Writing Ancestors Stories Led to HathiTrust for Historical Context

Have you ever decided to write an ancestor’s story only to discover you don’t know enough about their historical time? Did you let that stop you? I remember when I was trying to write about my grandmother I found it challenging to “add meat to the bones” of her story. After a great deal of online research, I learned of some unique digitized publications which provided a window into the past; my grandmother’s present. In this post I will share some of those publications with you.


What is Historical Context you might ask? Well it may be the fashion trends during your ancestor’s time or the popular recipes or child rearing concepts. It might be the weather and how it impacted rural ancestors. The laws of the time would be important to know as well; what was legal and what wasn’t. Were there military conflicts? Were there social conflicts? The possibilities are endless.


Just as today, social media including newspapers and magazines are some of the most obvious sources for what is happening in our world. In bygone years print versions of newspapers and magazines provided individuals with current events. Utilizing online resources to locate these resources can be time consuming. In this post I will share one particular resource, Hathi Trust and demonstrate the wide variety of digitized publications available.


What is HathiTrust? From the website, https://www.hathitrust.org/digital_library here is their description: “HathiTrust Digital Library is a digital preservation repository and highly functional access platform. It provides long-term preservation and access services for public domain and in copyright content from a variety of sources, including Google, the Internet Archive, Microsoft, and in-house partner institution initiatives.”

There are partner institutions affiliated with the site, mostly large colleges and universities but you can also login as a guest using your Google, Yahoo, Microsoft or several other online entities. You can share your own collection if you are so inclined.

However for this discussion let’s talk about what you can find here and how it can enhance your ancestor’s story.


By Title – just a few. There are many issues of each of these throughout the 19th and 20th century.  Heavily endowed with fashion and illustrations there are also recipes and appropriate conduct for girls and ladies.

  • Ladies Home Journal
  • Harper’s Weekly
  • Godey’s Lady’s Book
  • Harpers Bazar
  • Suffragette Publications

GENERAL RESOURCES  – these are more news heavy with lots of illustrations. If you do a search for cooking + 19th century through google one of the results goes directly to HathiTrust with numerous different cookbooks. Below are ten plus publications I found. If you have a title or a subject you are interested in it can most likely be found in this online resource.

  • Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly
  • Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War
  • The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine
  • Atlantic Monthly
  • Farmers Almanac
  • Fannie Merritt Farmer – Boston Cooking School Cook Book
  • Numerous cookbooks
  • Sewing and Quilting
  • Carpentry
  • Dairy Farming
  • Poultry Raising


This is great, such wonderful resources but how are you going to use this in your ancestor’s story?  I would determine a time frame I was interested in, let’s say 1890-1900 and I would browse through the various publications for those years to get a feel for what the fashions were, how the writers were influencing the readers, what the business, farming or political environment was.  Perhaps you want to include bits about the suffragette movement especially if you suspect your ancestress may have been involved. Read and research in the various publications to develop a clear picture, and then using that translate it to your story.

It takes time and study to gather enough information for you as the writer to develop an understanding of the times. You may only use a small percentage of what you learned but you will know and your readers will know the information is authentic.


As genealogists and family historians, professional or amateur, we know we must cite our sources. It is no different when you are writing your ancestor’s story. It is part of the Genealogical Proof Standard, the fifth element, “a soundly written, coherently written conclusion.”

It gets a little tricky I think at this point. Do you use footnotes or endnotes or perhaps a combination of endnotes and bibliography? I think it is a personal preference but for endnotes are less intrusive in a story situation.


I hope this information gives you some ideas on where to research to learn about the life and times of your ancestors. The content in magazines of the time is real world information. It is likely your ancestors read these magazines, saw the ads and as women poured over the new fashions of the day.

Did this help you? Did you find the resources interesting? Please leave a comment. I would love to hear from you.

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