As new homeowners of a bit of an old fixer-upper, my husband and I had to immediately set to work meeting with contractors, making decisions, and opening up cans of paint, elbow grease, and general whoop-ass. After sitting at a desk all day writing and researching, it felt great to spend some time mudding walls, fixing windows, and making the old place shine. However, no architectural historian can spend much time in an old place without asking questions, and soon enough, the search was on!
Have you always wondered who built your house or heard anecdotes from neighbors about past owners that intrigued you? Regardless of whether your house is a midcentury ranch or a two-hundred-year-old relic, your house has a story waiting to be discovered. Here are some tips and tricks to get your search for your home’s history started!
1. Chain of title
A title search, which records previous owners and sales of a property, is required in most property transactions. If you just bought your house, you may have a copy! If not, you can track down this information by going to your county records office or (if you’re very lucky) searching scanned records online. Start with the current owner and take a look at the most recent sale; it should reference the book and page number of the sale prior. Keep following the chain, and you’ll be able to develop an outline of all the people who have called your place home. Usually you don’t get much more than owners’ names and the metes and bounds of the property, but you can sometimes find interesting tidbits the further you go back!
2. City directories
You can usually find these at your library’s local history room or local historical society, and some are digitized and available online on websites like Ancestry or Family Search. I prefer working with the hard copies, personally. As of the early twentieth century, many directories have an address lookup. (This is perfect if you haven’t been able to do a chain of title and all you know is the address!) By looking up the address, you’ll be able to find the name of the person living there, regardless of whether they own or rent. Once you have that, look them up by name — often, you’ll be able to find information about what they did for a living and where they worked.
3. Historic maps
Sanborn Insurance Company maps, which were created between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, are a fascinating and invaluable tool for building researchers, particularly in urban areas. The maps show the footprint of the building and porches and offer a sense of how the building is being used. These can be very helpful for tracking changes to buildings over time (additions, etc). You might find copies online through ProQuest at your library, digitized through a university collection, or the original hard copies at your local library or historical society. Sanborn maps helped us discover that one of our outbuildings was used as a blacksmith shop!
Many historic maps are available online these days. Historic Mapworks and the David Rumsey Map Collection are a great place to start for online resources. Your local library and historical society may have additional maps that you can examine as well. Often, these historic maps show the name of an owner, a dot marking a building, and occasionally lot lines.
Once you have the name of an owner, look them up in the census. Websites like Ancestry and Family Search make looking up this information easy; your library likely has a subscription to one of these sites. The census can help you quickly track down owners and give you an idea of how many people lived at your house, their ages and occupations, and where they were born. The census can also provide an interesting snapshot of who was living on your street — were they all immigrants, white-collar workers with live-in servants, or perhaps a community of African-American families who had moved as part of the Great Migration?
5. Google books:
Try putting a past owner’s name or part of your address (e.g., “54 John” Chicago) in quotation marks. Sometimes you’ll find nothing, but you never know. I once dug up a Field and Stream article that gave me insights about a person I wouldn’t have found any other way!
6. Newspaper articles
I’ve saved the best for last. More and more historic newspapers are being digitized, and we historians are endlessly thankful. (Even in this day and age, I’ll admit to having spent thousands of hours reading newspapers at a microfilm machine. Digitization and text-searchability are wonders.) Many universities and regions have newspaper digitization initiatives; I’ve also run across the odd private site.
Try searching the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America collection or the America’s Historical Newspaper’s collection (available through most libraries) to start. Type in a name or your address and see what comes up! Expect to find some deaths and weddings and perhaps some dirty laundry. We discovered a child who had been living at our house in the 1950s took his father’s car and ran it into a building down the street! (Kids those days…)
With a little patience and persistence, you’ll soon begin uncovering the story of a hardworking couple from the West Indies making their way in a new country; a recent veteran buying a shiny new home for his young family; a widow successfully running a family farm; a visionary developer building a neighborhood; or perhaps a blacksmith with high aspirations. What’s your home’s history?