The Blog

Are Your Heirlooms Collecting Dust?

Image source:

Have you ever strolled through a dusty and cluttered antique shop and wondered who were the original owners of all the items on the shop’s shelves?  An oil lamp, a well-read family Bible, a handmade log cabin quilt, a smoke stained pipe standing upright in its hand carved wooden pipe rack – these are the sorts of eclectic things that you can find in any antique shop.

As a personal historian, I too have looked at and pondered over these items. I then look closely at the hand-written price tags, which often tell me little or nothing about where an object came from.

I try to imagine who once used the old glass oil lamp in days long gone by.  Maybe the first owner used that oil lamp to better see the tiny printed words of sacred Scriptures while their legs were snuggly covered by a hand made quilt.  Perhaps the reader sat in a one-room, sparsely furnished cabin in the Shenandoah Valley or in a Victorian mansion in northwest Washington DC. It’s hard not to wonder what was going on in the world when these particular items were being used.  My imagination runs wild with curiosity.

Each of these old pieces indeed belonged to a person or a family. The item may have been passed down by a generation or two and somehow this cherished heirloom became separated from its story.

So how does this apply to you? Well, we all have a story to tell, to preserve and to share with the next generation.  Many of us have been fortunate enough to have family heirlooms, which once belonged to our grandparents or maybe even great grandparents.  If we do not write down the details of our heirloom, this information will be lost in time and maybe our treasured heirloom will even end up on a dusty, glass shelf of an antique shop!

Consider the value of identifying your family heirlooms.  This is a gift of connectedness that keeps on giving – generation after generation.

So take a few minutes of your day, dust off that lamp, and start the identification process today.

In my next post, I’ll be showing some of my own heirlooms, and how I’ve recorded their stories. Stay tuned! In the meantime, leave a comment below with stories about your family’s heirlooms.  What items do you cherish, and why?

Pat Summitt Diagnosed with Early Onset Dementia

This past Tuesday, legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach, Pat Summitt, announced she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia at the age of 59.

However, Summitt is not going to let dementia slow her down. According to the New York Times, “Fellow coaches were stunned by the diagnosis of dementia but hardly surprised that Summitt approached it the way she confronted everything else — head-on, open, resolute, determined to keep coaching.”

Pierre Ducharme/Reuters

“There’s not going to be any pity party and I’ll make sure of that,” said Summitt in an interview with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts. Summitt plans to remain the head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols “as long as the good Lord is willing.”

With Alzheimer’s affecting more Americans every day (or, to be more precise, every 70 seconds), we at Reel Tributes are proud that Summitt is speaking openly of her diagnosis. We believe there is a need to raise awareness of dementia and Alzheimer’s in America, and commend Summitt for her courage.

Reel Tributes is doing its part to raise awareness as well.  Stay tuned for a special announcement from Reel Tributes and the Alzheimer’s Association, coming soon…

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Getting Started on Your Genealogy

Sometimes the hardest thing about any project is just getting it started. You just don’t know where to begin. You freeze up, wondering how you can “do genealogy” if you can’t read German, or know the history of the Spanish-American War, or recite all the border changes for France from 1600 to 1920 — all at the same time.

I want you to know that you don’t have to be an expert on the history of the world, all its languages, and record keeping styles to get started. You can do it. By taking a few of the baby steps listed below, you will find yourself on the road to becoming an expert in your own ancestor’s time and location:

1. Focus your project. Work like the professional genealogist does: one ancestral generation at a time. Choose one project goal to focus on, such as “What happened to Great Uncle Harold after the Civil War?” or “Who was Great Grandpa George’s first wife?” Avoid choosing projects that are too big, such as “Who are all the Whitmans back to the 14th century?” or “Can I trace my line back to William the Conqueror?”

2. Create a timeline of the ancestor’s life. Dig out all the paper, photos, emails, or documents you have about your project ancestor and write a simple timeline of where, what, when, and who. Where were they? What were they doing there? When did it happen? Who else was involved (siblings, spouses, children, neighbors)? Fill in dates for births of children, marriages, and migrations. Look at your timeline and ask yourself questions such as “Was there a war in my ancestor’s time and how could it have affected him or her?” “How many censuses could my ancestor been counted in?” You will be amazed at how much more organized your research will become and how much more clearly you begin to see your ancestor’s life, once you create a timeline.

3. Use a map. Compare the events of your ancestor’s life with maps of the area. Remember that border lines change over time, so look for reference books that may help you understand when a county lines changed over time. For a U.S. reference to county line changes, try Thorndale and Dollarhide’s Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses 1790 – 1920 (Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore, MD, 1987).

4. Get to know the types of records created in that area. If you are looking for vital records, you need to know what survives for that area and if those records help you reach your project goals. There are some wonderful reference guides for researching different locations. Some may even be in your local library. For U.S. research, try Ancestry’s Red Book (Alice Eichholz, editor, Ancestry Publishing, Provo, UT, 2004) or Everton’s The Handybook for Genealogists (Everton Publishers, Logan, UT, 2006, 11th edition). For places all over the world and all kinds of subjects, try the FamilySearch Research Wiki at

5. Most importantly, don’t wait! Get started today, and you will be one day closer to reaching your goals!

You never know what you will uncover in your family history, but I know that I have my own ancestors to thank for how much I know now about research and genealogy. Let your ancestor be your genealogical mentor. Good hunting!

A Wave of Nostalgia: The Value of a Photograph

What if all of your family photographs were suddenly washed away – never again seen by you or the members of your family? How would you feel about this loss?

For families in Japan, this is not a hypothetical question. Many Japanese citizens living along the northeast coast of Japan were lucky enough to survive the catastrophic tsunami last March. However, few were spared the devastation of property. Along with homes, furniture, cars, appliances, thousands of family heirlooms and precious photographs disappeared into the powerful tsunami.

I recently heard a touching story on NPR about Becca Manson, a photo editor from New York.  She wanted to help restore a portion of the Japanese people’s loss and had the know-how to do it. A volunteer with All Hands Volunteers, Ms. Manson has been traveling all around Japan. Her task? To collect the photographs that the Pacific Ocean has begrudgingly returned to the Japanese coastline. This has been no small task.  The first phase of her mission is to pass on recovered photographs to the people who can restore them.  She organized a small army of volunteer photo restorers all over the world to help in this mammoth effort. For months, they have been working to clean photographs, returning faded color to images, fixing spots damaged by salt water and repairing torn or scratched pictures.  So far 55,000 photos have been hand-cleaned.  The next step (and a daunting one at that) is to reconnect all of the recovered photographs with their owners.

The reaction to the work has been powerful.  When handed photographs of their children as babies, people have cried – never thinking that they would see these images again.  It was as if the hands on the clock had been turned back.

Reading this article made me think about the ‘time capsule’ of my family’s life that is contained in my family’s scrapbooks and cloth-bound photo albums.  If they weren’t available to be looked at, what exactly would I lose? What would my descendants miss out on?

I believe it would be a sense of connectedness and a sense of continuity. My family pictures recall past times and faraway places. Some were good memories, others were heartbreaking, but all of them belong to my family – it is our truth and our unique experience.

What about you?  When was the last time you looked at your family’s photo albums and savored those images? What have you done to ensure their protection against a disaster?

Write and tell us what memories your family photographs stir inside of you. And stay tuned for upcoming posts with tips on how you can protect your family’s precious heirlooms.

Next-gen Genealogy: Using the technology of the future to better understand our past

Did you struggle for years to write your magnum opus, The Family History, only to share it with relatives who just flipped through a few photos? Perhaps you slaved away at your research, collected piles of documents and pictures, and could talk for hours about each aspect of Great-Great-Grandpa Archibald’s life, but you’re overwhelmed by the idea of organizing it all? How can the first researcher hook the family’s attention, and how can the second share all the information they have? The answer is the same for both: family history films. Video technology has transformed the web—with 6.2 billion online videos viewed in July 2011 alone—and now it’s starting to revolutionize the world of genealogy.

Video offers a number of benefits for family history. In this blog, I’ll address five key reasons to get started on your family video today.

1) It’s a great way to tell a story
People will always love to gather to hear a really good story. But, while crowds once circled the campfire for tall tales, we now turn to the mysterious flicker of the television or computer screen. Though times change, the concept remains: a powerful story fuels the imagination. And few stories are as powerful—or as meaningful—as the ones that relate to our own lives. Our own ancestors’ triumphs, loves, and adventures are inherently fascinating, but never so much as when we can see and hear them unfold. Unlike dusty tomes of names and dates, neglected by all but the most savvy genealogists, video draws the entire family into the story behind the research.

2) Video preserves information for future generations
Documents disappear in fires and get pitched in overzealous spring cleanings. What would you do if your work was lost? A video production of your family history is easy to reproduce and upgrade to the newer technology as it becomes available. Books and photo albums may not stand the test of time, but video is one source of family history that will be around after other accounts have long vanished.

3) Video makes genealogy accessible to non-experts
It’s not just the researcher who will benefit from his or her hard work. Streaming videos online is now incredibly easy and video documentaries can instantly be shared with family members and friends around the world. Even busy uncles and squirmy kids can enjoy family history in a captivating film.

4) Video captures so much more than just data and information
You can’t put Grandma’s laugh into a book. You can’t hear Uncle Jim choke up, or see the look on his face when he speaks of his platoon brothers in the war, with a photo tucked away in the filing cabinet. A book can’t fill the home with the tunes that Grandpa John played during his short-lived musical career. Our children learn history in school, but do they feel it? With a family video documentary, your siblings, your niece, your grandchild, will not only learn. They will be inspired.

5) It’s much easier than you think
Making a video is surely worth it when you consider the joy and knowledge that you’ll share with family and friends around the world. Best of all, if you don’t plan on teaching yourself to become the next documentary guru Ken Burns, Reel Tributes is here to help you produce a customized broadcast-quality film. A professionally made documentary is like your grandma’s quilt– precious, irreplaceable, and full of stories. Each family has a unique and extraordinary history. Shouldn’t the documentation of that history be unique and extraordinary, too?