Ephemera: Substitutes for the 1890 US Federal Census

Genealogical ephemera can be wonderfully useful in filling in the gaps left by the absence of the 1890 US federal census. You can find ephemera of all kinds in your grandma’s attic, in local archives and historical societies, scanned onto websites like Ancestry.com, and even for sale on eBay. These are some common types of genealogy ephemera, and what information it can give you.

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Without the 1890 US federal census, there is a twenty-year gap in important genealogical information for genealogists. This gap is often quite frustrating because a lot of things can happen in a family in that amount of time. The years between 1880 and 1900 essentially become a genealogical black hole without other sources of information being available to fill in the gap. The good news is that there are plenty of alternative sources of information available to use.

Some of it is available to everyone, while some is available only to those who are lucky enough to find it. These miscellaneous sources are often things you come across by chance and are particular to your family. These sources are called ephemera. Here are some of the most common genealogy ephemera you may find that can help fill in those 1890 census gaps in your family tree.

Guest Books—Just like we do today, our ancestors often kept guest books for various special occasions. Because weddings were usually smaller affairs in the late 1800s, guest books are more likely to be found for things like funerals, birthday parties, and anniversary parties. Sometimes, you might even find one for a family reunion. These will let you know who was where and when, who was alive at what time, who had children, and the names of the children.

Baby Books—These became popular in the early 1900s, but they were in limited use before that. You might come across one from the late 1800s that proud parents recorded information about their precious little one in, possibly including names of grandparents and siblings. The book might even belong to a previously unknown child of your family.

Scrapbooks—People kept scrapbooks from at least the late 1700s. A scrapbook from the period between 1880 and 1900 may include newspaper clippings, cards, letters, photographs, and other mementos that were important to that person. Any of these things could give you valuable information on a person or a family that the 1890 census would have otherwise provided.

Family Bibles—This is a classic way to fill in blanks on a family tree in the absence of official records. Not only were family bibles excellent genealogical tools for the days before birth, death, and marriage records became standardized and required, they will help you fill in those gaps in family knowledge left by the 1890 census. The good news here is family bibles were at the height of their genealogical popularity in the mid to late 1800s, so your chances of finding one are high.

Diaries—Just like teenagers keep diaries today, diaries were kept by people of all ages, and by both men and women in earlier times. The things they record in them can range from basic weather information and what they did that day, to detailed descriptions of their feelings and activities. If you find a diary from an ancestor from this period, it is a true genealogical treasure.