Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Closing of NARA - Pittsfield

The October 2011 Future?

By now, you’ve probably heard that David S. Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, has announced the October 1, 2011 closing of the National Archives regional research facility in Pittsfield, Massachusetts  - the Silvio O. Conte National Records Center - under the benign heading of “cost-savings.” Originally buried way, way down in an earlier memo about other cost savings at NARA, the Pittsfield closing is now addressed in a separate statement that can be found on the National Archives website here. 

Now, while the Archivist himself seems to be one of the “good guys” and is doing some really good things in Washington, this is not one of them.  Frankly, this is the kind of decision that likely comes from somewhere much further down the chain of command and has been made because it makes “political” sense to a lower-level bureaucrat who had been tasked with finding some highly visible “cost savings”. 

Read the Archivist’s statement carefully.  It says that the two employees who staff the operation known in National Archives-speak as “The Pittsfield Annex”  “…will be offered positions at other facilities within the National Archives system and we will pay for their relocation expenses.” So, there will be little, if any savings, in personnel costs.  People will still be paid.  Then, the savings must therefore be coming from closing the building, right?   But yet, further down, the statement admits, “The closure of the Pittsfield Annex will not impact the records center operation in Pittsfield.  Bear in mind that the public research room that’s going to be closed occupies only a small part of the building in Pittsfield; the rest is used by NARA for record storage and will remain open. 

So - the building stays open, and the heat, light and other operations costs stay in place.  Only the part that directly serves the public – and genealogists in particular - is going away.

Could it be about appearances, not really about finance or logic? 

For many years, I used to be a bureaucrat, fairly high up the food chain, who reported directly to a chief elected official.  I know how to play this kind of budget game and, when necessary, how to game the system.  I recognize what’s in play here with a decision like this.

It lets the Archives administration say, “Look – we shut down one of our regional facilities. A whole facility, not just a part of a program! See, we’re really on board with this ‘do more with less’ idea.”  The Pittsfield closure becomes the bright, shiny new thing for NARA bureaucrats to wave in the faces of those who think that the Feds spend way too much on everything and who likely think that the National Archives itself is an unnecessary frill.

NARA – Pittsfield is a politically easy target, because it is a very small facility with only two paid employees, somewhat out of sight and off the urban beaten path, and very cheap to operate.  (It’s low-cost Pittsfield – not suburban Washington, after all.) Since NARA will continue to operate  the Pittsfield building for its other ongoing storage operations, there won’t be much – if any – savings in that regard. The building will still be heated, lighted and cleaned.  And since, as the memo says, the research room employees will be offered positions elsewhere within the system, where are the actual savings going to come from?  

 Pencils? Note pads? Toilet paper?

The actual dollar cost savings – in the great “Federal Spending” scheme of things – will be inconsequential. Bluntly, from what I know of government budgeting, I’m guessing that the entire annual operations costs of NARA – Pittsfield could be paid for with the amount of money that’s spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the next, say, 43 seconds or so.  That’s right, in less than a minute.

But it’s just the kind of action that people will look at, nod sagely and say, “Yes, that makes sense.  Good idea. Saving money and all that.  Had to be done.  They’re not supposed to think too hard about the actual numbers, because then the “good idea” starts to turn all misty and unicorn-like. Pretty soon, it disappears over the horizon.

There.  I said it.  I went “all political” on you. 

Here’s another analogy if the other one seemed a bit too partisan  The cost of Barack Obama’s 2008 swearing-in ceremony plus inaugural luncheon was budgeted for $1.2 million – which is probably enough to operate the NARA - Pittsfield operations for about five full years.   In the grand scheme of things, Federal budget-wise, $1.2 million ain’t much.

 Did you enjoy the food at the inaugural luncheon? Might you enjoy five more years of NARA-Pittsfield research even more? Well then, it may be time to get some 44 cent stamps, a few envelopes and some pieces of paper.

Are you feeling a bit put out and left out in the cold because the NARA folks in Washington have decided to close a public research facility this coming October –  a facility used mostly by genealogists and historical researchers – in what is being glibly described as a cost-saving measure – but there’s no actual dollar amount of “cost savings” mentioned anywhere?

Are you concerned that there’s a lot of misinformation that is being circulated about NARA-Pittsfield in the genealogical community by folks who should know better? 

Maybe you should tell folks in Washington exactly what you think about all this.

Here are some facts:

Fact 1a: Contrary to what seems to be popular opinion, NARA-Pittsfield is not a facility that ONLY has records that are easily available elsewhere and online.  It’s not simply rolls of census population schedules.  If that’s what David Ferriero has been told by his subordinates, he needs to do what any good genealogist would do – check his sources for accuracy. In fact, the facility has lots of microfilm with information that is (a.) not on the Internet and (b.) not likely to be digitized and online anytime soon.  I go to Pittsfield regularly to use microfilm I cannot get anywhere else close by. Example: If you’ve ever heard my “census” talk, you know why it can be important to consult the microfilm for Record Group M279, Records of the 1820 Census of Manufactures.  Even though it’s only 27 rolls of film, it’s not online.  But it’s available at NARA-Pittsfield. The illustrations for my slides came from that film.  By the way, “popular opinion” tends not to be a “reliable source”.

Factoid 1b:  Even if NARA-Pittsfield had only mostly the same microfilm that’s available in other close- by locations and online (which it doesn’t), that’s not the issue.  Should we trash the books on the non-circulating reference shelves of Public Library A – then proceed to close Library A – simply because Public Library B (a facility that’s more than a hundred miles away) has lots of the same books and because a lot of the info in the reference books is probably already on the internet somewhere? Especially if the only cost saving was likely to be the salaries of two employees? If Library A was in or near your community and if you consistently received exemplary service from those two employees, you’d say that was “crazy talk.”

Fact 2: As “gub’mint” programs go, NARA-Pittsfield likely generates more “free” volunteer hours, more in-depth educational programs and more NARA “good-will” than any of its other facilities, on a Federally-expensed dollar for dollar basis.  It’s called “bang for the buck.”  Look it up. 

Fact 3: NARA-Pittsfield volunteers (a super-active, dedicated “Friends” group) publish “Archival Anecdotes” and actually answer mail requests for information look-ups, using the NARA-Pittsfield microfilm. The cost of their research time is …(wait for it)…free!  Even though there’s a small charge for copies made from the microfilm, it’s a value-added service that’s still hard to beat.  And any revenue that’s generated by the Friends gets plowed right back into NARA – Pittsfield, thus reducing taxpayer costs for materials. You can learn more here (but hurry up, it will likely all be gone after October 1 the way things are now)

Fact 4: According to Ferriero’s statement, 2,520 researchers used the Pittsfield facility last fiscal year.  Some came from great distances, simply because NARA-Pittsfield is the closest facility to them. That kind of  walk-in traffic at NARA-Pittsfield might “light” by big city NARA- Washington standards, but it is not insubstantial by any means; it is likely much greater than the walk-in traffic at the average Congressperson’s field office - – and, as a federally paid-for facility  - probably costs less to operate.

So, maybe it’s time to write to your reps in Washington and tell them that you think that closing the NARA facility in Pittsfield in October 2011 is a really, really bad idea.

While you’re at it, maybe you should tell the Archivist of the United States as well.  You’ll find contact info at where there’s a “Contact Us” link.

I’m not going to tell you what to write because the letters that reach the folks in Congress should not be “canned” like so many politically-motivated petitions often are.  There’s no “form letter” to copy and mail. Just tell ‘em what you know and what you think about the closing.

If you’re a researcher, you already know the facts about NARA –Pittsfield and why it’s important that it remain open to serve the public as a top-notch research facility and also to provide educational opportunities to future generations of historians and public-minded citizens; chances are, however, that your representative hasn’t given much thought to any of this.

Frankly, it’s part of your job as a concerned researcher to try and correct that situation.

So, since by now you’re feeling that this is probably an important matter, and, since time is of the essence, you might have decided to email or call your elected representatives.  After all, your representatives all have phones, websites and they also have these convenient little forms on the website that you can use to send him or her a note.  No fuss, no bother.  Easy as pie!

STOP!  Hold on a minute! 

While you can do this write-and-click thingie online, bear in mind – absolutely nothing persuades like a real personal letter – hand-signed and perhaps even hand-written - from a constituent back in the home district. 

While calling or emailing is better than your taking no action at all, NOTHING gets more attention in a House or Senate office in Washington than a real letter. And the real power is in Washington, not in your representative’s district office.

Sure, it will take some extra time to get your stamped, enveloped missive delivered in Washington because of the security screening, but I can assure you that it will get noticed and read.

Remember – these are folks who expect that you will remember them kindly come Election Day in November.  If you actually bothered to actually write and send a personal letter, it conveys a simple, powerful message: I CARE WHAT YOU DO and I PAY ATTENTION and I VOTE!

Seriously, if you do nothing, you will regret it when October 1st rolls around.  Then, it will be too late.

Where should I write?

If you live in Vermont and regularly drive to NARA – Pittsfield AND you think that closing that research facility there is a bad idea that will result in very little (if any) cost savings and a whole lot of ill-will for the National Archives administration, consider sending a letter to both of your Senators expressing your views:

The Hon. Patrick J. Leahy
433 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Hon. Bernard Sanders
332 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

If you live in Connecticut, your guys in the Senate are:

The Hon. Joseph I. Lieberman
706 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Hon. Richard Blumenthal
G55 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

They certainly need to hear that NARA-Pittsfield is important to all researchers in the state of Connecticut, and for many, the closest and most convenient NARA facility.

Folks in Massachusetts should send a letter to their Senators below:

The Hon. John F. Kerry
218 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Hon. Scott F. Brown
317 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Even though they’re likely familiar with the facility, it’s always good to remind them of what it means to you and your hundreds of voting friends.

New Yorkers need to contact their Senators as well:

The Hon. Charles E. Schumer
322 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Hon. Kirsten E. Gillibrand
478 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

They need to know that for upstaters, the NARA-Pittsfield facility is an absolute necessity.  (You can also remind Sen. Gillibrand that she can drive from her new home in Rensselaer County to the NARA-Pittsfield facility in less than 45 minutes on a beautiful back-country road….)

In addition to your Senators, don’t forget your members of Congress who serve in the House of Representatives. They have powerful voices, too.  Here’s the contact information you’ll need:

If you live in central or western Massachusetts, the Hon. John W. Olver is your guy.  He represents a district that encompasses six Massachusetts counties - Berkshire, Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester and Middlesex.  His district includes eight of Massachusetts’ state college campuses, plus Williams, Amherst, Simon’s Rock, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, and Hampshire Colleges as well as UMass/Amherst.  This is the home district for NARA – Pittsfield. 

Here’s how you can contact Congressman Olver:

The Hon. John W. Olver
1111 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

Directly north is Congressman Peter Welch, who represents the entire state of Vermont.  Vermonters should write to Congressman Welch at the address below:

The Hon Peter Welch
1404 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

To the south is the state of Connecticut.   Three of the five representatives there come from districts that are a short drive to NARA – Pittsfield.  Each represents many constituents who have used the Pittsfield facility and would want it to remain open. If you live in Connecticut’s 1st, 2nd or 5th District, the contact information for your representative is as follows:

The Hon. John B. Larson
1501 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

The Hon. Joseph Courtney
215 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

The Hon. Christopher S. Murphy
412 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Finally, to the west is the State of New York, which has a large population of dedicated researchers who travel regularly over the mountains to the NARA – Pittsfield facility.  Your representatives should know how you feel about this planned closing.

Freshman Congressman Christopher Gibson, Ph.D., represents the New York 20th, which is the multi-county New York border district directly to the west of Massachusetts.  Due west of Congressman Gibson (but still in the greater Albany area) is the district represented by Paul D. Tonko.  South of Congressmen Tonko’s and Gibson’s districts is the district represented by Maurice Hinchey.  Each of these gentlemen represents many researcher-constituents that are with a one or (leisurely) two hour drive of NARA – Pittsfield.

Here’s the contact information for each of them:

The Hon. Christopher Gibson
502 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

The Hon. Paul D. Tonko
422 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

The Hon. Maurice Hinchey
2431 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Not Local?  You Can Still Help.

Don’t live anywhere near these parts?  Consider writing to your own Congressperson / Senators and ask them to get the word to some of their Congress friends mentioned above on your behalf.  Tell them that closing NARA – Pittsfield is not a good idea for the research community in general.  Make a noise.

While NARA-Pittsfield may not be personally important to you (i.e., it’s not your personal ox being gored this time...), remember that genealogists, historians and other researchers who do not speak out when public facilities like NARA-Pittsfield are slated for closure send a very clear message by their silence.

The message is, “Do whatever you want.  We don’t much care.”

Monday, February 21, 2011

Assault With Artichokes, Or Why Some Roman Artists Were Risky Dinner Companions

Caravaggio's "Musicians"
As a painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 –1610)  was a master of light and shadow.  He was also a skilled swordsman, a street brawler and a killer, a friend of cardinals and prostitutes, and, before he was 39, dead. 

Both famous and infamous, Caravaggio had friends in places high and low.  Inducted into the Order as a Knight of Malta, he was ignominiously expelled a short time later for being “a foul and rotten member.” About 80 of his paintings survive, not counting the ones he personally destroyed in fits of anger.

As you might expect, there’s an “archives” and a “research” connection to all this.

Remarkably, much of the detail of the dark side of his life in Rome is preserved in the late 16th and early 17th century police records stored in the Roman archives (the "Archivio di Stato di Roma") and these records have now been restored with private donations.  

So, why should you be interested/concerned about a dead Renaissance artist in long-ago Italy?

There’s actually a simple answer.   

Even if you’re unlikely to discover a relative like Caravaggio in Roman police records, it’s nonetheless instructive to learn about the level of specific detail in these kinds of records and to look at the images and their translations.  Take a few minutes and check out David Willey’s story about the records and their contents that appeared on the BBC – Europe website a few days ago.  Here’s the direct link:

[Hint: be sure to click on the images of the records to get the English language translation and commentary.]

Remember: the more you learn about stuff that you don't need to know about, the better researcher you'll become. 

The other plus is that you’ll learn such obscure things as the delicious details about the assault with artichokes.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Time Travel May Soon Be Possible - For Little Kids in Missouri

For most of February, I’ve been spending a lot of time making slides for my two upcoming New England Regional Genealogical Conference (NERGC) talks.  One of the talks “Sixty Hours a Week, Ten Cents an Hour: Records of New England’s Industrial Heritage” will take place on Friday afternoon and will deal with the somewhat elusive – but fascinating - records of New England workers and factory “operatives”. 

Part of my talk examines the development of child labor laws and the genealogically significant records that the late 19th and early 20th century child labor movement created, so it was with more than passing interest that I learned of what’s going on in Missouri these days.

[Full disclosure – back in my bureaucrat days, I had the grandiose title of “Commissioner of Human Resources” which meant that I got to deal with all kinds of local government labor issues on a day-to-day basis.  The plus side:  the commissioner title is “forever”: once a commissioner, always a commissioner.  As a result, my mail from official government circles still comes addressed to “The Honorable ….” And government hacks still call me “Commissioner” … kinda like they still call George Bush “President” and Sarah Palin “Governor” ]

Anyhow, to the issue at hand:

Missouri State Sen. Jane Cunningham (R- Chesterfield) has introduced a bill in the Missouri Senate that would correct what she views as long-standing, job-killing employment abuses in that state.  Apparently, the Missouri Nanny State has been legislating in critical areas that she feels are best left to parents of small children, such as when and how long those small children can work. 

After all, everybody (at least in Missouri, Sen. Cunningham hopes) knows that the free market, when left to itself, is guided by an all-knowing, invisible hand (possibly the hand of God Himself) that will bring only good to all true believers.  Parents know what’s best for their children; state interference can only mess things up.

In case you missed the memo, there are apparently folks in key legislative positions who have decided that government regulation of any kind is evil.  After all, we know that the banks, the finance industry and the oil industry can police themselves very well, thank you very much.

So, with that in mind, Sen. Cunningham introduced Senate Bill 222.  The following information comes directly from the official Missouri State Senate website, lest you think I’m making stuff up.  I repeat - It’s copied verbatim from their official website.  Here’s what Senator Cunningham hopes will happen in Missouri real soon:

SB 222 – This act modifies the child labor laws. It eliminates the prohibition on employment of children under age fourteen. Restrictions on the number of hours and restrictions on when a child may work during the day are also removed. It also repeals the requirement that a child ages fourteen or fifteen obtain a work certificate or work permit in order to be employed. Children under sixteen will also be allowed to work in any capacity in a motel, resort or hotel where sleeping accommodations are furnished. It also removes the authority of the director of the Division of Labor Standards to inspect employers who employ children and to require them to keep certain records for children they employ. It also repeals the presumption that the presence of a child in a workplace is evidence of employment.

Just think – little fourteen year old kids in Missouri can now go to work cleaning motel rooms!  Chances are, those little kids can clean in those hard-to-reach spots that those overweight illegal alien maids can’t reach, like under beds and such.  Watch out, Josefina!  

And since work permits would no longer be necessary for these children, they could work 15 or 16 hours a day!   Cunningham has been quoted as saying that having kids negotiate their own working hours will help teach them “responsibility.”

Sadly, they will still be prohibited from operating heavy equipment, like fork lifts and front end loaders.

The minimum wage in Missouri is $7.25 an hour. But wait - that’s only for businesses grossing $500,000 a year. Lots of “mom and pop” motels that might employ these young teen=aged workers don’t gross anywhere near that. 

Below that half a million dollar threshold, in retail or service businesses, there is no minimum wage; it’s whatever a worker (i.e., a 14 year old kid) will accept.  To quote directly from the Missouri Department of Labor website: Employers not subject to the minimum wage law can pay employees wages of their choosing.

Ah, yes! Yet another opportunity for small children to learn negotiating skills and "responsibility."

Wow – to think that time travel of a sort – back to the 1840s -  (at least when it comes to child labor laws) might soon be possible – just by going to Missouri.  Next, we might actually learn that Neanderthals still roam the earth!

In this day and age, who would have thought?

Friday, February 18, 2011

About Quilters and Genealogists

 If you're wondering what the "fishies quilt" tie-in is going to be, keep reading...

Tonight, the third episode of the second season of “Who Do You Think You Are”, featuring Rosie O’Donnell, aired on NBC in its usual prime time slot. You no doubt saw the promo for the episode if and when you logged in to during the past week. Ancestry got its requisite two promotional spots during first half of the show, as expected. Numbers for this episode aren’t out yet, but estimates for the first episode of this season suggest that more than 7 million people watched the Vanessa Williams story.

Last week, the Rootstech conference in Salt Lake City came to a close and 3,000 plus enthusiastic participants returned home to ponder the future of genealogy in the 21st century. No question, Rootstech was a major achievement for the organizers; they created the necessary buzz in the genealogical community and it was, hands down, probably the largest genealogical conference ever held in North America. Congrats to all involved.

Hooray for our side! We’re making inroads and apparently convincing more and more people that genealogy is fun and worthwhile. 

However, for those of us who live, breathe and sleep genealogy and family history, it’s also good to maintain a sense of perspective, if only to realize that there’s still a whole lot of promotional work to be done. 

For the sake of argument, let’s look at another popular hobby – one that also has conferences where (1.) attendees – not their employers - pay their own freight, (2.) offers classes and (3.) has exhibits and vendors.

Quilting shares a similar “demographic” with genealogy, skewing toward the over-40 age group, has club-like "guilds" and societies, and also has statewide, regional and national conferences.  Quilters are a dedicated lot, and will travel widely to get the stuff they need. The conferences have instructional and informational classes, exhibits and vendors.  (While there have been a few quilting “how-to” shows on PBS stations and cable, I don’t recall any prime time TV shows quite like “WDYTYA”.)  

So, let’s compare conferences.

In 2008, more than 11,000 devotees attended the Minnesota Quilters Annual Show and Conference.  Last year, more than 22,000 people attended the American Quilter’s Society (AQS) Quilt Show in Knoxville, Tennessee. Another 15,000 folks showed up in Lancaster, PA for the AQS's newest international Show and Contest. For quilting events, these are not out-of-the-ordinary numbers. 

These days, a major national genealogy conference pats itself on the back if it attracts more than 1500 paid attendees. 3000 attendees can create a cataclysmic event. The idea that 11,000 people would assemble in one location in the United States to “conference” on things genealogical is still a fond wish, not a reality.

Then, consider retail therapy.  A Google search for “quilt shop” generates more than 800,000 hits. A review of the hits shows a huge number of walk-in retail shops all over the US, not even counting those large nationwide fabric chains.  Now, search for “genealogy bookstore”.  Looking over the slightly more than 26,000 hits strongly suggests that the vast majority of those “genealogy bookstores” exist in cyberspace. 

In the past half century, only a handful of “bricks and mortar” bookstores specializing in genealogy have been able to stay in business more than a decade. We closed our Pittsfield store – with more than 12,000 genealogy and local history titles - after seven years, once it became painfully obvious that retail sales wouldn’t pay for the monthly electric bill, never mind make a profit or pay the rent.

And, should you want to remind me of the famous Goodspeed’s of Boston and Tuttle’s of Rutland, I will remind you that both stayed in business and were able to sell books to genealogists not because of their genealogy departments, but in spite of them.  Goodspeed’s did very well indeed selling rare Americana, autographs and prints at high prices to specialist collectors and Tuttle’s focused on publishing books on Japan in particular and Asia in general, not on genealogy. Its offices are now in North Clarendon, Vermont. And Tokyo. And Singapore. And Jakarta.  Tuttle’s sold its complete stock of genealogy some years ago.

Then there are the quilting magazines, which far surpass the genealogical periodicals both in number of publications and the circulation of each. If you're a dedicated subscriber, you could easily be buried under mountains of glossy paper every month.  For example, Fons and Porter’s “Love of Quilting” magazine has a circulation of 320,000.  In its pre- Internet heyday, the now-defunct “Genealogical Helper” claimed a circulation of 45,000 dedicated genealogists – a wildly impressive number then as now, but a number that wouldn’t be viewed as even slightly successful in quilting circles.

In a word or two, we may want to look at how folks in the quilting field manage to generate such large conference numbers and support so many periodicals and retail outlets. We might actually learn something. 

Let’s hope that “Who Do You Think You Are” converts a whole bunch of newbies to genealogy. Let’s hope we’re on the cusp of a huge surge in interest.  

Perhaps there’s a bellwether we should watch.

Ancestry,com. Inc. (ACOM-Nasdaq) will announce its fourth quarter financial and full year 2010 earnings on February 24th.  If Ancestry’s making money, selling more subscriptions, etc., then we can probably all assume that some of those “WDYTYA” viewers are signing on to genealogy.  

 In the end, that’ll be good for all of us.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

19th Century Medical Practitioner Ads: “Warranted To Give Entire Satisfaction”

A Medieval Physician
Researchers often find ancestors and ancestral relations in the census with occupational titles that indicate they were medical practitioners of some sort; these listings therefore suggest to modern researchers that their ancestors pursued years of academic study at some college or university. 

That, however, is often more a case of wishful thinking on the part of the researcher than historical fact.  Consider for a moment the occupation of “dentist”, which now requires a thorough postgraduate education and professional licensing. 

That important “education and licensing” part was not always the case.

The first dental school in the United States – the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery -  was chartered in 1840. Prior to that year, practitioners who called themselves dentists were either trained by others already in the field (the best case scenario) or were completely self-trained (a not-infrequent state of affairs).

Chances are, Henry J. Boynton, who lived in Portland, Maine and self-identified as a “dentist” in the 1850 Federal census, did not have much in the way of formal dental education in the modern sense since he was already in his mid-30s when the first dentistry school opened its doors hundreds of miles away.

His census listing (below) shows that he was married to a young lady from Nova Scotia. The young child also listed, Isabella, age 2, was very likely his daughter.

Dr. Boynton’s practice was probably fairly financially successful since he was able to afford a full-page advertisement in the Portland, Maine 1850 – 1851 city directory (pictured below.)  

 Of course, the construction and insertion of “mineral teeth” on gold plates was no doubt both expensive (for the patient) and, for Boynton, highly profitable. And, of course, he guaranteed “entire satisfaction.”
Henry Boynton continued to practice dentistry in Portland for at least another decade.  Here is his 1860 listing. 

 Interestingly, during this period, his practice seems to have taken a decidedly “scientific” turn. We know this from the advertisements that Boynton placed weekly in “The Maine Temperance Journal”, an anti-alcohol newspaper with a statewide circulation edited by Darius Forbes and published in Portland by Brown Thurston.  The Journal described itself as “Devoted to Temperance, Agriculture, Education, Science and News.”
During this period, no display ads for Dr. Boynton appeared in the Portland city directory. He appeared to have chosen the newspaper as his primary advertising vehicle. Newspapers reached a much larger audience at a lower cost.  The small bit of code in the lower left hand corner of the ad means that he contracted for one year's worth of ads in each issue, starting on September 6th, 1858.
Despite his simple description of his occupation as “dentist” in the 1850 & 1860 censuses, Boynton’s newspaper ad showed that he was now calling himself an “electropathic physician.” While he still extracted teeth (now claiming to use shock-free electricity), he also claimed to treat diseases of the eye, ear, head, throat, lungs and chest. 
His ad from “The Maine Temperance Journal” newspaper of Thursday, 17 March 1859 is shown below:

 I wonder exactly what kind of “electropathic” equipment he had in his office and just how effective his “breathing apparatus to administer medicated vapors by inhalation” actually was?  Since he continued to advertise for more than a decade with the phrase “warranted to give entire satisfaction”, could it be that he may have been on to something?
More to the point, would it be a “covered service” under today’s health insurance plans?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Fire-Horror of 1872. Partial Ruin of a Great City. BOSTON IN FLAMES!

Downtown Boston After The 1872 Fire
That’s the headline that appeared on a newspaper article in “The Chelsea Public” in November 1872.

Today, the city of Chelsea, Massachusetts is an urban suburb of Boston, a short ride across the Mystic River and on the north side of Logan Airport.  It’s the smallest city in Massachusetts when measured in land area and was a substantial community in its own right when the Great Boston Fire of November 1872 took place. 

The Great Boston Fire was a national urban event in its time, second only in scope and in magnitude to the disastrous Chicago fire that had occurred in October of the previous year.

For most family historians who are tracing a Chelsea family, the Boston Fire of 1872 would be not much more than a historical blip that took place in a neighboring urban area, and would likely be completely overshadowed by the great Chelsea Fire that took place a year later in 1873.

However, a quick look at “The Chelsea Public” – specifically the edition of Saturday, November 16, 1872 – may suggest that the great Boston fire may have had a much greater effect on Chelsea than would at first be readily apparent.

That’s the beauty of newspaper research – you never know what you’re going to find until you actually look. 

So, let’s look at the story that appeared on page one of “The Chelsea Public”, specifically Volume I, Number 31, that described the fire.

The subtitle of the article – “Chelsea’s Citizens who have Suffered in the Disaster, and their Losses.”  - focuses the reader’s attention on the fact that the rest of story will be “local” to Chelsea.  In other words, it won’t simply about the fire, but rather, about how the fire specifically affected Chelsea residents.

Here are some of the paragraphs that provide the local Chelsea twist.

From the time that the first light of the fire was seen in Chelsea, until the close of Sunday, Chelsea was in a constant state of excitement.  Winnisimmet street was thronged with people on their way to Boston.  The Winnisimmet Ferry Co. never before carried so many persons across the water as they did on Sunday.  About 1 o’clock on Sunday morning, teams began to cross for the purpose of carrying goods from the threatened neighborhoods, and a continuous line was hurriedly on the move throughout the day.  Parties began to return from the scene of excitement on Sunday morning.  Here and there could be seen individuals with a pile of books, the only thing saved from destruction.”

So, now we know that, in 1872, people still traveled between Chelsea and Boston by ferry, not by bridge.  Moreover, we learn that people of Chelsea had a great interest in the destruction caused by the fire.  Why was that?  Consider the following:

The immense paper warehouse of Dillingham & Co., a firm composed of Chelsea men, on Congress street, was consumed with about fifty thousand dollars worth of stock at most, and was insured for thirty thousand dollars, all good.  They still have their old store on the corner of Merchants’ Row and South Market street left them, and will continue business at that place.

Turns out, it wasn’t just Dillingham & Co. that had a Chelsea connection.  There’s more:

The Commission House of Aborn, Fay & Co., at the corner of Kilby and Central streets was during the night a rendezvous for some eight or ten Chelsea young men who were actively engaged  wherever they could be of use in assisting friends in saving their goods.  Among these may be mentioned Peleg Aborn, A.J. Clement, Henry P. Bailey, H.E. Streeter, W.E. Gilman, Frank Clement, William G. Reed, Edward Willcomb, and B.F. Dodge together with several Boston friends.  Some of the finer qualities of Aborn, Fay & Co.’s goods were packed ready for moving early in the night when it was hardly expected the fire would advance so far in that direction, but at about four o’clock Sunday morning the fire had approached so near as to warrant the utmost despatch  in conveying them to a place of safety, a team was engaged and a wagon-load was taken to and stored in the premises of Charles Kimball on commercial street.

The article continues on in great detail about the variety of Chelsea connections to the great Boston fire of 1872.  Many more names are mentioned, including a complete “Fire Directory” of the 24 businesses “…in which Chelsea men were interested…”

For today’s family historians, the message should be crystal-clear:  think and research broadly.  Don’t confine your research to the most obvious geographic area; be sure to look at the neighboring areas as well. Important local events often have regional implications.  

Frankly, in 1872, your ancestors weren't sitting home in front of their computers, watching events unfold on the internet, and keeping track of things on Twitter and Facebook

Remember: in 1872, newspapers were where things were at, and the newspaper sources that can help you find information about the families you’re researching may be a town or two away.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Some Valentine's Day Whimsy

That’s part of the fun of genealogy: I can look at the “New York Sex Heat” map that appeared in yesterday’s online edition of trendy New York magazine and see at a glance that the Brooklyn neighborhood that my great-grandmother and her sisters moved to around 1900 – and therefore the neighborhood where my grandmother, her sibs and her cousins all grew up during their teenage years– now shines as (to quote the article) Brooklyn’s “swingingest” singles scene.

Who knew that my grandmother Rose and her four sibs grew up in such a trendy area? 

The analysis of the data on “relative kinkiness” and “sex want” from the “OKCupid” personals site has revealed some very "interesting" patterns for the modern day geographic area once known as “The City of Greater New York”.

Kinda makes you wonder:  do neighborhoods change much?  Or, more to the point, do people change much?

Hard as I try, I can't imagine my great-grandmother or any of her sibs at the pre-WWI version of a loft party.  Some of her descendants, however...

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

See, There Were These Three Brothers Who Were Stowaways, . . . I Even Googled it!

Stowaways? Really?
The next statement you’re about to read is a gross over-simplification, devoid of any shading or nuance, but it still veers to the truthy side, nonetheless.  Here goes:

There are “skin and bones” genealogy types and “flesh and blood” genealogy types.

The “flesh and blood” types are into reconstructing ancestral lives and families.  They try and turn the dry facts found in documents into real life stories. They’re concerned with context and with interpreting the reams of factual minutiae that pop up while doing a genealogical search. They’ll stick with a search for documentation until the people that they’re researching start to seem as real and alive as their living relatives.

For them (and me), it isn’t enough simply knowing that when William Vanstavern (one of the grandkids’ 5th great-grandfathers) made his will in Montgomery County, Virginia on 5 May 1859, he named his wife, his son and his three daughters as his heirs.  It's more than that. It’s also knowing that he added a short postscript in his own hand.  It read, “N.B.  I want no Executor nor anything to do with courts or magistrates about my affairs as I deem them all corrupt.”

On the other hand, the “skin and bones” types are all about collecting names, dates and an occasional isolated fact or two about as many ancestors as is humanly possible. They’re the folks who love entering their harvested data into large (mostly unsourced) databases and then publishing said databases on the internet just as fast as time permits. Visit any of the free genealogy forums or message boards and you’ll run into many of them, either soliciting or offering to exchange “data”.

My other pet peeve:  just because you think your ancestor deserves to have a middle initial, that is still not a good enough reason to create a Findagrave listing for him and give him one, especially when there's not a single extant document anywhere that shows him with one. Sheesh! 

Okay, I admit it; I spent part of yesterday reading the recent postings on some of the family and Virginia/ West Virginia county forums and message boards that I follow every now and again.  While the names of the posters change over time, the unsourced “facts” that get exchanged don’t. The number of Indian “princesses” perched like acorns in family trees in those parts is truly staggering.

Sadly, the idea that there possibly might (or might not) be “sources” somewhere out there in the real world for all this “evidence” that gets passed around on the ‘net seems to be an alien concept standing in the way of adding yet another generation of “ancestors” to the family tree.  Facts can be troublesome and looking stuff up in courthouse basements can be hard work.   

Can’t you just Google it? If not, what good is it?

Look, “skin and bones” types, I get it.  Genealogy is your hobby.  On the internet, it’s cheap.  You do it for fun, not for money.  That chart that traces your granddaddy back to the Grand Duke of Whatchamacallit in the 12th century looks great on your wall.  And I’m happy to hear that you’re going to submit yet another 500 word sketch of your pioneer family to the next incarnation of your ancestral county’s “mug book” ($60.00 if you pick it up from Thelma at the library…) because, after all, there still may be folks out there who haven’t heard the “three brothers came as stowaways on a ship to Philadelphia so they could fight in the Revolution because they loved liberty” story. Or was it because one of them was a poor farmer who married the village nobleman’s daughter? Whatever it was, it MUST be true because it’s all over the internet.  Besides, you Googled it.

Of course, while some of this stuff is amusing, much of it is downright frustrating. Why? Because it demonstrates that a huge number of people prefer to live an evidence-free existence these days.  It shows up in discussions dealing with science and medicine, with politics and education, and with history and genealogy.  Troublesome and contradictory facts can get in the way of a great point of view and screw things up royally.  Sometimes facts are nasty. It's best to avoid them when possible, and thus keep to your own private “no-spin” zone.

But surely, you say, how important can this all be?  After all, it’s just genealogy, just a hobby; it doesn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things.

Well, actually, it really DOES matter.  

If you are satisfied living in an evidence-free bubble with regard to your family history, you’ll likely be willing to do the same with history in general.  That world view will, in turn, spill over into your views on politics, which in turn will help form your view on exactly what should or should not be taught in schools and by whom.  Eventually, you’ll be quite content to give the benefit of the doubt to all kinds of scientific and medical quackery simply because there are lots of websites that say it’s all true. Besides, who has time to look this stuff up anymore?

Of course, this is nothing new; actually gathering and evaluating evidence has always been hard work.

Okay, enough of the rant for today.  I guess I got “garbage overload” from all the stuff I was reading yesterday.

Now, for your edification and amusement, here’s a “medical” ad that appeared in a Binghamton, NY city directory in 1921.  It’s in print, so it must be true, right? Isn’t that enough evidence?  

(Unfortunately, the good Doctor took his secret formulae to the grave with him)