A lesson in history

American historian, librarian, and former AHA president Justin Winsor (1831-1897). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One might be surprised to learn that the profession of “historian” in America is a fairly recent creation. The American Historical Association (AHA), founded in 1884, was established partly in reaction to growing numbers of individuals who were pursuing the serious study of history.[1] America’s earliest historians were focused largely on recording the events and sequence of history: that is, political events, wars, and other nation-building activities. Only recently have America’s historians begun to ask what life was like for ordinary men, women, and minority groups – questions of significant relevance and interest to family historians and genealogists.[2]

The typical definition of a social or cultural historian is one who is interested not only in investigating the lifestyle, experiences, and social conventions of a particular group of people (typically the underrepresented), but also their interactions with their environment, everyday objects (i.e. material culture), and other groups of people.[3] Scholarship produced by social and cultural historians has become quite prolific over the past 60 years, and can usually be easily identified by its subject matter.[4]

While many genealogists and family historians rightly turn to local town histories, letters, diaries and other primary sources to learn more about the life of their ancestors, any study of one’s genealogy will be greatly enriched by consulting relevant works (if available) by social and cultural historians. For example, those with early New England or Massachusetts ancestors will find that there exists an overwhelming body of literature pertaining to the life and experiences of New England’s and Massachusetts’ earliest residents. Below is just a sampling of titles (by no means comprehensive), that focus largely on home life, family life, domestic objects, and the everyday experience of settlers in early New England and Massachusetts. All of the books listed below (and much more!) can be found at the NEHGS library:

Peter Benes, ed., Families and Children: The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Proceedings, 1985 (Boston: Boston University, 1987).

Peter Benes, ed., House and Home: The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Proceedings, 1988 (Boston: Boston University, 1990).

James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: The Archeology of Early American Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1977).

John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).

George Francis Dow, Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1935; repr., New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2015).

Alice Morse Earle, Home Life in Colonial Days (1898; repr., New York: Grosset and Dunlap Publishers, 1906).

David Freeman Hawke, Everyday Life in Early America, in The Everyday Life in America series, edited by Richard Balkin (New York: Harper, 2003).

Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840, in The Everyday Life in America series, edited by Richard Balkin (New York: Harper Perennial, 1989).

Hundreds of other works can be found that address more specific topics such as food, medicine, clothing, and architecture in early New England. The NEHGS library has an array of books on early American clothing and the architecture of homes found in various New England states, including the following:

Architecture in Colonial Massachusetts: A Conference Held by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, September 19 and 20, 1974 (Boston: The Society; [Charlottesville, Va.:] distributed by the University Press of Virginia, 1979).

Martin S. Briggs, The Homes of the Pilgrim Fathers in England and America, 1620-1685 (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1932).

Alice Morse Earle, Costume of Colonial Times (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1894).

Elisabeth McClellan, History of American Costume, 1607-1870 (New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1937).

For those with ancestry originating outside of New England or the United States and interested in locating related social/cultural histories, a simple search of Worldcat.org (an online library catalog containing books housed in libraries throughout the world) or the NEHGS library catalog will likely produce titles of interest. When working to locate relevant titles, do not search only by your ancestor’s place of residence (such as Ireland or Canada), but also search using terms such as “cultural history,” “social history,” “culture,” or “material culture” in the search fields. If you are interested in learning more about a specific aspect of an ancestor’s everyday experience, such as family life, try entering those terms into the search fields.

Once you locate a book of interest, you will likely be able to locate similar books by clicking on the subject headings found at the bottom of the catalog entry. Be mindful, too, that information pertaining to the everyday life and experiences of a particular ethnic group might be found within a single chapter of a larger published history. Be sure to read all catalog entries carefully, as most entries contain (at the very least) the chapter titles within a single volume.

I encourage you to make time to explore the available historical literature that chronicles the life and experiences of your ancestors. While we can oftentimes become focused on extending our family tree, researching and understanding the life, times, and experiences of our ancestors is also an important endeavor. Happy reading and happy researching!


[1] “Brief History of the AHA,” American Historical Association, https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/brief-history-of-the-aha (accessed 18 November 2016).

[2] Robert Townsend, “The History of History,” Teachinghistory.org, http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/24121 (accessed 20 November 2016). Townsend’s article provides a good and succinct overview of the history of historical writing in America.

[3] For a more extended discussion on the origins and development of social and cultural history, see Thomas Bender, “Intellectual and Cultural History,” in The New American History, rev. ed. by Eric Foner (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 181–95, and Alice Kessler-Harris, “Social History,” in The New American History, ibid., 231–50.

[4] See Note 3.

About Dan Sousa

Dan Sousa currently serves as the Decorative Arts Trust Curatorial Intern at Historic Deerfield, Inc.—a museum in Deerfield, Massachusetts—where he is involved in several research, exhibition, and publication projects. His research interests include early American history and material culture, Massachusetts history and genealogy, Boston history and genealogy, and the history of American Catholicism. He holds a B.A. in history from Providence College and an M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

3 thoughts on “A lesson in history

  1. I absolutely agree with your recommendation. I have been interested in cultural and community history for a long time, and now am acquiring literature relevant to my particular genealogical research interests. One resource that I’d recommend is theses and dissertations by graduate students. Some have been published, but others might be found only in the libraries of universities and other institutions. One I found not only gave me a sense of the development of the Granby/Simsbury community and how it developed, it also included a snippet about my own 4th great grandparents (Seraiah Stratton b 1707 and Eunice Case) and the role they played in that community (with sources). Treasure.

  2. For those interested in cultural history of London (which can certainly give us background regarding the milieu of immigrant ancestors) I recommend the series of books by Liza Picard, Elizabeth’s London, e.g. Each book concentrates on a particular historical era.

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