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The IOBA Standard is the journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association and covers the book world, with a special focus on the online used, out-of-print, and collectible bookselling markets.


Ephemeral Assays: Genealogical Ephemera

Many in the book and paper trade have had occasion to ponder early family history items that come our way. Family Bibles, journals, letters, and images are fairly common at auctions and estate sales. We have all wondered if this material is worth anything in general, and some of us would even like to find interested descendants in particular. When profit and genealogy intersect, that’s even better.

I’ve been working with amateur and professional genealogists for many years now. They tend to be patient and persistent, plowing through early vital records and making pilgrimages along the ancestor trail, which typically runs from places like Connecticut where younger sons felt stifled, through gateway states like New York, and on to good farmlands in Ohio and other parts west. Experienced researchers generally find all the big shiny nuggets early on, and are simply panning for gold dust by now. Some wear tee shirts with sayings like, “My ancestors must have been part of a witness protection program.” When seasoned family researchers stumble upon rich, unexpected finds, they are sublimely delighted.

How to unite widely scattered family history objects and those who would covet them? More often than not, it’s a lost cause. Large charcoal portraits and stern photos of ancient couples are seldom identified by surname. The auctioneer makes a joke about buying yourself some instant relatives, the pair gets knocked down for $20.00, and the winner finally lays them to rest as the gilt frames are busted out for resale. Old country store journals from the mid-1800s which report what dozens of townspeople bought every week were pasted over with Victorian cutouts fifty years later and are rarely restored a century after that. Dealers will go through large boxes of images looking for a few handsome figures before discarding the rest. A common Lincoln CDV or something out of the ordinary like a Saint Bernard standing on a tavern table is worth more than dozens of nondescript head shots. I’ve known several in the trade who chuck any ephemera relating to family history as a matter of policy. No market for it, they tell me. Not worth the effort. When you perform extended research for a lousy extra ten bucks, or are altogether rebuffed by contemporary relatives who accuse you of hucksterism, thick skins result. If this kind of marginal field work does not appeal to you, read no further. No harm, no foul. Just don’t throw this stuff out though, okay?

For anything from single images to large hoards of family lore, the more unique the name in question, the better your chances. John Smith or Michael Sullivan from early 1900s New York City is probably not worth your time. If you can’t sell that piece on its own non-genealogical merits, gently return it to the stream and hope it finds its way back home some day. Cornelius Van Slyke from 1700s Schenectady County, on the other hand, will be fairly easy to place. A retired math teacher turned genealogist told me that in math you need two points to describe a line, but in genealogy you need three…a name, a time, and a place. Unique names improve the efficacy of that equation.

To start at the top of the genealogy food chain, in terms of what booksellers come across most often, old family Bibles can be mother lodes of information. Examples from the 1800s are typically leather bound, wonderfully illustrated, and run to 1,000 pages or so. Find the hidden cache contained in the family register pages between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

If the recipients did their job, it will record marriages, births, and deaths in several nice hands as it was passed from generation to generation. Sometimes these notations overflow onto any available blank pages. I’ve been battling with a couple of local Bible collectors at auction for years now. I argue that most Bibles say pretty much the same thing, so why lock up that important family history for another thirty years just to gain a new imprint?

Like all good ephemera, the genealogical variety comes in a myriad of forms. We are only scratching the surface in this consideration. Journals, diaries, documents, scrapbooks, billheads, postcards, captioned photo albums, and even the movies Grandpa shot can tell a lot about those who came before, though not always. What a disappointment it is to find a daily diary that does little more than record the weather or complain about ailments. The best journal I ever had contained more family history tidbits and printed ephemera than would ever be admitted into a rigid Bible. It even included full page dress and vest fabric samples from half a dozen weddings going back to the 1700s, and several locks of young hair in all colors. DNA! One of my neighbors hosts a trendy scrapbooking club where you buy all the products through her, and they were astounded at this early example of their craft. I worked hard to find the right descendants for this one. When it comes to old letters in their original envelopes, the pertinent information is more inherent and you often stand a good chance of determining where to market them. Seemingly valueless pieces like little illustrated business cards can still ring the register all these years later if you promote them properly. Scarce privately printed genealogies may benefit from some marketing, but simply pricing them a bit below market value and listing them in your catalog is usually good enough. Stellar items like graphic Civil War diaries generally gravitate toward the specialist collector with deep pockets, regardless of family ties.

Next in the cavalcade of common family history treasures comes images. Daguerreotypes, tintypes, cabinet cards, cartes de visite, and snapshots, to name a few. Early cased images sometimes contain a note or lock of hair behind the glass. You can carefully lift it out with a small suction cup to check. It is very common for cabinet cards-rectangular commercial studio photos mounted on thick stock-to carry name and date inscriptions on the reverse.

If the small home town or city of the studio is printed on the front, you have your three points. Untethered images are perhaps the most bittersweet example of lost family history. Current and future family researchers would swoon over such pictures that are worth a thousand words. I’d love to find one of Martin Purcell, the first over from Ireland in the 1840s, as no image is known to exist. There’s probably about a 3% chance one is floating around somewhere, but I would never stumble on this myself. It would have to be brought to my attention somehow, and I would pay dearly for the effort.

Ten years ago, before the internet was widely up and running, I came across a large box of material which was obviously the work of an early genealogist. It all had to do with the Brooks family and ten or so related lines, including one all the way back to William Bradford, who came over on the Mayflower and served as the second governor of Massachusetts. The first compiler was trying to join the Daughters of the American Revolution and several other blue blood societies around the turn of the century. Her daughter took up the cause right into the 1930s. These applications require careful documentation. All their notes, charts, deeds, wills, newspaper obituaries, church, military, court and census records, and correspondence with distant relatives and researchers was included. There were charming New England research trip postcards which detailed how the owners of ancestral homes asked why they were taking photos and then invited them to stay when they discovered who they were, or how museum curators gave them access to closed parts of the collections relating to their lines. Among the treasures in this box was a well executed silhouette portrait of husband and wife probably from the early 1800s or so, which would exceed the wildest expectations of most family researchers. This mother and daughter team would surely have been dismayed to learn that all their hard work ended up in boxes on the dusty floor of an auction hall. It was much easier to market/repatriate this material in 2005 than it would have been in 1995 when I found it, and that gets us back to the How.

Keeping in mind that we must put business before philanthropy and librarianship, I try to flip such items over pretty quickly these days, without a lot of time-consuming marketing. EBay is one of the best venues for this. Rather than seeking out and approaching individuals with hat in hand and arbitrary price in mind, let the huge open marketplace decide. The eBay category for genealogy is rather convoluted (Everything Else/Genealogy, which is not far from Everything Else/Weird Stuff). Very few people search large eBay categories any more, as there are too many listings and too much dreck, so it’s just as effective to list items under Photographic Images or whatever rather than worrying about the best category. The key words in your 55 character title are how interested parties can find your item. Include the family name, variant spellings where applicable, an indication that the item is old (either a date if known or “early”), a town or city, and both forms of the state (e.g., Iowa IA) when possible. There are lots of new duplicate items being hawked to family researchers these days, like CDs full of stuff they have already, and lots of reproductions of historic photos, so make sure you note down in the description field that your offering is original. This field is searchable for live auctions, by the way, though many shoppers are not aware of this option. Give the dimensions, number of pages, and any other details. Needless to say, a good scan or digital picture is paramount as well. I run ten day auctions, which gives people more time to find things. Dedicated researchers check eBay all the time, but not everyone is so diligent.

Pinning all your hopes on eBay eyeballs would prove somewhat unproductive, so you need to do a little outreach. This is where Cyndi’s List comes in handy. Although the name does not sound all that promising, Cyndi’s List has become the premier destination for free online genealogical research. It currently provides nearly 250,000 links. Go to the homepage at, pull down to the Surnames, Family Associations & Family Newsletters section, and click on the appropriate letter. When it comes to family associations, there is wide variety. Most are interactive email forums that are free to subscribe to and participate in. Some of these lists are incredibly active, while others are completely moribund. Some embrace variant spellings and others shy away from them. There can be more than one group for a given surname, usually split along lines of primary place of origin or settlement. Family researchers follow the subscription directions, delve into their archives, and often listen in for a few weeks before politely posting a query. If you don’t find the name in question in this Surname list, pull down to the very bottom of the page and you will find mailing list links to the vast Genealogy Resources on the Internet site, or you can access these directly through I formerly used the Directory of Family Associations for contact information, but the vast capabilities of the internet have greatly eclipsed such print resources.

It is taboo to join such a list for the express purpose of marketing your items. One could debate whether this constitutes true spamming until the cows come home, but most groups take exception, so don’t go there. The better approach is to contact list administrators directly and ask for their assistance. Once your eBay auction is live, click on “Email to a Friend.” Fill in the recipient’s email address, tailor your message, and fire away. They see the whole auction, complete with pictures, and can bid right from there. My message usually reads something like, “I came across this early (whatever) some time ago at an auction. I’ve just listed it on eBay, the online auction service, and thought that the (whatever) family list might be interested in copying the images and information or bidding on it. As list administrator, please consider posting a notice about it. Thank you.” The response is usually favorable. Often they will alert their members to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, either privately or through the list. More than once, list members have pooled their resources to win the item in question. Even if list administrators keep the notice to themselves in order to avoid competition, at least you have one more interested party on board. On rare occasions, list administrators get crabby when contacted. Such contact is not a violation of list rules, however, and again I don’t consider this classic spamming. As my Grandmother used to say, “Who died and left you boss?,” and chances are some of that grumpy gatekeeper’s list members would pose the same question if they knew what was going on. After all, what better place is there to alert family researchers about extremely unique and potentially important pieces of their past?

The Cyndi’s List part of the various Surname pages usually gives direct email addresses. The lower Genealogy Resources on the Internet lists have uniform procedures for subscribing. Just substitute “admin” for the mail or digest mode options provided, as in, and you have a valid list administrator’s email address. As an aside, one can employ the same technique with historical items pertaining to a particular town or city. Email the same eBay notice to the proper town historian or local historical society. These entities are increasingly easy to find on the web.

In checking the Cyndi’s List surname resources just now in the preparation of this article, I was surprised to see a link dedicated to the very 1729 Van Slyke Bible I recall selling several years ago. This was a massive book with wooden boards covered in leather and adorned with ornamental brass fittings. I paid a pretty penny for this Bible, to the amusement of the auction hall regulars, but it sold for over $1,000.00. Transactions like that make up for all the extra effort and modest returns more often associated with genealogical marketing. The URL is “The following pictures are from the Van Slyke Bible that was recently auctioned off on e-Bay. The successful bidder phoned me and after a lengthy chat, he drove up from the States to visit me here in Northern Ontario. What a great time we had! Of course he brought the Bible with him and we eagerly went through it page by page. Beautiful engravings (100 or more) fill its pages, and you can easily imagine how impressive it must have been for the Van Slyke family to gather around.” Reading on further, the present caretakers have made some reasonable assumptions about the entries in and journey of this Bible, and they have provided lots of extra information from other sources. In conclusion, I’m gratified, the descendants are delighted, and we can assume that the old Van Slykes would be most pleased that this long lost keepsake is now back in the family.

Shawn Purcell is the principle of Balopticon Books & Ephemera in Delmar NY, online at, and may be e-mailed” Copyright 2004 Shawn Purcell




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