery store we will most likely not see caskets for sale. But in the local mercantile, in the 1700's-1900's, it was common to see caskets on display and for sale. It was also common for the mercantile to be the local undertaker or funeral director. The mercantile letterhead would list as part of their services and product offerings "Funeral Director" or "Undertaker".

C.C. Cook & Company Letterhead, ca. 1921, Houston County, TN. Archives

This is why it is important to research the local businesses where our ancestors lived, especially the local mercantile or general store. These businesses generated store ledgers, piles of receipts, accounts payable records and even a record of who bought a casket for their dearly departed. These records could be in an archive, historical society, genealogical society, library or local museum.

Records for the local mercantile could list anything purchased at the store, including caskets. There could be invoices or receipts that specifically list fees for embalming, caskets, clothes to dress the deceased, etc. like this account receipt from the Sparkman General Merchandise Store. When searching for death information on an ancestor, these records could prove to be helpful.

E.P. Sparkman General Merchandise/Funeral Director account invoice, ca. 1939, Houston County, TN. Archives

Records for the local mercantile or general store will be located in either the Vertical Files Collections or the Manuscript Collections in an archive. Ask the archivist about the local stores in the area and if there are records available. The records for the local mercantile can be a gold mine for the genealogist.



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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

5 Steps to Preserving a Scrapbook

"31 Days of Tips from The Archive Lady"

DAY #17

5 Steps To Preserving A Scrapbook

Scrapbooks are a genealogists gold mine! If you ask anyone that knows me, they will tell you that my favorite record collection to do research in and to process in the archive is Scrapbooks!

Scrapbooks are like time capsules, nobody knows what will be found in them until they are opened. There are all kinds of styles of scrapbooks from newspaper clippings, obituary, diary, sports teams, personal history and many more.

Donated Scrapbooks, Houston County, TN. Archives

Maybe you have some scrapbooks that have been inherited from family members. Are they falling apart? Are the contents falling out? Scrapbooks are usually one of those record sources that are handled a lot over time because they are so interesting.

Preserving scrapbooks is actually fairly easy and any home archivist can do it. Here are 5 easy steps:

    1. Digitize each and every page of the scrapbook. You can use a flat bed scanner or you can use your digital camera. Do not use any kind of self-feeding scanner or a hand held scanner, they can potentially damage the pages or the items pasted to the pages.Make sure to digitize the scrapbook in original order from the first page to the last page. 

      2. Purchase archival tissue paper. Get a size that is about 1/4" to 1/2" larger than the scrapbook page. You want to make sure the tissue paper covers the entire page but there is not too much excess. You can cut the tissue paper to size if needed.

        3. Interweaver the tissue paper in-between each and every page of the scrapbook. The tissue paper will act as a shield to protect anything on the pages from bleeding onto or damaging the other page.

        Archival Tissue Paper Interweaved in the Scrapbook, Houston County, TN. Archives

          4. Purchase an archival box that is as close to the size of the scrapbook as possible. Put the scrapbook in the box. If there is still room in the box and the scrapbook is sliding around, crumple up archival tissue paper and tuck it around the scrapbook to secure it in place so that it doesn't move.

          Scrapbook in an Archival Box, Houston County, TN. Archives

            5. Label the box with information about the scrapbook. For instance, "World War II Scrapbook, Belonged to John Jones, 1941-1945". Store in a cool, dry and dark place. Keep away from sunlight and handle the scrapbook as least as possible. Consult with the digital images as much as possible so that damage is not done to the original scrapbook.
              These 5 easy steps to preserve scrapbooks will insure they will survive for many years to come.



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              Tuesday, October 16, 2018

              "31 Days of Tips from The Archive Lady"

              DAY #16

              Unidentified Photographs in the Archives

              You may already know that archives, historical societies, genealogical societies and libraries that have record collections could also have a nice photo collection. I have talked about photographs in the archives on this blog before, see my previous post:

              But did you know that within these photograph collections are most likely a collection of "Unidentified Photographs". The Houston County, Tennessee Archives has some of these types of photographs in our collection. We are always putting these photos on display and asking anyone that is interested to take a look at them and see if they recognize anyone in the photo or the places they were taken.

              Unidentified photograph taken in Dawson Springs, Kentucky. Donated photograph located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives.

              These unidentified photographs could include photos of people and also places. The fact that they are unidentified can mean that the people who work in the archives don't know who or what is in the photograph and there is nothing written on the back of the photograph to help in the identification. They simply came to the archives unidentified.

              When record collections are donated to the archives by patrons, they sometimes include photographs that not even the patron knows where they came from or who they depict. While it's not a high priority for the archivist to research the photographs and try to determine who or what is in them, we do love it when we have researchers come to our archives and want to look at them to try to find their ancestors or the places where their ancestors lived.

              Unidentified photograph. Donated photograph located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives.

              I am always encouraging genealogists to visit the repository where your ancestors lived and look through their photograph collections, if they have them. You might just find a long lost photograph of your ancestor or a photograph of the school where they attended.

              Most photograph collections are processed in the Manuscript Collections section of the archives. Either the archives has put all their photographs in one big collection or most likely the photographs are included in the many separate records collections that the archives houses. The Finding Aid from the various Manuscript Collections would be helpful to you when researching in these repositories. Be prepared to be asked to put on gloves when you handle photographs. The oils and dirt on our hands can transfer to the photographs and cause damage over time.

              Henry Marion Turner and wife Anna Elizabeth (West) Turner (second couple on the right in the back row), rest are unidentified. Located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives.

              Some archives have even digitized their photographs and put them online on their website, so be sure to check out the website of the archives you are interested in researching. Also, before you travel to the archives, give them a phone call and ask them if they have photographs in their collections, this might save you some disappointment.

              Most importantly, remember that archives and record repositories that do have photographs, ones that are clearly identified and ones that are not. It is always beneficial to the genealogists to check out these collections.



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              Monday, October 15, 2018

              Autograph Books in the Archives

              "31 Days of Tips from The Archive Lady"

              DAY #15

              Autograph Books in the Archives

              Many of us enjoy Facebook everyday to keep up with our family members, connect with others researching the same surnames we are and to keep up with the latest news and events.

              Autograph books at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

              Our ancestors used different mediums to connect with friends and family. One of those mediums were autograph books. Many of our ancestors had these types of books and filled them with signatures of friends, family, schoolmates and other people they came in contact with on a daily basis. Sometimes there was just a signature and other times there was a short message of encouragement, a poem or just a pleasant greeting.

              Inside of Autograph books at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

              These autograph books come in all shapes and sizes. Some were leather bound and others had different colored pages. These books were a type of "social media" back in the day and were very popular.

              Autograph book page for Ruth McAuley dated 1893 at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

              These books were very popular with school children, especially graduating seniors to capture their final year of school and to record memories from their school friends.

              Autograph book page for Shirley (Unknown) dated 1938 at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives 

              Some of you may have an autograph book that belonged to your ancestor in your own personal genealogy collection. If you don't, it's possible there could be one located in a local archive collection, historical society or genealogical society collection.

              Autograph book page for Ludelia Marable, Senior at Erin High School 1934-1935 at Houston County, Tennessee Archives

              Autograph books will be located in the Manuscript Collection of a repository. They will probably be part of a larger collection of records. You will need to check the Finding Aid to the individual collection to see if an autograph book is listed as being in the collection.

              Next time you are researching in an archives, ask if they have autograph books and maybe they will have one for your ancestor.



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