All posts by Penny Stratton

About Penny Stratton

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Penny Stratton retired as NEHGS Publishing Director in June 2016; she continues to consult with the Society on publications projects. Among the more than 65 titles she managed at NEHGS are The Great Migration Directory, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, and the award-winning Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has written for American Ancestors magazine and is a regular poster on Vita Brevis. With Henry B. Hoff, Penny is coauthor of Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History; she is also the author of several Portable Genealogists on writing and publishing topics.

Objects and their history

Penny at podium_croppedRecently a colleague mentioned a web-based series of interactive discussions called “Windows to the Past: Discovering History Through Tangible Things,” in which “participants will assess fascinating objects . . . to see how any material thing, when examined closely, can be a link between the present and past.”

Reading this description made me think about how often such items turn up in the family histories we hear and read: the piece of jewelry, the silver, the diary, the clock, the clothing. . . Continue reading Objects and their history

The Stratton Files

Penny at podium_cropped[Editor’s Note: Penny Stratton is one of the most prolific and popular bloggers at Vita Brevis. The following are some excerpts from her posts between January 2014 and February 2015.]

From Capturing the Recent Past: As I revise the new NEHGS Guide to Genealogical Writing (2014), I’ve been thinking ahead to a future project of my own: writing my family’s history. Having edited and produced a number of compiled genealogies at NEHGS, I have the genealogical format down cold. That’s the easy part. But what will I include for narrative information, to help bring the stories to life? Continue reading The Stratton Files

“Remember your ancestors”

Brunton Front Cover-smaller“Remember your ancestors.”

So read the words atop a family record engraved by Richard Brunton in the early 1800s. It is that admonition, which speaks directly to the NEHGS purpose, that led us to have an interest in Brunton – now the subject of a new book written by art historian Deborah M. Child: Soldier, Engraver, Forger: Richard Brunton’s Life on the Fringe in America’s New Republic.

Over the centuries, families have kept records of their history: in pen and ink, in needlework, and now in printed books and in electronic media. Families have kept these “documents” not just as cherished mementos of loved ones, past and present, but also as the “central repository” for the vital records of the family and its members. Richard Brunton – an English soldier who deserted during the American Revolution and made his home in New England – was a trained engraver. During the years when he was traveling throughout New England practicing his craft – sometimes even in the production of counterfeit bank notes – he was, in his own way, at the vanguard of the business of producing family register forms, something that would only increase and become more commercially viable in the following decades. Continue reading “Remember your ancestors”

Writing family history: Start small

bigamist in bunch coverEarlier this year, I read a blog post by the New York Public Library titled “20 Reasons Why You Should Write Your Family History.” Always on the lookout for new ideas to work into our seminars and webinars on writing and publishing, I read it eagerly. One particular thing caught my eye: a quote from John Bond’s Story of You, saying, “You are doing a service by leaving a legacy, no matter how small or large.” I’ve thought about that quote a great deal, with a specific focus on the word small.

Starting small is great advice for the family historian looking to write and publish. I’ve spoken with many people who struggle with just how to get started. They might have years’ worth of data, in paper files and electronic files. How should they organize it? What should be their focus? It seems such a daunting task that they simply can’t get going – or can’t complete what they’ve set out to do. Continue reading Writing family history: Start small

The 1920s, the ’20s, the twenties: writing dates

Penny at podium_croppedA few months ago, we agreed that apostrophes do not belong in plurals: To make a plural, generally you add an s or es. No apostrophe. The same rule applies when you are referring to a decade, say, the 1920s. It is absolutely fine to put a letter after a number without an apostrophe between.

If, however, you decide to drop the 19 from 1920s, you would insert an apostrophe to show that something is missing: the ’20s. (After all, that is one of the apostrophe’s jobs: to show that something has been removed.)

You could also spell out the abbreviated form as “the twenties,” keeping it lower case unless you are talking about the Roaring Twenties, a distinct historic era. The Chicago Manual of Style,[1] NEHGS’s style guide of choice, says, “Decades are either spelled out (as long as the century is clear) and lowercased or expressed in numerals.” I’ll repeat: As long as the century is clear. In genealogical writing, we’re often discussing such long spans of time, and precision is so essential, that we will probably always want to use the form 1920s, to distinguish the twenties decade from the 1820s or the 1720s or the 1620s—and soon from the 2020s.

Here are some other basic guidelines for writing dates: Continue reading The 1920s, the ’20s, the twenties: writing dates

Indexing your family history

Penny at podium_croppedIf you’re writing a family history, you’re ultimately going to index it, right? If you’ve ever consulted a printed genealogy in hopes of finding an ancestor . . . only not to find an index to help you, you’ll know the importance of creating an index for your own work.

In pre-computer days, you’d have used index cards to make your index, making a card for each entry and then painstakingly writing the appropriate page numbers on the card. Then you’d have typed it up into a manuscript. Now you can just start typing index entries in a word-processing or spreadsheet program, later alphabetizing them. (If you’re producing your book completely in Microsoft Word, you can mark entries in your file and Word will generate the index.) Alternatively, you can use indexing software such as SKY Index or Cindex. Continue reading Indexing your family history

1, 2, 3 . . . it’s an ahnentafel!

Penny at podium_croppedA friend recently received a document from a cousin, outlining her family’s ancestry. It was quite long, she said, and mentioned a Mayflower ancestor — but she didn’t know how to interpret it. There were lots of numbers, some of them roman numerals.

My well-trained husband, hearing this, asked, “Is it an ahnentafel?” It sounded like it might be. I asked one more question: does it start in the past, or does it start at or near the present? “It starts with me, as number 1,” my friend said. “Ah, yes,” I said, “it is an ahnentafel.” Continue reading 1, 2, 3 . . . it’s an ahnentafel!

A surprising brush with history

Abraham Lincoln in 1850, the year after he represented George D. Berry in a lawsuit. Lithograph by Edw. Mendel, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-102366.
Abraham Lincoln in 1850, the year after he represented George D. Berry in a lawsuit. Lithograph by Edw. Mendel, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-102366.

My husband inherited several dozen Civil War–era letters from his great-great-grandmother Susan (Berry) Dill and her daughter, Ida Alice Dill, who lived in Sangamon and Christian Counties, Illinois. Ida married Frank Stratton, the brick wall in my husband’s ancestry. One day, in frustration at not finding anything about Frank, I took to Google and entered a string of names and dates from the letters: George Elizabeth Susan Benjamin Berry Christian County Illinois 1850 1860—something like that. If no clue to Frank turned up, I figured, I would learn more about the Berrys. And indeed I did.  Continue reading A surprising brush with history

What the “Dad file” taught me about recent history

George Rohrbach at age 18, with his niece Norma Johnson.
George Rohrbach at age 18, with his niece Norma Johnson.

Recently I sifted through a box that turned out to be a treasure box because it yielded some great information about a recent ancestor. The ancestor was my father, George Rohrbach (1909-1999), and I was the one who had made the box.

Let me explain. When my stepmother died in 2010, I helped clean out all her and my late father’s belongings. I spent hours going through drawers and boxes and bins, putting many things in the trash or recycling — Mom seemed to love nothing more than newspaper clippings — and also putting some things, not closely reviewed, in a carton to send to myself. Continue reading What the “Dad file” taught me about recent history