Extracting Social History from Genealogy Documents

I was talking with a friend this weekend about some of the genealogy-related talks that I give, and what constitutes social history. I tried to explain a little bit to her that one lens through which to view social history is to take common documents that we use for names, dates, places and relationships and try to wring out additional information from those documents that can give us insight into the life of the ancestor. She replied, “I found in an obituary that my ancestor was a doctor and I used the census to confirm that he was a dentist. Is that what you mean?”

I replied that it was definitely a start, but social history would go further than that. It would involve learning about what it was like to be a dentist in the time period, how people viewed the dentist, what tools he used, etc. For example (keep in mind that I know nothing about the history of dentistry in the US, so the following example may be flawed in some ways), did he live in a time when people mostly came to the dentist if they needed a tooth pulled or if they had tooth pain? He might be viewed differently by the community (and dreaded even more) than a visit to the dentist today.

One of my favorite uses of documents to learn more about the social history is covered in three posts in my levisavage blog, starting with this one. Government documents and a president’s personal papers, along with correspondence from church representatives, lay out the formation of the Mormon Battalion in 1846. The government documents present a different side to the story, one that I had never heard. Reading through them helped me understand better the feelings and attitudes of people on both sides, and why the government came to ask the Mormons to join the military a few months after they had been forced out of their homes.

What are some favorite pieces of social history you have pulled out of some records–either those commonly used for genealogy and those that are not used as often as they should be?

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