September 27, 2011

Social History Resources for Genealogists

Of all the myriad aspects of genealogy, I think I find social history the most fascinating. I love learning more about the times and places my ancestors lived, and the issues and events that shaped their lives. Whether they faced a flood or drought, endured war, traveled by canal boat, or raised a family on the frontier, studying social history can bring their times to life.

I turn to social and topical history websites frequently, particularly when I’m trying to write a biographical sketch for an ancestor or put an event in perspective. So I thought a list of some of my favorite go-to social history sites would make a good addition to my Research Tools (see tab above). Here they are:

American Heritage (by American Heritage Magazine, with articles on time periods, topics, and historic travel):

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1940 (oral histories and narratives compiled by WPA):

American Memory, The Library of Congress (a huge assortment of collections on all aspects of American history):

American Women’s Letters and Diaries (a bibliography of resources on women’s experiences):

GenDisasters (articles and photos on “events that touched our ancestor’s lives”):

Genwriters (a great site with information and links on social history and writing resources for genealogists):

HEARTH Home Economics Archive (Cornell University’s fantastic collection of materials on home life, cooking, child rearing, and more):

19th Century American Cultural History (short overviews with links by Lone Star College Kingswood Library; 20th Century also):

Ohio Memory (a growing collection of Ohio images and artifacts):

To be honest, this list just scratches the surface of the vast amount of social history material out there. There are countless specialized resources on topics such as the Civil War, railroads, immigration, and more. I often start by looking at the links that Cyndi has compiled on Cyndi’s List—a terrific resource for any aspect of genealogy. For information on a specific locality, I’ve had good luck finding old county histories on Google Books.

If you can find it, I highly recommend Bringing Your Family History to Life through Social History, by Katherine Scott Sturdevant. It’s inspiring, motivating, and educational, and I absolutely love it. It’s been out of print for some time, but you might be able to find a copy in your local library, or through Amazon.

I’m sure there are many more resources I could add here. If you have a favorite you’d like to share, let me know with a comment below. Just one word of caution: it’s awfully easy to lose track of time when browsing through social history sites (or maybe that’s just me)!

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Photo of log cabin, Portage County, Ohio, c. Shelley Bishop, 2011.


  1. Shelley, I'm with you. I love learning about the social aspect of the times and places of my ancestors. This is a helpful list. Several are new to me. I'll have a look at them soon (after my daughter's wedding!).

  2. I'm glad you found the list helpful, Nancy. Best wishes for a wonderful wedding and much happiness to your daughter!

  3. Shelley-
    You have expressed my feelings exactly. It is the lives of our ancestors that draw us in. I also love your "Research Tools" tab. I think my blog needs a facelift to include tabs.

  4. Thanks, Margel. I'm continuing to work on the Research Tools, so I'm glad you like it.

  5. Hi Shelley,

    I like the links in this post. There are several I hadn't heard of before. I'd like to link to your post on my blog if you don't mind. Thanks! --Dayna Jacobs

    1. Glad you found it helpful, Dayna, and thanks for asking about linking from your blog. I'd be delighted to have you link up. Cheers!


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