Learn About An Ancestor's Business
You've got questions about discovering, preserving and celebrating your family history; our experts have the answers.
Q. My great-great-grandmother owned a variety store, but we have only approximate dates (1880s through the 1940s) and we're not sure where in Massachusetts the store was located. What records are available to learn more about the business?
A. First, make an educated guess where your great-great-grandmother lived. Ask relatives and examine family papers for clues. If you come up empty, search census records on Ancestry.com (by subscription), FamilySearch.org (free) or HeritageQuest Online (free through subscribing libraries). Then consult these records:
  • City directories: Published in the late 1800s and early 1900s for most cities and towns, these listings of businesses and residents resemble today's telephone books. Your ancestor's listing could provide the business address, and you can check a run of directories to learn the years of operation. Large public libraries often carry printed or microfilmed directories for nearby areas and major cities across the country, and you'll find collections on Ancestry.com, Fold3 and elsewhere (here's a site with links to online local directories by place).
  • Court records: Your ancestor probably had to pay taxes on her property and obtain a business license. Use a reference book such as The Family Tree Sourcebook (Family Tree Books) to learn the location of court records from her town and era—good bets are the courthouse or state archives. And do a place search of the Familysearch online catalog (click Search, then Catalog). You can borrow microfilmed records to view at your local branch FamilySearch Center.
  • Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps: These detailed maps helped insurance agents decide how likely a property was to catch fire. Look for them at state and university libraries (they may be online, such as on the Indiana University Bloomington Libraries site) and large public libraries (such as the Boston Public Library, which has microfilmed Sanborn maps from Massachusetts from the late 19th century to the 1990s).
  • County or town histories and historical newspapers: A long-standing business such as your ancestor's may have been written up in a newspaper or book about the area. She may have advertised, too. Check for these records at the local library and historical society, and online at sites such as Chronicling America, Google Books and Internet Archive.
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