EBay: An “Outside of the Box” Resource for Genealogists

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Is great grandpa on EBay? No, this question is not an April Fools’ joke. EBay can be a rich resource for genealogical materials if you are willing to devote the time – and funds – to identify resources, bid on items, track the status of your bids, or buy an item “right now.”

As many of you know, I always try to discover the stories behind the dates and places. Any item which visually depicts or verbally describes the places and times in which our ancestors lived can enhance our understanding of their lives. How would you like to find a picture of your ancestor’s workplace, school, or town? Would you like to own a commemorative plate illustrating an important event or building, or own a copy of a map or an out-of-print book relating to your ancestor’s town? EBay, the online auction site,  may be just the resource for you.

This article will not teach you how to use EBay; books such as EBay for Dummies (6th ed., For Dummies, 2009) can help you if necessary. Instead, I want to share some of the best categories to search as well as some of the gems you may encounter along the way. Before I do, however, I offer the following caveat that applies to anything you might wish to purchase on EBay: read the description of each item carefully and don’t order from a vendor with a history of complaints about service or merchandise.

1. Locality Search.

I like to start my EBay with a broad search in order to obtain a sense of all of the items that might be available. For example, my mother’s family lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, for over 100 years. To see what is available, I first searched across all categories using the phrase “Springfield, Massachusetts.” There were 485 items on offer. Not wanting to scroll through all 485, I then used the information at the left of the screen to narrow my search. The first category, Collectibles, indicated 370 items – still a lot to look at. This category, however, was further narrowed down into subheadings: Postcards (308 items), Historical Memorabilia (27), Photographic Images (15), Paper (7), Transportation (4), Souvenirs and Travel Memorabilia (4), Advertising (3), and Decorative Collectibles (2). Items were also available for Springfield, Massachusetts, in the categories of Art, Books, Antiquarian and Collectible, Cookbooks and “Other.”

Even though there were a lot of items, vintage postcards are a great way to acquire inexpensive mementos to illustrate your family history. I discovered a postcard of the campanile, the bell tower beside the City Hall in Springfield’s Municipal Group. My grandfather was City Clerk in Springfield for approximately fifty years and when I was quite small and visited him in his office, I called the tower “Grandpa’s tower.” The posted cost of the postcard was $.01.  It was definitely a find that had personal meaning and I promptly bid on it. I also found postcards for Classical High School, where my mother went to school, as well as cards for a variety of buildings and hotels, some no longer standing, in postcards dating back as early as 1904. One, a generic picture of a street car, could provide background detail for a discussion of my great-grandmother and great-grandfather’s “courting days” when they worked at the button factory and took the streetcar to work and frequent dance outings.

In the Photographic Images category, I found aerial maps from various time frames and two cartes de visite of unidentified women. Intrigued by the Paper category, I looked to see what it included. I found a program for the Court Square Theatre from 1926, some business correspondence on local company letterheads, and a single lot of items that included five unspecified issues of Springfield newspapers from 1875.

By searching broadly, I could identify the available categories, note how many items were in each, and then choose which slice of the 485 items I wanted to view. I found that it was a good way to avoid scrolling through the many fire and police department sleeve patches that were being offered!

I have had similar success in searching for locations in other states and in Scotland, depending on my research at the moment. Selections change constantly and you should regularly review what is available for your locality of interest.

2.  Surname Search.

I found the surname search to be more difficult. For example, in searching for “Barkley,” I discovered that I had to avoid all of the Charles Barkley sports memorabilia items. I looked under Books/Antiquarian and Collectible subheading and found a 349-page, hardcover book entitled The Barkley, Hill, Beeman and Moore Families of Early Illinois with Their Ancestral Families Along with Allied Families of Hunnicutt, Lumley, and Others, written and self-published in 1999 by Phyllis J. Bauer. While this book does not pertain to my husband’s Barkley line, I do collect information on all Barkleys in any location; accordingly I might consider a bid on this item (bids starting at $20.00, still reasonable).

When I searched the same category for “Barclay,” I found many publications by the theologian William Barkley, as well as a 1765 edition of Apology for the True Christian Divinity, a classic title written in 1678 by Robert Barclay of Urie who was known as the “Great Quaker Apologist.” I will not be purchasing this item, offered by a bookseller in the U.K., as the asking price is $466.99 US! However, an 1848 copy of the title (although not in as good condition) is available for an opening bid of $24.99.

In searching for surname material, look under variant spellings as well as common misspellings of surnames.

3. Genealogy Search.

If you are feeling very adventuresome, you can browse the “Everything Else” category under its subheading of Genealogy. There were an overwhelming 48,461 items on offer the day I searched, but the categories entice you to investigate further: Births, Marriages and Deaths (6,288 items), Census Records (613), City and State Directories (5,795), Coats of Arms (3,474), County and State Histories (10,019), Family Trees (6,687), Immigration and Passenger Lists (136), Maps (4,601), Military Records (1,139), “Other” (9,640). One caveat –  many items in this category are reproductions on CD, rather than the original document. Read the descriptions carefully to make sure you know what you are purchasing.

Under Military Records, I searched for the 6th Connecticut, the unit in which my great-grandfather and my great-great-grandfather both served during the Civil War. Here I found Charles K. Cadell’s 1875 book, The Old Regiment, Its War Record 1861-65, available as a searchable reproduction on CD for $9.99. At the price, it will be a good addition to my Civil War resource collection.

The Family Tree category calls for care in selecting items for purchase. There are many compiled genealogies and it will be difficult to ascertain the amount of documentation available for the information they include. Some items are publications in Halbert’s World Book of (fill in the surname) series. This series has been criticized extensively in genealogical literature and does not provide valid (or useful) research. However, one unusual collection is available for your bid (one bid already on record) beginning at $19.99. The description for this item reads, “It is a very old paper with locks of hair from each of the Budd family members. I looked them up and they lived in Wayne County, New York. James Budd was born in approximately 1791. Each lock of hair has a tiny ribbon on it. There are samples from James Budd, Harriet Budd, Eunice Budd, Jesse Budd, Jacob Reed, Abbie E. Reed, Joseph Budd, Orsamus Budd and Emeline Budd. On the back, there is a handwritten poem, “The Greenwood Tree.” It is signed at the bottom by Daniel H. Budd…This came from the estate of a local lady who had family members living in Wayne Co., New York, as far back as the early 1700s.” Wow, if your ancestors were members of the Budd family in Wayne County, New York, this purchase would be essential, almost at any price!

Many historical institutions monitor EBay on a regular basis in order to acquire relevant materials for their archival collections. In addition, state libraries/archives occasionally locate public records for sale and take steps to retrieve these documents which may belong to them by state law. If you should see such original documents offered for sale, please contact your local state archives.

I hope you will include EBay in your research. You may find material that will help illustrate the life of an ancestor, or even specific family documents and oddities such as the Budd locks of hair collection. Happy hunting!

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