Sunday, 12 July 2015

Stepping into their shoes

We live in a different world today.
How many of us try to picture what life would have been like for our ancestors. But will any of us get even close to understanding their lives.

Earlier this week just as I was retiring to bed and cleaning my teeth (with an electric toothbrush) we had a power cut. The bathroom had no windows and I found myself plunged into darkness.
I was away from home but knew where the fuse box was and a torch and as it was not totally pitch black went to investigate whether a fuse had blown. No we had lost all power.

At the time I thought how long can we manage without electricity, with food in the refrigerator and freezer and mobile phones needing charging. It was restored after a while and had I been asleep I would have been none the wiser. I note that others I know have had much longer power outages of several hours.

Now I go to write my post this month I reflect on how different our lives are today to those of our ancestors. Our priorities have changed so much. 

All of my grandparents were born at the end of the Victorian era and during their lifetimes much had changed. Time lines such as this one from the British Library or this one from the BBC, show us the major world events and politics but little about the lives of the everyday working person .
Museums such as this one in York try to recreate scenes to help us picture what it may have been like using original or copied items of that era. The Museum of English Rural Life is currently being redeveloped and is using social media to keep potential visitors on board with the messages they want to portray. But can any of the scenes we set of how life was really give us a true understanding of their lives.

So much of what we do has to fit with the social norms of society. We may live in a more liberal society today where there are many single parents bringing up children alone. We talk to the older generation about how things were when they were children and my own childhood is history to my son and nieces and nephews. I can try to convey to them how it was before everyone had colour televisions, automatic washing machines, computers and mobile telephones. But how the innovations have impacted can at first be quite subtle, so much so, that one can barely remember a time without them around. If we have problems recalling the changes that have happened in our own lifetime then we really do need to consider what may have changed in our ancestors lives that could be lost to us. Many could not read or write, photography was expensive so much was passed on as oral history and we all know how unreliable that can be with facts being distorted.  

We cannot think about the past without relating it to our own experience and knowledge. If you have no knowledge of how an implement was used or what it was used for then you can only guess and such guesswork is based on what you know. We have to believe what we are told until we learn otherwise or understand how to distinguish what is possible. 
The same thing is true when we find documents or other items that may relate to our family. A new researcher may not be aware how unreliable a record group may be or of reasons why.
As genealogists we must all realise that no matter how many documents, pictures, stories, etcetera we find we will never be able to step into the shoes of our ancestors.

Our Knowledge does not equate with their Knowledge


  1. Hi Hilary, Reading your post reminded me of the time I was searching for probate records for my grandmother and discovered she left her Electrolux fridge to my father. Not something we would probably do now days. You right when you say we have to put things we find in the context of the day that the people lived. Clearly she valued her fridge.

  2. Interesting thoughts, Hilary, and so true. Assumptions are dangerous things! But I think what you say is one reason I love looking at the lives of ancestors and putting the bare facts into context.

  3. Great thoughts to review, over and over. Thanks Hilary.

  4. I think one of the most interesting things about doing my family history is to try and figure out how their lives were lived during their times. Sometimes it takes me a long time to realize the most obvious things - travel before railroads and even roads, and things like that.


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