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Discovering Your Ancestors

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There has been a surge in genealogy websites in recent years, proving that more and more Americans want to trace their family history. Records, such as ship registries and marriage and death certificates, are digitally scanned and available online for the sleuths, too. And now there's a new option: photo detectives.

Armed with fashion magazines and an eye for detail, photo detectives hunt for clues in old photos. Hair styles, clothes and fashion, and the objects in the pictures help detectives pinpoint dates, places, and professions. The job also requires an expert's knowledge in social history. For example, a photo of a woman with unusually short hair in the 19th century could mean that she had scarlet fever. A person sick with the disease often had their head shaved. Or a photo of a baby carriage in the mid-1800s could be an announcement that the infant had died, instead of recording his birth. The period had a very high infant mortality rate, and death cards were often sent to family and close friends. These are only some of the facts that photo detectives must have at their fingertips.

Photography was invented in the 1830s. The earliest photos usually required a visit to the studio by the whole family, which was a lengthy and formal process. But when Kodak invented the snapshot in the 1880s, family collections grew with shots of birthdays, holidays, and everyday life. Unfortunately, most people didn't consider labeling the pictures. The descendents now find it troublesome to identify the old pictures.

Photo detectives can help. But customers may not always like the results, as sometimes the answers disagree with family lore.

Preview some of the lesson material:

Warm Up: Do you agree or disagree? Why?

  1. I'm interested in history.
  2. I'm interested in my family's history.
  3. It's important to know the history of your family.
  4. Pictures are an important record of a family's history.
  5. I want my children's children's children to know about me.

Fragments: Remember how the fragments were used, and complete the sentence from today's article.

  1. There has been a surge in genealogy websites in recent years...
  2. Armed with fashion magazines and an eye for detail...
  3. The period had a very high infant mortality rate, and...
  4. But when Kodak invented the snapshot in the 1880s...
  5. But customers may not always like the results...

post-Comprehension: Talk about the following questions in pairs/groups. Remember to support your answers!

  1. Do you think it's important to trace your family's history? Why/not?
  2. What do you know about your grandparents? How about your great-grandparents?
  3. Do you have old photos at home? If yes, are there people in the photos you can't recognize?
  4. Would you ever consider hiring a photo detective to tell you more about your family? Why/not?
  5. How would you feel if you discovered one of your ancestors was a terrible person? Please explain.

Google Search: Type "genealogy" into Google. Look at the websites, and/or read additional articles on this topic. Discuss or write an essay about your findings.

Download the lesson:

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