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Let’s start with something completely unrelated. Have you seen Prometheus? In the movie, holograms give glimpses of what happened centuries ago to the life that lived there.
These holograms of past actions, emotions, and life were the most eerie, beautiful and haunting aspect of the movie. Sometimes I find myself overlaying such clips (albeit perhaps not of aliens running and being beheaded) over the rooms of my apartment. We can’t help but be intrigued by the people who once were where we are (and perhaps could still be there if time is indeed non-linear but I’ll save that for another blog post).
And that, helium, brings me to the point of this post, which is a guide to piecing together the history of your house using internet sources. The examples and links I provide will mostly be specific to Urbana, IL as I recently did research into the house we’re moving to there. But, one of the good things about living in a highly bureaucratic society is that the records kept in one city were most likely kept in all!
Read the Wikipedia entry for your city; read the history posted on the city’s official website; browse through a local historical society’s website. Begin a timeline for your research with the date of the city’s start. Be sure to note any changes in name. Add to the timeline key dates in your city’s history to serve as orientation points for later research. If there is a long-standing place of employment near your house (such as a university or factory) briefly read up on it, again noting the date of its beginnings, name changes and any other significant event. If your house has been around for fifty or sixty years, most likely someone living in your house worked at these places at some point and you may be able to find information through their archives.
The University of Illinois has an excellent digital collection with open access for historical maps of Illinois and Champaign County, available here. You want to verify the name of the street your house is on, the cross-streets off your street, and the block number. Make a note of the earliest year for which you were able to confirm street names. Also, keep an eye out for your actual house on these maps as that could save you some work in the next step. Although, if your house is not on these maps it does not necessarily mean anything.
My research strategy is to start with vague and broad search terms and slowly get more specific. There’s a lot of stuff out there so start with this to gauge what sort of research is readily available for your house. When I did this, I found that my house had been included in a survey of Urbana’s 100 Most Significant Buildings (lucky me). This survey was an excellent starting place, it gave me some rough dates and names of key past residents as a foundation for my research. But don’t trust these things too completely…
I researched the Urbana house from afar using internet sources only. When I get to Urbana I will take advantage of archives there, but it is possible to find a ballpark for dates from the comfort of a bar. Start with Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps; however, the maps have low availability online and, especially the early ones, encompass only immediate downtown areas. Next, move on to City Directories. Hopefully the Sanborn maps will have given you an idea of what year to start with the directories. If these options come up empty (and even if they come up fruitful) utilize the print sources at your disposal. Call before visiting your local library. Sometimes these documents will be kept at the main library instead of a branch in the case of public libraries. Sometimes these documents will be in the archives of a local history museum or academic library. In print you should find a full set of Sanborn maps; a full set of city directories; building permits; tax records.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
Check out the Library of Congress’s digital collection of Sanborn maps here. Very few cities have digital maps available through LC, but do not despair! Search for “Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps + your city” and chances are there will be a digital collection specific to your region. Digital copies of the map tend to be blurry and text (i.e. house number or street names) can be difficult to read. It helps to be familiar with the current streets of the area so that you can piece back together the map.
The University of Illinois has a digital collection unfortunately you need U of I affiliation to access them. Contact the library and they will probably work with you for access.
Here is an additional digital collection of maps powered by Proquest; therefore if you are affiliated with any institution subscribed to Proquest, you should be able to access this. (But make sure you access it through your institution’s website).
City directories are amazing, but finding them online will require a bit of luck and living in the right city. If you do find them for your city, you should feel validated in your decision to live there! For Urbana, you can access city directories through the Internet Archive. The directories available begin in 1878 and more or less cover the years to 1936. The later editions have citizens arranged alphabetically and also by street addresses, but the earlier ones list them only alphabetically. However, all hail the almighty power of the internet, you can do a search of the directory and a neat and tidy return takes you to your address.
Some things to keep in mind: before you search, verify the street name (again!). At the front of each city directory is a street guide; use this to verify your street. Remember that if the city directory encompasses more than one city, such as Champaign-Urbana, then your street could be a street in both cities; be careful you find the right one. At the front of the directory is also a guide to abbreviations used; give this a glance over, but you can also come back to it to decipher your findings later.
Start with a city directory that you estimate to be the approximate date of your house’s construction (either approximated from the maps or just the architecture of your house). If you find your address go five years earlier, if you don’t five years later. Slowly hone in on the earliest city directory listing for your address.
Now, part of what makes city directories amazing is their dual purpose. They can be used to date your house and also to find out who lived there. Whenever you come across your address in a city directory, go ahead and jot down the year and the exact entry of the person. This will save you some time in the next step. Which is…
The city directory is the only online source I know of for doing this. If you are supplementing your online search with print, get a hold of deeds, tax information, etc to be thorough. Hopefully you were able to start this step when you were going through the city directories for dates. Go back through the city directories focusing on names. You can go through year by year or skip around some. The goal is not to know who was living in the house every single year, but to know who lived there; when they moved in and when they moved out.
The cool thing about city directories of Urbana is they do not only list the name but occupation of the the resident. For women, they also add the status of ‘widow’ if that was the case. The directory lists each resident of the address so you can tell pretty easily if the house was rented out or single family occupancy.
For your notes, arrange a timeline where you write down names and the date range they are associated with; rather than writing the detailed entry on your timeline, have a separate page where you write down the information about each resident.
With the names and dates, you should have enough to establish some of the basic life facts for the past residents. I’m not very good at navigating the census records. Please correct me in the comments if I am wrong, but I believe there is no easy way to access these records. So census information on individuals is only available pre-1930. For 1930, not all census records are available as they are still in the process of digitizing that. All of the geneology sites (i.e. ancestory.com) allow you to search for these records, but to actually view them you must register. You will be able to start a 14-day free trail. Your other option is to access it through your library if they subscribe to this resource. HertiageQuest powers this. Or, you can go to the library to access print copies of all this.
Now we can move on to the fun part: it is time to hit the searching hard! If you do a basic Google web search with a resident’s name and city, you may get some hits but it will mostly be an onslaught of names and names and names from genealogy websites. I’d recommend skipping over this and jumping straight into more specialized searches.
Go to Google books. First search the street address. Then begin searching each resident’s name. If you get too many irrelevant returns add in an additional search term but not the street address, that is too specific. Try either the state or city. One of the past residents in my house was a professor at the University so he appeared in several of the books in the return.
Go to the public library home page in your area. Find their special collections or history page. Search your address. Search the residents’ names. Search your street. The Urbana Free Library houses the Champaign County Historical Archives, available here. You can search the catalog for their collection online but may not be able to access a digital copy of everything. The Urbana Free Library also handily provides a home research guide for their collection.
Go to a nearby university’s website or a major university in your state. They will also have a collection of local history documents. The University of Illinois tries to make their collections, digital and print, available to everyone as do, I think, many libraries to a certain degree. Contact the library if you are having trouble accessing anything. Speaking from experience, we love it when you pay attention to us!
Go to the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection. Search: names, address. This is open access and you will not be asked for a log on. This returned many results. I found out that a woman living in the house in 1933 suffered a hip fracture after falling down the steps 😦 , in September of 1918 eight girls had a slumber party in the house, in 1907 a “competent girl for general housework” was wanted, and in 1919 a house-fire caused $50 in damage.
Search Illinois Harvest. Again, names and address. Illinois Harvest will comb through multiple collections and databases for you. I did not find anything specific to the house but I did find great photographs of the street a century ago and little bit about one of the residents.
If a past resident has any affiliation with a major organization also visit their website to check for available archives. Again, one of the early residents in my house was a professor at the University. I found his name in some histoical publications put forth by the university such as meeting minutes and alumni magazines.
Hopefully these steps turned up a lot of information for you. Go back through everything you have found and organize it into a single document. Begin with when the house was built. Then do a write-up on each resident with the information you found. If there are any gaps in years or other inconsistencies in your research, note these. Also include the research you did about the city for a backdrop against which the residents can act.
Hopefully this is a decent starting place. The next step is to visit your local library! Best of luck. Please comment if you have any questions, comments, or tricks of the trade to share.