Keeping House: The Hidden History I Uncovered with Genealogy Records

Ancestry Library Edition is the library version of Ancestry.com and is available free to Cheshire Library cardholders. Originally available only inside the library, access was expanded to include home use when the Covid-19 pandemic closed libraries down  in the spring of 2020. Ancestry has continued to allow expanded access during these times of social distancing. CPL staffer Lauren took full advantage of Ancestry’s resources to research some old photos she came across:

When my grandmother cleaned out her house, I inherited a collection of old photos, documents, and books. Many items were of unknown origins, collected by a long-dead relative and placed in a series of boxes and bags, which in turn was tucked into a closet until it emerged one Sunday afternoon. I was fascinated. I spent hours going through the pages of the books and turning over the photos to see the names. I grew to recognize them, even if I couldn’t exactly connect them to me. Here in this local history book is a Balliet: the name I carried for most of my life. This photo, a Bloss. Here’s a Schneider, a Kern. But nothing haunted me quite like the handwritten inscription that prefaced a photo album: “Presented to Kate E. Haines by her Affectionate Mother, July 18, 1866.”

There were two such photo albums, small, sturdy, and so elegant they seemed out of place. Inside the albums, the trading card-sized cartes de visite showed women in dark corseted dresses and bearded men in somber coats, all sitting or standing in professional studio settings. Unlike the faces in the black-backed scrapbook, framed in glossy three-by-fives and looking out candidly from lawns and stoops, I found no familiar features in these posed men and women. They were a complete mystery. Who were they? Who was Kate? And how did my family come to possess the remnants of her life?

Lillie, my second-great-grandmother, as a young woman in the 1890s

There are no Haineses in my family. At least, not according to the hefty History of the Counties of Lehigh and Carbon in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It’s one of the books in my collection, published in 1884, and it sits on a shelf with the first and third volumes of the 1914 History of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, and a Genealogical and Biographical Record of Its Families. Inside their pages I traced my sixth-great-grandfather, Paulus Balliet, from his 1717 birth in Alsace-Lorraine, to his 1738 arrival in Philadelphia and his quick rise to small-town gentry in Lehigh County. The Balliet branch of my family is heavy with documents and stories. The Bloss branch isn’t as full, but I know it by its physical pieces. I have photos of my second-great-grandmother, wearing tiny wire-framed glasses and the hint of a smile. Her name was Lillie. We shared birthdays, first initials, imperfect eyesight. She married a Balliet. I have a composition book full of her handwritten recipes. The black-backed scrapbook has photos from her father’s slate quarries, captioned by her son. I put those objects in one archival box, and the Haines albums went into a separate box of photos with unknown subjects.

Another tintype probably from Kate.

Once, I removed the cartes de visite from the Haines albums. I flipped them over one by one, turning up three handwritten notes with unfamiliar, untraceable names. I tried pinpointing the time period by looking at their clothing. I googled “Kate E Haines,” hoping for the same luck I’d had with the Balliets in my family. I even documented which studios took each photo, hoping that the series of names, addresses, designs, index numbers would somehow suddenly open up a revelation. But, like the single mirrored daguerreotype in my collection of photos, Haines was a ghost.

Portrait of an unknown woman, probably from the mid-1800s. This daguerreotype’s reflective qualities distinguish it from the more common ambrotypes and tintypes.

Last spring, as covid kept us in our homes, I needed a project to occupy myself. It was announced that the genealogy database Ancestry.com was expanding access to Ancestry Library Edition. I knew from my past life as a reference librarian that Ancestry Library Edition was a trove of genealogical information that can normally be used only at local libraries. But for the foreseeable future, researchers could access the database from home. I immediately took an early lunch and grabbed my archival boxes and a fresh notebook. For the first time, I had unfettered access to vital records, grave markers, and the research that other genealogists had completed. I began to fill in the bare branches. It didn’t take me long to see how the names connected, how they flowed down to me. And, curiously, how they flowed back from Lillie. A name I recognized from an 1833 birth certificate turned out to be her grandmother, my fourth-great-grandmother. More names appeared that matched the scrawled labels on the backs of photographs. Lillie had been curiously absent from those lineups of Bloss women on front porches. But it started to make sense. Someone had been holding the camera, focusing the lens, calling the relatives to attention. Someone put those photos in the black-backed scrapbook. Someone had held onto the history books. Not a Balliet, as I’d first suspected. A Bloss. Lillie was one of my collectors.

Once I made those connections, it didn’t take me long to move on to Kate E. Haines. Google had turned up nothing a year ago. This time, though, I had the full range of records from Ancestry Library Edition. I typed in “Haines, Kate E.” A few hits, but nothing that looked right. “Haines, Kate E,” and I expanded the search to look for similar names. I got thousands of hits. I gave her a birth date between 1840 and 1855, assuming that the 1866 photo album was a teenage birthday gift, or a marriage gift. I set her location to Pennsylvania. Too many results from Philadelphia, so I refined it to Lehigh County, Pennsylvania.

And then I found the death certificate for Mrs. Catherine Balliet, informed by Lillie Balliet.

1880 Census record for Ballietsville Village, North Whitewall Township, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania.

Vital records tell a story, if you know how to read them. In a census, the sudden appearance of a household member sixty years younger than the head can indicate a recently widowed daughter or son moving back with their parents, their child in tow. Inconsistent spellings of last names can point to either illiteracy or, in the case of my overwhelmingly German ancestors,* that the bearer moves between two languages. Kate’s death certificate told me that she had no remaining blood relatives.

The other records on Ancestry Library Edition confirmed my suspicion. The census entries and family trees showed her birth in 1849, and her mother’s marriage to a second husband when Kate was six years old. Her father, presumably, had died. I found a child of hers who died in infancy, a husband who died a year later. A later census places her as the wife in the household of my third-great-granduncle, a Balliet man almost forty years her senior. She is younger than the stepchildren she lives with. Before she reaches the age of 45, she will lose her mother, her second husband, her remaining daughter. She spends the rest of her years living with her unmarried, childless sisters until they, too, die. When she herself passes in 1924, it’s not her stepchildren who recount the details of her life. It’s Lillie, her niece by marriage. Lillie was only a girl when Kate was widowed a second time and her ties to the Balliet family, at least on paper, were severed.

Portrait of a young woman, possibly Kate Haines’ daughter, encased in a heart with embroidered flowers. The back reads “Handle with care – Miss Mamie Emery.”

I have no explanation for how Lillie came to know Kate, her aunt-in-law, well enough to recount her information to a medical examiner. But she did. I can imagine Lillie cleaning out Kate’s room after her death. She sees the photo album that contains the cartes de visite from decades of friends and family. She opens it up, recognizing a face here and there. She spots the second album. There’s more photos: tintypes, a daguerreotype, small keepsake hearts. She moves about the room and silently gathers them up until she holds the last traces of Kate Haines in her hands. She takes one final look around, then closes the door on the dark, still room.

Looking at the people who entered her life and left too soon, I think I understand why Kate collected so many photos. It’s why my second-great-grandmother Lillie took her albums and placed them alongside her family’s history books. She was keeping house.

The Bloss Family in the early 1900s. Lillie is at the top left.

These women that I’ve come to know through their objects and my research – women who were teachers and gifted students and descendants of prominent locals – when they married, the totality of their lives was diminished over and over again to a single line on the census: “keeping house.” And they kept house in the fullest sense of the word. Not only did they physically maintain the members of their families, their children and husbands and mothers, but they also maintained the intangible threads that held them together. They remembered the names, the stories, the histories. They kept the photos and the history books. They kept their fathers’ geography textbooks and their aunts’ albums and their grandmothers’ tiny crochet hooks and the commencement programs that listed their mothers-in-law as school valedictorians.

And I see it happening today. In my family and in so many others, the women are arranging baby showers and funerals, grocery shopping for barbecues and get-togethers, reminding everyone about upcoming birthdays and anniversaries, writing messages in cards, buying pages for scrapbooks and frames for photos, and placing their children’s school projects in a box in their closet. When the day is done, some of them are sitting down in front of computer screens and typing names of their relatives and their husbands’ relatives into genealogical databases. We all know our family histories because of the women who are keeping house. And many of us will do the same, holding our histories and passing them on to our own granddaughters and grandsons, and hoping they, in turn, will continue to keep their house.

I intend to do my part.

 

* When I tell non-Pennsylvanians that I’m Pennsylvania Dutch, I often get strange looks, as if they’re wondering about my Amish rumspringa. But Pennsylvania Dutch, or Pennsylvania German, refers to all German-speaking Protestants who came to Pennsylvania from the Rhineland in the 17th and 18th century. They assimilated and became farmers and wives and business owners and statesmen, and their descendants continued to speak their German dialect for hundreds of years. Insular communities like the Amish and Mennonites still speak it today, but the vast majority of PA Dutch descendants today have little to no knowledge of the dialect. My grandfather spoke it, but my grandmother knows only English, though she speaks with a strong accent. My only linguistic trace of the region is my fondness for the word “rutsch,” a verb used to describe the barely-contained energy of small children who have been sitting in one place for too long. I have yet to find a satisfying equivalent in standard English.