All in the family

Colin Waye has a collection of century-old postcards that his grandfather, a sea captain, sent back from his travels before he was lost at sea in 1917. Carol McLean has more than 500 postcards showing the places and events where her ancestors lived. Sandra Cotie has a stack of photographs of her great-uncles and great-aunts with postcard backings. Kathy McHale hopes to use a postcard she owns to help her locate her great grandfather’s property in Nova Scotia. And Katie Fox found a postcard on eBay that was written by her great-great-grandfather’s brother-in-law, announcing the birth of a 12-pound baby boy.

Genealogy has been one of the most popular hobbies ever since the 1970s when Alex Haley’s Roots was made into a television miniseries. It’s experienced a second wave of popularity with the advent of the Internet, which makes millions of records instantly available. But for many amateur genealogists, finding names and dates isn’t enough. They want to know more – what was the world where their ancestors lived like? Did they live in rural towns or big cities? What were the important places and events in their lives? Postcards offer a glimpse of the world through the eyes of ancestors.

Carol MacLean, of Vancouver, British Columbia, is typical of people who started collecting postcards to supplement her interest in genealogy. “I started collecting postcards of Cape Breton – where my family was from – to give me a glimpse into the past, what things looked like back then,” says MacLean. “Some date as far back as the early 1900s: buildings, streets, mines, steel plant, favorite spots and drives, places, churches, beaches, cemeteries, cars, trains, wagons and so on.”

Although most genealogists have to search antique stores and online auctions looking for cards that are connected to the places and historical events that may be associated with their family’s past, a few, like Colin Waye of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, are lucky enough to have inherited entire collections of postcards, sent both by and to his grandfather, a Newfoundland fishing schooner captain. “My grandfather would send postcards home to the family while he was at sea,” reports Waye. “Most are of Newfoundland ports, but others are from all over. One card had actual hair glued on it for the picture of a woman on it.”

Those who are lucky enough to find postcards that were actually written by an ancestor, get not only a visual picture of a small piece of their forbearers’ world, but small details of their daily lives as well. “These cards contained much personal information about the family, such as harbor ice conditions or whether they had much fish or squid for bait.” Waye says,

Postcards can also serve as a catalyst for conversation and memories. One of Kathy McHale’s prize possessions is a 95-year-old card sent by her great-aunt. “I also have a priceless old postcard sent by my great-aunt, Ethel Webb, in her heyday evidently, showing the inside of the hospital where she worked in Rhode Island, and signed “Webbie.” Now, I had never before heard her referred to as Webbie!”

Not only did reading her great-aunt’s words reveal something about her personality, but the postcard also generated conversations that lead to more discoveries, according to McHale. “Looking at this postcard with my mother prompted her to recall more stories about Aunt Ethel, her work as a nurse and her free spirit.”

McHale’s quest for learning more about her family history has led her to an unexpected source: eBay. “I have a couple of old postcards that I bought on eBay. One of them shows the convent that was built in Cheticamp (Nova Scotia) on land originally owned by my great-grandfather. The convent was torn down and now is an apartment building, but the postcard enables me to know exactly where my great-grandfather’s house was in relation to the present day church and other buildings. So I can look at it – for now just the picture, but someday hopefully I’ll be able to go back in person – and say, this is the piece of land where my great-grandfather built his home.”

Catherine Fox, of Sunderland, Mass., can go one better in terms of using eBay to help in her search for her family tree. “Initially, I’d do a search for the different last names in the family. If it were a really common last name, I’d also add the place where they lived to the search box. Much to my amazement, I found a postcard written by an E.C. Nissen and postmarked in Jamaica Plain, Mass., on July 6, 1906. The message on the front read, ‘July 4th – had 12 lb baby boy. Mother and son doing well. E.C. Nissen.’”

“I knew that my great-grandfather’s sister had married a man named Eric Christopher Nissen, so I checked my family tree. Sure enough, Annie Lynch Nissen had had a baby boy named Paul Augustus on July 4, 1906. You better believe I bid on that postcard! Annie died in 1921, so we really didn’t know a lot about her. But since Paul’s birth certificate says he was born at home, we know one thing for sure – we come from a line of strong women!”

The best postcard listings – both on eBay and in online sellers’ and collectors’ databases – will list not only what’s on the front of the card, but if they were postally used, who the card was addressed to, and if possible, who it was from. This makes it easier to find cards that have genealogical potential. Antique stores in the hometowns of ancestors are another potential source of postcards that could give you a clearer picture into the world of the past.

What once might have just been a collection of pretty cards can take on a greater significance as the years go by. “I have had these post cards and pictures all my life,” says Sandra Cotie of Sydney, Nova Scotia. “They belonged to my grandmother and it is just now that I am tracing my family that they are coming alive as I find out who the people are. For years they were just pictures, now they are family.

Click here to discuss this story and more in the message boards.