Effects of The Great Depression

I was going back over some census records recently (this is a good practice – if you’re anything like me, the first time you look at a record you’re so overwhelmed by the excitement of it that you miss half the details). My family tree is pretty bare compared to a lot of my friends’ genealogies, but they have the luxury of descending from richer stock, while I am mostly the product of poor, 19th century immigrants (the tenements in New York City are known for a lot of things, but record retention is not one of them). Since I’m limited in my ability to build backwards, I spend a lot of time fixating on and fleshing out the members of my family tree that I do know. It’s kind of nice, in a way, to get to know my ancestors as people. That’s really what this blog is about, sharing my ancestors’ stories.

You might recall that last time I posted (forever and a day ago, it seems), it was about my great grandfather, Frank Erlanger. I think a lot about Frank (almost as much as I think about his grandfathers, the Civil War vets). He is such an enigma to me, what with the name changing and various other details that family members have graced me with (perhaps subjects for future posts?). It was his census records that I was perusing for more information.

One thing I’ve always known about my dad’s family is that they were never particularly wealthy. The Germans came in the 1850s and the Irish even later and, like I said, the tenements in New York City were known for a lot of things, not many of them positive.

Overcrowding? Yes. Poverty? Check. An overabundance of opportunity? Not so much.

What I’m trying to get at, I guess, (and being very long winded about) is that when I looked at the professions column on the censuses, I expected to see what I already knew about Frank: that he had worked as a janitor in a school. It’s the same as when I look at occupations on my mom’s side of the family (who’s opportunities were a bit more plentiful, way down in Brooklyn) and expect to see lawyers and politicians. My mom’s family has been in this country longer than my dad’s and so their foundation is a little sturdier. They’ve had more time to adapt, I suppose.

Anyway, what I didn’t expect to find in the census is what I actually got:

1920 occupation

Frank’s occupation in 1920

In 1920, Frank (still Sussman) was 18 and a runner for a stock company.

1925 occupation

Frank’s occupation in 1925

In 1925, he was a bank runner, which I imagine was pretty similar to his job in 1920 (and in fact, it might have been the same job, just a difference in semantics between the census takers). By 1930, Frank was a clerk for a brokerage office, of which I wish I knew the name.

1930 occupation

Frank’s occupation in 1930

As we all know, though, the 1930s weren’t really a good time for most industry, let alone banks/stocks. And, I suppose, there’s a reason why no one in the family had ever thought to bring up (if they had ever even known) that Frank worked in a brokerage office at some point in his life. Frank seemed to be on the cusp of a promising career in 1930, so what happened?

Three words: The Great Depression.

1940 occupation

Frank’s occupation in 1940

Like so many others after the stock market crashed, Frank was probably laid off from his job. As a father and husband with mouths to feed, he was probably forced to take any job he could get, regardless of previous aspirations. It makes me sad to think his life was so hard. I think about it a lot, maybe more than I should, but I suppose that is the price you pay for caring about the dead as if they are living.

I know one of my dad’s relatives has a picture of Frank at the school where he worked. I’d love to see it one day.

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What’s in a name?

For a long time, I was having difficulty tracing my German ancestors. I had always known my grandpa’s parents were Frank Erlanger and Agnes Heffernan (who, as her name suggests, was certainly not German, but rather Irish). I was told Frank began his life Jewish, but at some point in life had converted to Catholicism. Agnes’ family had apparently not been too happy with the fact that their good, Irish Catholic daughter was marrying a German Jew; they had disowned her for it (although later I found out that might have had something to do with the fact that she was pregnant with my grandpa before the two were married, but that’s a story for another day). I assumed Frank had converted to Catholicism for his wife, but that is of yet unproven and not really important to the story. The point is, this is more or less what I had to go on in terms of searching for my ancestors. Not a lot of information, but it was something.

Frank and Agnes (right, standing) and their children celebrating the engagement of their oldest son, Joseph (my grandpa) to Mary Lynch (my nana).

Frank and Agnes were easy enough to find in the 1930 census, but everything before that was a complete mystery. Frank Erlanger, for having such a unique name, seemed to vanish when it came to any sort of paper trail before he married his wife. My dad had said they lived in New York their entire lives, but perhaps he had been wrong? I widened my search parameters, but still nothing came up. I was at a loss.

Eventually I became more knowledgeable about this whole genealogy thing and ordered Frank and Agnes’ marriage record. One of the great things about marriage records is they often include parents names, which would be critical in discovering Frank’s whereabouts pre-1930. After a few weeks of waiting, I was rewarded for my patience: Joseph Erlanger and Isabella Tobias. Finally, the mystery could be solved!

Or so I naively thought, anyway.

I began amassing census records for Joseph and Isabella Erlanger: 1920, 1915, 1910… all the way back to 1860 and their own parents, Frank’s grandparents. I now had a bunch of names and dates for family I had spent years wondering about. There was only one problem – no Frank.

Joseph and Isabella had a son, Susmann (named for Joseph’s father), who matched up nicely with Frank, but there was seemingly no way for me to determine whether or not they were the same person. Considering that Joseph and Isabella Erlanger were literally the only Joseph and Isabella in the entire country, though, I was content to believe it might be true. After all, Frank had converted to Catholicism. Couldn’t he have taken a Catholic name to better fit in with his new religion?

Still, the lack of proof nagged on me, and it wasn’t until Ancestry recently indexed the 1925 NY Census that I was able to prove my assumption correct.

In the 1920 Federal Census, Susmann is listed as living with his mother and three brothers, Harry, Edward, and Julius. Next door lived their sister, Evelyn, and her husband.

Susmann and his family in 1920

No new information there. However, in the 1925 NY Census, I was able to locate another sister, Nettie, living with her husband, Timothy Shannon, and their children. Included in their family household are three in-laws: Isabella, Harry, and Frank Erlanger.

The Shannons and Erlangers in 1925

I now had proof of Frank Erlanger living with the same brother and mother Susmann Erlanger had lived with 5 years earlier. Same relationships, consistent aging, different name. I was ecstatic. There definitely had been a name change, but it was before marriage and his presumed conversion to Catholicism. So why did Susmann change his name if not to win the approval of his wife’s disapproving family?

The answer I came up with was a sobering one (and purely my own opinion, though I think it’s a good contender for the truth). Susmann changed his name (and his religion) sometime between 1920 and 1925. Or, if we look at it another way, only a few years after the end of World War I. The interwar period. Germany had just lost to the Allies and there were a lot of negative feelings swimming around mainstream American opinion: anti-immigrant, anti-German, anti-Semitic. Though born and raised in the United States to parents who were also born and raised in the United States, Susmann Erlanger couldn’t hide what his unique name so clearly spelled out: He was German, he was Jewish, and at one point or another his family had immigrated here. Perhaps brother Harry could get through life without much hassle, but with a name like Susmann? You’re going to be noticed.

So what do you do about that name? In the days before intense background checks and several forms of ID, you simply wake up one morning and change it.

Frank-formerly-Susmann and his youngest daughter, Kathy.

The interesting part about this is that my Uncle Frank is named for his grandfather Frank, who, it ends up, wasn’t Frank at all. Although I suppose Grandfather Frank did choose that name himself, so that has to count for something.

After all, as Juliet so poignantly put it to Romeo, what’s really in a name, anyway?

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Mapping My DNA

There’s been a ton of buzz for the last few months about Ancestry.com’s new DNA testing, which maps your ethnicity and matches your tree to others who have taken the test. I, of course, signed up right away. I’ve always wanted to try DNA testing, but have never been able to justify the cost. Ancestry’s $100 seemed like a pretty good deal to me, so why not?

The test was pretty simple: spit into a tube, discover where your family lived 1,000 years ago. I sent it away with romantic daydreams of getting something back that I wasn’t expecting, Middle Eastern, Scandinavian. (A lot of people who have taken the test have been shocked to receive a high percentage of Scandinavian DNA when none of their documented ancestors have been Scandinavian. It ends up that those ancestors thousands of years ago were Vikings who settled in their conquered lands. Pretty cool, right?) Mostly, though, I was hoping for confirmation of the random Jewish and Cuban heritage that’s snuck into my Irish Catholic lines.

Well, the results are in:

Apparently my family sprung out of the ground in Ireland.

I wasn’t really expecting my results to look so… heterogeneous, but then when I thought about it, it made total sense. Of my great great grandparents, only 3 out of the 16 weren’t from Ireland or England. If the DNA test is tracing my ethnicity back 1,000 years, think of all the Irish and English people there are in my tree in comparison to the Cuban and German! If we’re looking at percentages, they’d basically be almost nonexistent. My DNA results absolutely show that.

Ancestry.com explained that the 7% Uncertain meant that those bits of DNA were too small to determine their origin. That could change with time once their DNA pool gets larger, but I’m pretty confident that’s the German and Cuban genes making an appearance. Although, who knows, maybe there’s a secret lurking in that 7% that I’m not anticipating?

Overall, I’m really glad I took the test. My family has always celebrated our Irish heritage and while I didn’t think I could feel any closer to my long ago homeland, the results of my DNA test gave me a sense of pride I wasn’t necessarily expecting, but perhaps should have anticipated.

In 2008, I was lucky enough to visit Ireland. I remember standing on the bank of some lake in the Wicklow Mountains and thinking about how my ancestors might have stood in the same spot hundreds (and now I know, thousands) of years ago and how cool that was. In America, our history is brief. The places I visit now in my every day life were only fixtures in my family tree for 200 years, maybe 300, but nothing so grand as to span the length of millennia. The tour guide on our bus in Ireland told me I looked exactly like her niece and I remember thinking that she looked like my aunts (soft features, round face, light complexion, thin hair). Now I’m better able to understand why.

Finding my roots.

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Let’s not forget the women

I find a lot of times when I’m researching my family tree that I tend to focus more on the men than the women. This isn’t some subversive attempt to undermine my gender; rather, it’s a commentary, I think, on the kinds of records available. Men held office. They voted. They had jobs and signed up for wars and left a paper trail miles longer than their female counterparts. Most of the things I know about my female ancestors that I can’t learn about from family, I learned from censuses: housewife, spoke English, attended school, gave birth to 8 children and only 5 survived. Sometimes you get lucky and discover a newspaper article or two, but (at least in my case) those tend to be of the marriage announcement, obituary, what she wore to the Friday night social variety. There just isn’t as much information.

In my never ending quest to make sense of the 1940 census, I stumbled upon my great great grandmother, Adelaide (Garrison) Jeffreys, living at her home on 341 Little Clove Rd. Want a picture of great great grandma Addie? Look no further than my blog’s header. That’s her beautiful face right in the center.

And what a picture it is, hm? Addie’s in the center, holding her son, William. Seated in front of her is Robert. The girls standing are Edith (back) and Lillian (front), my great grandmother. The boys standing are Frederick (back) and Henry (front).

A distant cousin said the picture was taken late 1896, early 1897. It definitely looks it by the way they’re dressed. I’ve talked about this before (coincidentally in a post about Adelaide’s father), but I love searching pictures for the family resemblance. I look at Adelaide’s face and I see my Pop Pop, her grandson. It’s faint, but to me it’s there.

Here she is again, but much younger in 1875, all of  10 or 11 years old.

On the 1940 census, Addie is living at the home with son Henry, daughter Adelaide (not pictured above – she wasn’t born yet), son in law Robert Perry, and four grandchildren. Her husband, Henry, died only 4 months prior to the census taking.

Here are the two of then, Henry and Addie, sitting on the steps of the gazebo he built in the back of their home on 341 Little Clove Rd, Staten Island. This was taken around 1935. Don’t they look happy?

The census doesn’t tell me much about Addie. She had an 8th grade education, didn’t have a job. She wasn’t in the CCC (shocking!). Her and Henry owned their house for $6,500, which blows my mind a little bit. Imagine owning a house in New York today for that little!

I wish I knew more about her, but I suppose that’s the curse of the genealogist. The further back you go, the harder it is to find someone today who knew any of these people. Still, despite all the unanswered questions, I look at her face at the top of my blog and think  I might have liked her, given the chance to know her.

Looking very stern around 1925 with her grandkids, Charlie and Albert Jeffreys (Pop Pop’s cousins!).

It’s a family thing, I guess.

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A 1940 Census Update

Ancestry sent out another e-mail today letting us Aces know that all 3.8 million census images should be online tomorrow by 2 pm EST. Exciting stuff! They’ve also promised a “handful of tools” that’ll help us find answers in the images, but no specifics on what that means exactly. I know all I really want at this point is everything to be indexed, but realistically that isn’t going to be happening within the next 24 hours. The e-mail does say that’s their next step, though, and that they’ve been working on it since Monday. (MyHeritage has indexed some records already and I’ve read about FamilySearch volunteers doing indexing as well.)

As for my search, well, it’s going so-so. I really want to find my Nana listed in the census so I can share it with her this weekend (Easter), but that’s proving to be a lot more difficult than anticipated. I shouldn’t be surprised, really. Nothing is ever easy when you’re looking for a bunch of John and Mary Lynches living in NYC.

I did, however, manage to locate my Pop Pop, Charles Wills, who I’ve written quite a bit about in this blog already.

There they are!

The biggest change is that my great-grandfather, (also) Charles Wills, has died. He died in 1937 rather suddenly and I know from what my mom has told me that it was very traumatic for my Pop Pop. He was only 15 at the time. Pop Pop was born with the middle name Edward, but at some point he changed it to Ambrose in honor of his father.

(My grandma, his wife, also lost her father unexpectedly as a teenager. He had a heart attack, or something like that, and she was the one who found him. What a terrible thing to experience. I wonder if it brought them closer together?)

The location of their house in 1940 - 604 Prospect Ave.

The thing I find neat about the 1940 census is there’s a mark next to the person giving the information. In this case it’s my mom’s Uncle George. There’s a lot of interesting questions, especially about jobs. Guess it makes sense, what with the Depression and all. Pop Pop was unemployed, but there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer as to why despite all the extra questions. At some point I’ll have time to sit down and really analyze it, but for now I’m just excited to have found them.

In the meantime, my search for John and Mary Lynch continues…

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Direct Me NYC

Here’s a neat resource I stumbled upon yesterday from The New York Public Library: Direct Me NYC.

Basically, it allows you to look through phonebooks from 1940 to figure out at what address your ancestors lived. Afterwards, you can convert the address into an enumeration district number, which makes searching the census a lot simpler. Whoever designed this website did a great job; it’s super easy to use. I’ve already found a bunch of my ancestors.

New York is in the process of being indexed, but Ancestry has already completed a bunch of states. Check out their list here. The great news is I’m pretty sure the images are free to look at too, even if you don’t have an Ancestry account. It’s a win/win situation for everyone!

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The year was 1940

If you’re anything like me (and I have to think you are, reading genealogy blogs), you’ve probably spent the last year or so waiting for the release of the 1940 census. I feel like I’ve been watching that countdown on Ancestry forever, so the fact that it’s being released tomorrow is kind of blowing my mind right now. I can’t wait.

A week or so ago I got an e-mail from Ancestry inviting me to register for the chance to join the 1940 Aces program. Lo and behold, I got an e-mail yesterday telling me I had been accepted!

They even gave me this fun badge!

Basically what it entitles me to is  exclusive information about the 1940s census as it’s uploaded in the coming weeks. Pretty fantastic, huh? Here’s what I have so far:

The National Archives and Records Administration will open the 1940 U.S. Federal Census on April 2, 2012—the first time this collection will be made available to the public. Once we receive the census, we will begin uploading census images to our site so the public can browse them. Initially, this collection will be what we call a browse-only collection. This means a person can scroll through the pages of the census districts much like you would look at a microfilm or a book. At the same time, we will be working behind the scenes to create an index of the census that will eventually allow people to search for their family members by name as they currently can with all other censuses onAncestry.com. Note also that the 1940 U.S. Federal Census will be accessible free of charge throughout 2012 on Ancestry.com.

Ancestry has a microsite where you can learn about the 1940 census (click here). They’ve also just released Enumeration District Maps for 1940, which will really end up being helpful in the coming days. For those who don’t know, enumeration maps outline the area included in each district.

It's that number in the top right corner of the census that you probably don't pay attention to most of the time. I know I don't!

These maps will be really useful in the coming days, because, as it says in the little blurb up there, the 1940 census is being released initially as a browse-only collection. That is, it won’t be searchable right away. In order to find your ancestors, you’re going to have to do it manually. For people who’s families lived in big cities (like mine), knowing the enumeration district number is going to be really important. I’ve checked out the maps for Kings County already to try and figure out where my family lived. I’m sure I’ll be going back to them periodically as the census is released.

That’s it for now. Stay tuned for more information!

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