In the movie Forrest Gump, the main character, Forrest Gump, makes the statement “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” In the world of genealogy, vertical files are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. Vertical files are a fantastic genealogical record source that no genealogist should overlook. This particular collection of records could contain just about anything.
The Society of American Archivist Glossary of Terms defines Vertical Files as: “Materials, often of an ephemeral nature, collected and arranged for ready reference.” Vertical files are sometimes called Subject Files or Morgue Files. These records can be located at a library, archive, historical society or genealogical society. Anywhere records are collected and preserved, there could be a collection of vertical files.
Knowing how vertical files are compiled will help you better understand this record set and how to use the records for your genealogy research. Most, if not all, items found in vertical files are donated by individuals or organizations. Records found in vertical files can range from original documents to photocopies, from unique and one-of-a-kind records to mass publications. Ephemera and newspaper clippings are some of the most popular types of records that can be found in vertical files.
photo courtesy of the Houston County, Tennessee Archives
Vertical files are stored in file folders and then put into filing cabinets. They are labeled with either a surname or a subject name. Once the records are in the file folder and labeled, they are then placed in filing cabinets in alphabetical order. In most archives, there will be an index listing of what is contained in those particular archived vertical files. It is important that you ask the archivist for that index. The index could be in paper form or it could be located on an in-house computer. Keep in mind that a vertical file index will most likely not contain a listing of each and every document that is located in each file folder. So, if you see a surname or subject name that you think might help you, ask for that file to be retrieved so you can review the contents.
So what can be found in Vertical Files….
One of the most popular documents to be found in vertical files is newspaper clippings. In fact, some vertical file collections in some repositories are compiled of nothing but newspaper clippings. These clippings could be about anything that was found in the newspaper and cut out to be saved. The clippings could be of obituaries, birth announcements, engagement announcements, marriage announcements or anything of note that was published in the local newspaper. Newspaper clippings found in vertical files can be a true find for those of us that have found that some newspapers were not saved and microfilmed. If we're lucky someone clipped items from those missing issues and they are located in the vertical files collection.
If you are like me and have very few examples of letters or postcards for my ancestors, you might be lucky enough to find these types of records in vertical files. Correspondence of all kinds can be found in vertical files. When an archivist is presented with a donation of a handful of letters, they are usually processed and placed in vertical files. If the donation is larger, they are usually processed into the Manuscript Collections of the archives. Finding a handwritten letter, post card, Western Union Telegram or some other note in the vertical files from or to our ancestors can be a true find.
Family Group Sheets and Family Histories
Handwritten or typed family histories are a common find in vertical files. Many genealogists have documented their family history in a narrative form and then donated a copy to the local archives where their ancestors lived. Family Group Sheets could also be found in vertical files. These are also donated by genealogists in the hopes that other researchers coming through the facility will find their family history work and make a connection. I always encourage genealogists to donate copies of their family group sheets and family histories to local archives. Be sure to include your name and contact information so other researchers can contact you.
If you are like me, you are always looking for photographs for your ancestors. I have very few photographs dating back before 1930 of my ancestors. The vertical file collections may just be where they can be located. Many archives will place photographs in their vertical files and file them by family surname, place name or by the subject of the photograph. Not only could there be photos of your particular ancestors but there could be photos of the church they attended, the school they went to and even the home where they lived. However, be aware that many archives do not place their photographs in vertical files. Photographs can also be found in Manuscript Collections or in a larger Photograph Collection within the archive.
These are just a few of the numerous types of records that can be found in vertical files. When I visit any repository that has genealogical or historical records, at the top of my to-do list is to check the vertical files. I hope the next time you are at an archive you remember to check the vertical file collections because you never know what you might find.
Melissa Barker, The Archive Lady, is a Certified Archives Manager currently working as the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist. She is also a professional genealogist and lectures, teaches and writes about the genealogy research process, researching in archives and records preservation. She has been researching her own family history for the past 28 years.