Making the walls speak: Tracking down your house’s hidden offbeat history

Guest post by stealmystapler

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.

4. Census:

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?

Comments on Making the walls speak: Tracking down your house’s hidden offbeat history

  1. Great tips! I’ve got one more place to check, which I discovered by accident: your city’s construction office. Any permits that have been pulled over the years should be on file with them. Granted, not everyone pulls permits for everything. Thanks to our local construction office we were able to put together a few details like when the 2nd floor was added, and when the central air was put in.

    In our area these records aren’t online at all, and I only found out they existed when I called trying to find out if there was a plot plan on file for our property.

    • That is a good one! I’m always reluctant to mention that because YMMV. Every municipality seems to start putting building codes in place at different times, and I deal with a lot of houses that have a lot of time that predates codes and permits.

      Here’s a good building research tip, though – you can always tell when a bathroom (and occasionally a kitchen) was updated. If you look under the sink, the toilet lid, and some tubs, you’ll see the date that they were created stamped into them – something to do with QC/recordkeeping on the factory end. You can usually guess that that the fixture was installed within a year or two after that date. They’ve been doing it for a long time too – the oldest sink I’ve personally seen with a date stamp was 1892!

  2. I’m going to have to apply some of these tips to house I grew up in. My parents have found some conflicting information about when it was built, I suspect because it started out as part of a sawmill.. Then burned and was rebuilt as a house. The original burnt support beams are still in place but sadly no dates printed anywhere on the foundation 🙁

    • Very cool! I’d definitely start with historic maps in your case, K. Most counties in the US commissioned an atlas during the late 19th century that shows owner information. Mapworks and Rumsey can have those online, as well as universities and libraries with digital collections. Mills are often mentioned in county histories as well, and I bet that fire was covered in the newspaper!

      • I’ll have to check that out! I’ve gone through some items that the historical society in my hometown has posted online but nothing I’ve found has been too specific regarding the mills in the area around my parent’s home – probably because there were so many in the 1800s (Western Maine – lots of trees = lots of sawmills and toothpick mills). Maybe this will give me some stronger leads to follow!

    • If you are willing to drop some $ there are companies out there that will take a core from your beams and date the home to within a couple of years using the annual rings in the wood.

  3. When my son was in the fifth grade, his spring project was to research our house. Oh my gosh, it was brilliantly fun! I highly recommend it to everyone. We happen to live in a city where almost all the homes were built within 20 years (fore and aft) of the first world war, so the whole class came back to school with super fascinating stories. This was pre-internet, so it was a true lesson in sleuthing history! We trudged down to the Historical Society and to the main public library to look up plats, city directories, architectural and building plans, newspaper accounts, etc. It was eye-opening to see how our home sprung up on farm land in what is now the inner city. We were especially tickled to discover chicken coop plans added on during the second world war (Victory Gardens!).

    When all was said and done, we’d been able to track our 1918 row house from farmland to the builder to the builder’s son to a DC cop (who made some seriously hilarious renovation choices during the fly 70s). Sadly, after a murky couple of years following a deep drop in housing values after the riots, the house was foreclosed on and converted to welfare housing where it served the homeless for a decade before being assumed by HUD who sold it to us. Oh, the stories I could tell of living in a neighborhood lit up by flood lights during the summer to chase the drug traffic away! Yeah, it was dangerous, but no one in my neighborhood was a threat to me. In fact, some of the most notorious drug dealers in DC (i.e. Rayful Edmond territory) protected us from harm.

    Painful though it still is to describe, five years later, when DC housing gentrified seemingly overnight, our house was stolen out from under us by an unscrupulous mortgage company who bought and sold my mortgage without telling me (this particular practice was exposed and outlawed a few years later, but it was too late to help us). So, even as we left what we thought was our forever home defeated and depressed by the greed and illegalities of bank practices rampant at the time, we certainly didn’t wish the new owners any ill will or bad mojo, so my son and I left a copy of his research project behind for the next family hoping it would bring them as much joy reading it as it was for him to pull it together. We added a picture of us to the pack page.

  4. This is perfectly timed. We have lived in our house for a year and a half now. We moved in thinking we had your typical updated ranch but found out our house has a pretty cool and old history. While out gardening on the first warm weekend after moving in a car pulled up out front with an elderly woman (maybe 85-90 yrs old) and a middle age woman driving. My husband went over to say hi thinking it was a neighbor we hadn’t met. Turned the younger woman had driven her grandmother over to see her childhood house. She told us all about how her father built the house when he asked his wife to marry him (her mother). He and his neighbors banded together to build houses for the African American families who couldn’t get bank loans to buy or build a house. These tiny little houses are dotted through our neighborhood and I had no idea that the main portion of our house is one of these old structures. After looking at some building permits it looks like a previous owner opened up the original shotgun house and added an addition on the back for the bedrooms.

    • Also, in researching our house this past year we have learned so much about the early history of housing discrimination. Every time we learn something new it is equal parts fascinating and disheartening. But as we start to fix up our little house all this information has informed some of our decisions to make sure we honor this history.

      • Keren – Absolutely agreed that the history of housing discrimination as well as the ways that individuals and families achieved the goal of becoming homeowners both before and after discriminatory laws became formalized is both fascinating and disheartening. If you’re interested in learning more, Andrew Wiese’s Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the 20th Century is a great book and sounds like it might be right up your alley!

  5. When we moved into our house it still had the pre-1968 covenant on it for the neighborhood that “no Negros, Jews or Chinamen” could live there. We, a Jewish family, bought it from a Chinese-American family….and had the covenant removed. There was also a “no commercial stables” rule on the title. That just made us laugh, as we live in a city.

  6. Our home’s history is short. It (a small one-story ranch) was built in the 1940’s alongside a main road, and was initially a home. Then it was converted to the office building for a car dealership, and then in the late 1980’s someone bought the house itself, and moved it two miles down the road to a more rural location and placed it on a new daylight basement foundation. Sooo…although it’s a ranch, the front looks like two stories because the walkout part of the basement is in the front. Kind of awkward.

    From there, the owner turned it into a duplex (top floor and finished basement floor), and rented it out to various people over the years. Somewhere along the lines, a big building was built alongside the house for a karate studio, which went under pretty quickly. A few years ago, the current owner decided she no longer wanted to be a landlord, and decided to sell the house and the karate building along with the ten acres it now sits on. She evicted the tenants, went to clean out the house to get it ready to sell, found the place trashed, and found a LIVE ANACONDA SNAKE abandoned in a tank in the basement apartment. She called the police, who called animal control, who determined that it was not a species of snake legal to own in Maine, so they called the warden service (who deals with wildlife and illegal species), who sent over a couple of wardens (including my husband) to remove the snake. My husband and I had been house hunting for two years, and had physically visited over a hundred houses for sale. As he and the other wardens removed the abandoned anaconda, he learned that the house was getting put up for sale that day, he looked around at the solid foundation, the large outbuilding, and the ten gorgeous acres….and called me to tell me to get out of work early so we could put and offer in on the house before it was listed. So we did, and ended up getting the house. We’re turning it into a small hobby farm, which I wanted to name Anaconda Acres, but he won’t have it.

    Other than that, all we know about the history of the house was that supposedly someone committed suicide in the house, but that’s just a rumor. When we mentioned this rumor to the new couple who bought the house next door, the wife offered to come over to do a sage smudge to “remove bad spirits”………..Being an atheist and a skeptic, I had to change the subject quickly rather than find an awkward refusal.

  7. I’m on the other side of this equation… Although I’m somewhat interested in my home’s 40 year history, what I really want to know is who is living in my grandparent’s home and what it looks like now. My father and his siblings sold the home after my grandmother passed away, but the old brick house had been lived in for almost 100 years by my grandmother. She was born in a house just down the street and then her father had built or added on to this new house later. My father was raised in it. That house is so dear to me and I will never see it again. I heard from an aunt that talked to the new owners once and said they were into antiques, which made me smile. At least the house is probably being taken care of. My other grandparent’s house is still sitting empty after being purchased a few years ago. It makes me sad, but I know what it looks like inside, after the “modernizations” were added/upgraded to sell it. I wish there was a way to keep in touch with houses… I have thought about writing letters to the live in owners but it seems like that kind of contact could be unwanted. I’m sure not everyone wants to hear from strangers asking for pictures of the inside of the house or cares what happened before they purchased it… Any suggestions?

  8. I would love to do some research on my parents’ house in Michigan. From the style and the era in which it was built, we’ve always known it was one of the original farmhouses back before the land was a suburb. When we first moved in, my mom was preparing a garden bed on the side of our house and she dug up bricks with our families’ last name on them! She was completely freaked out until my dad came home and told her that his great-grandfather had owned a brick factory in Nebraska. She took it as a sign that we were meant to be there, haha, but I’ve always wondered about the stories and history surrounding that place.

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