Images of our ancestors bring so much life to a person previously only known through census records and cemeteries. But for many we simply don’t have the coveted photograph. Our imagination does the heavy lifting. I don’t know about you, but I tend to conjure up all farmers about the same! Sad really. You’d think that I would be pleased by the descriptions offered in some documents, most specifically the World War I Draft Registration Cards (DRC).
Example below: One of the better quality copies of the DRC. They are of such poor quality usually that I can’t even read them. This is an example from Lynn, Massachusetts, and it is about as useful as most I’ve come across. Since it’s barely legible, I’ll translate. Line one asks for height and build – sometimes these are simply boxes to check. The options for height are Tall, Medium, or Short; build can be Slender, Medium, or Stout. Line two asks for eye color and hair color.
I confess, I find these descriptions almost more frustrating than not having a photo. They are SO vague as to be almost useless. Typically I look to see if any physical defect is listed and barely bother to read the four other descriptors.
The main problem is that the data was entered in by a staff person, not the actual registrant. Did the staffer simply eyeball the registrant and fill in what they thought or were the registrants actually giving information of how they viewed themselves? Either way, it’s highly subject. What is “medium build” anyway? About 3/4th of my male ancestors that’s what! If I see hair color other than brown or grey (no Nordic ancestors for me) it would be a miracle. So, I don’t bother much with it.
And it’s usually right when I decide something’s worthless that I realize it might actually hold potential. We’ve gotta use what we have, because, let’s face it, there aren’t any new photos of 1880 being taken. I decided to do an experiment. What information could I glean from these DRC descriptions if 1) I have no idea what the ancestor looked like, and 2) I have photos of him. Could they be useful at all?
For me, this limits the WWI DRC comparisons to my great-grandfathers (GGFs because I can be lazy). But to expand my sample I’m using my husband’s and other family member’s my age GGFs as well.
Here are two examples of GGFs for whom no photos exist:
A) Joseph Stephen Tam
Short, Medium build, Brown eyes, Black hair, no physical defects noted.
Brown eyes, Black hair describes MANY folks on this side of the family so not surprising. Medium build darn you! Short, okay, that’s interesting to me – more so if they had entered an actual height. Maybe he was 5’9”, an average height for today’s man, but came from a family of taller men and so considered himself short. Maybe he was 5’1”, who knows.
B) Frank Hamilton Lang
Medium height, Stout build, Dark brown hair and eyes, no physical defects.
Ohh, stout! While I’m not totally sure what the army thought stout was I think of someone maybe more muscular, stocky even. What cracks me up about this is that I said to my husband just the other day that I thought our 3 year old was “stocky”. He took offense to it, but apparently it comes from his own family connection – this was his great-grandfather. Nice that Frank Lang qualified the brown eyes and hair with “dark” too.
These GGFs have photos (sometimes many) to compare their descriptions to:
C) Thomas Aloyious Langen
Tall, Slender build, Gray eyes, Brown hair
I have a lot of photos of Thomas but most of them are head shots, few are of the full figure of the man. So knowing that he considered himself tall and slender does add to how I picture him. It’s also interesting because his great-grandson and great-great-granddaughter are also tall and slender by any standards. Neat to see the gene pool dripping down!
D) Floyd Allan Bash Sr.
Medium height (5’7 ½”), Medium build, Blue eyes and Black hair
Finally! Someone writes in an actual height! Although personally I might consider 5’ 7 ½” on the short side. What really catches my eye is the eye color – blue. As I said, we are brown eyed folk. With the exception of my brother; I was always jealous of his blue eyes. Now that we know where he gets it I can quit blaming the milkman. Every photo I have of my great-grandfather Bash is black and white – here he is on his wedding day. I would have had no idea his eyes were blue if not for this description.
I’ve saved my favorite for last:
E) Ludwig Harburger
This is from my husband’s great-grandfather’s passport application (he was from Germany as if you couldn’t tell by the name.) I’m amazed at the parts of the face they expected people to describe. Was he given a list to choose from or did he just come up with these adjectives on his own? Square chin, broad forehead, Roman nose (my personal favorite). He sounds handsome until you get to “ordinary face.” I don’t have any photos of Ludwig, but I do have many of his son Philip. This could have described Philip perfectly as well, who was indeed handsome.
Of course, we don’t have the luxury of descriptions for many of the women in our past. Maybe a passport application. Are there other sources you use to create a mental image of a female ancestor? I hold out hope that someone somewhere has photos of these relatives that I might come across someday to really fill in the details. That is what drives me to write Unclaimed Ancestors.
In short, I’ve learned my lesson. I won’t pass over these seemingly vague descriptions anymore. Just take them with a grain of salt!
Jodi Bash is a genealogist living in Houston, Texas with her husband and three children. She is founder of Family at Your Fingertips and is passionate about finding creative and tangible ways to connect with family history. She runs two blogs: Unclaimed Ancestors is an effort to connect old photos with descendants, and a way to scratch the ever-present research bug! A more personal blog at Family at Your Fingertips explores family heirlooms and the love of history. Jodi has been researching family history for over 15 years, and is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists. She holds a B.A. in History and English from the University of Texas at Austin, a Masters in American History from the University of Houston, and an M.B.A. from Rice University. You can reach Jodi at Jodi@familyatyourfingertips.com and follow her on twitter via @famatfingertips.