Originally published in this blog in December 2017.
Ever Wondered Who Died in Your House? AREN’T YOU JUST A BIT CURIOUS?
Researching your home’s history can be rewarding.
If you’re like me, living in a cookie-cutter house in a new construction development was never an option. And now that you are the proud homeowner of a beautiful vintage home – how do you figure out its history? Oh if only these walls could talk, I have thought countless times. So, they don’t – but it turns out you don’t need them too. Researching your home’s history is not only about its four walls, but who hung art on those walls too.
This is the fun part – let me tell you about what I mean. Right off the bat – researching your home’s history is not something that will take a few hours or even a few days. It will be a process that you start and stop, picking it up and putting it down as you find pockets of time. But, it’s rewarding and worthwhile.
Your friends and family will be in awe of your research skills. Your children will see history come alive as you walk them through the rooms and halls of your home – imagining how past families lived. “What sort of toys did they play with in 1924?”, they may ask. Or “What did they wear in 1885?”
Before You Start
- Find and keep a notebook to jot down notes – also cutting and pasting copies of photos may also help you piece together facts.
- Save your work! Download files or start a family tree, take pictures or scan hard copies.
- Formulate theories, but keep an open mind, understanding that you may need to change course.
Now You are Ready!
- Figure out your home’s style. A Field Guide to American Houses, by Virginia and Lee McAlester, Random House, 1984 is a great resource.
- Talk to your neighbors. If you’re new to the neighborhood and want to find out about the recent history of your house, your longtime neighbors may be able to help. Neighbors will come out of the woodwork to tell you bits and pieces about your home’s history.
- A permit search will allow you to learn about what sort of renovations were made – even the building permit may be uncovered!
- Inspect your house closely. You can learn a lot just by looking. Check out how your house was built and what type of building materials were used. Did you know that you can date your home just by looking at the nails, hardware, width of joists, saw marks, etc. Any time you do a renovation, look at the bones in your unfinished attic or basement!
- Housing design has changed dramatically over the years, and you may be able to find some clues as to when your home was built, what substantial changes it has endured, and how well off the original inhabitants were.
- Look for exterior inconsistencies – these can point out structural changes.
- Examine the walls and moldings. Look for original materials such as the placement bricks of the fireplace. Experienced contractors will be able to point these out.
- Dig in your backyard, particularly around your kitchen and garbage areas. I found the remnants of an old coal bin near my back porch.
- Read South Orange and South Orange Revisited, both by Naoma Welk, Arcadia Publishing, 2002 and 2006, respectively.
- Read Maplewood Images of America, Arcadia Publishing, 1999 by Durand-Hedden House and Garden Association.
- Look at Maplewood Postcard History Series, Arcadia Publishing, 2002, by John F. Harvey for the photographs only.
- Search the Real Estate Archives in your town. Maplewood’s can be found here and South Orange’s can be found here.
- Search the Sears Archive, which lists each of their kit houses, many of which were built in our neighborhoods. Perhaps yours is one.
- Contact your local historical societies, associations and comissions:
- In South Orange, NJ: South Orange Historical & Preservation Society and Montrose Park Historic District Association
- In Maplewood, NJ: Durand-Hedden House & Garden Association and Maplewood Historic Preservation Commission of New Jersey
- Pay attention to your house inspector and ask questions – this is your home and often your first introduction to how it works.
- If you are currently under contract for the purchase of your antique home, contact the seller through your real estate agent or attorney and ask them to leave you any records they inherited or information they researched themselves. If they restored or renovated the house, ask them to give you the invoices and architectural plans.
- Digital Archives such as Ancestry, The New York Times Archive (as far back as 1851), Geneology Bank, and Old Maps can provide detail on who owned your home and for how long. The census records on Ancestry are fantastic, as are the obituaries in the Times.
You may also read my post, “The History of My Home | The Thompson’s 1907 – 1966“, for additional tips on researching your home’s history and past occupants. And if you are a resident of Maplewood, NJ, here are a few pointers for using the Maplewood Library.