Have you ever had this happen? You find a letter, a document, something of genealogical value. But you know very little about it. Now what? How do you analyze the information that it contains?
Take this letter for example. It was purchased with some other ephemera. If I wanted to learn more about it, where would I start?
I would first want to read the letter to get a sense of what it's about. After an initial reading, it seems that the letter
- is presumably to a family member (“Dear Mother”);
- discusses the weather, everyday activities, food, gardening, visitors;
- mentions other people (Stewart, Peter, Larry);
- the writer lives in an apartment with no phone;
- the writer works a job six-days-a-week until 5:30 pm;
- is signed Nell Howard (possibly the recipient’s daughter but could be a daughter-in-law).
So what do we not know based on this letter?
- What date the letter was written. Someone penciled in 1944 at the top left-hand side, and the letter has “Friday” typed on the right-hand side, but it's not clear when and by whom 1944 was penciled in nor what month/day. However, the letter writer does refer to "this summer," so it may have been written during the summer months.
- It’s apparent that 1944 might be possible for the year the letter is written since she refers to food rationing at the bottom of the letter, "How’s the food situation with you? Can you get meat for your points? We just use eggs and let the meat go for very rare occasions.”
- She writes about living in Washington, but is that Washington state or Washington DC or some other place (assuming this is a letter writer in the United States)?
- She mentions names but no relationship (Stewart, Peter, Larry). Because no one is listed with a surname, they may be family or close friends that the mother would know. It seems like Stewart lives with Nell (the letter writer), so maybe it's her husband. If so, is Howard his surname? But it could also be her son or some other family member.
- We don’t know the mother’s real name. The envelope would have solved this question, but it wasn't part of the materials purchased.
- The mother might live with other people since the letter is signed “Lots of Love to Everyone…”
Now you might be thinking, "who cares?" What does a letter with little information outside of talking about food and recipes have with genealogy research? What is genealogically relevant in this letter?
That's a good question, and it's one that people ask when we "stray" from the typical genealogy documents. But this letter provides us with two things necessary for our family history research. Even though the letter offers a vague time period, it places five people at a specific time. Nell is writing about people who are alive as of the writing of the letter and prior. And obviously, she too is also alive. So if we weren’t sure about this family and when their death dates were, they most likely were alive around 1943 and even the early part of 1944 (if this is 1944, but we don’t know what month).
Secondly, the everyday lives of our ancestors can help us tell their story. This includes what they are eating (or not eating) and how they are dealing with food rationing during wartime. How could we take that information and use it to tell a story about Nell’s life?
What Questions Do You Have?
As I look at what this letter tells me about Nell, I still have questions. Aside from everyone's identity, some of the details seem to refer to activities that are specific to that time and place. For example, the comment about “red points,” "community canning kitchens," and “Gack Attack."
So now what? How would you start your research? Research starts with a question, and the most obvious one is, who is Nell Howard? We could try to answer that by searching genealogy records from the 1940s and then go from there. Where could we look? How would you look?
How would you unravel the mystery if it was your family history research? What sources would you check? Let me know in the comments below, and we will unravel more of this mystery next week.
 Special thanks to genealogist and writer Angela Rodesky for providing me this letter.