Now What: Down to Business

Now What: Down to Business

Answers for the beginner, the befuddled and anyone hitting a brick wall.

Down to Business

Q. My great-great-grandmother owned a variety store from the 1880s through the 1940s, but we’re not sure where in Massachusetts the store was located. What records can I use to learn more about the business?

A. First, make an educated guess of the city where your great-great-grandmother lived-the store was likely nearby. Ask relatives, examine family papers and search the census for clues. 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. Large public libraries often carry printed or microfilmed directories.
  • 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 Resource Book for Genealogists (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 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) catalog <>. You can borrow microfilmed records to view at a local branch Family History Center.
  • Sanborn fire-insurance maps: These detailed maps, which included street and business names, helped insurance agents decide how likely a property was to catch fire. Look for them at large libraries, such as the Boston Public Library <>, which has microfilmed Massachusetts Sanborn maps from the late 19th century to the 1990s. Try Harvard’s Frances Loeb Library <>, too. You can browse ProQuest’s Digital Sanborn Maps, 1867-1970 collection <> at subscribing libraries.
  • Local histories and old 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 resources at the local library and historical society, and in the FHL catalog.
From the February 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.


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