Ryan Taylor Your house has a history, too


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By Ryan Taylor

How old is your house? The story behind it-and the other ancestral houses of your family-can be easy to find.

Graphic artist Jane MacNamara of Toronto used her own row house to demonstrate the records houses have generated throughout their existence. She was lecturing at the recent Ontario Genealogical Society Seminar 2004 in Toronto. In her view, it is worthwhile finding out about our ancestors' homes "right down to their taste in wallpaper."

MacNamara's house is one hundred years old this year. She began by showing us the original building permit, which gave the location, construction materials and cost ($7000 for six houses in 1904). She did urge caution-building did not necessarily follow the issuing of the permit right away.

City directories have a variety of uses. They have both a name section and a street section. In one, everyone is listed alphabetically. In the other, the streets are alphabetical and then the residents are listed by house number. This is a good way to find out who the neighbors were.

You can also find out when people moved, through their disappearance from one address and appearance at another.

Men and grownup working children are listed, but early directories omit married women. They are included from the period between the wars. Another addition at that time are tiny bells beside the names, indicating the house had a telephone. It is interesting to think that many people did not have a telephone until after World War II.

Fire insurance maps show closeup outlines of houses and all their outbuildings. The originals are colored according to construction materials. A real sense of what the house was like is possible. These maps exist even for some small communities.

Tax assessment records will give exact location, and sometimes the local planning designation which may help in searching in deeds. In a 1906 tax roll for Toronto, MacNamara found information on name, age, eligibility to vote, whether owner or tenant, occupation, owner's address, size of lot, how many children in the house (for school purposes) and whether a public or separate school supporter. She pointed out that, although assessment records are not a census, they have census characteristics.

A series of years of these tax records should be searched, looking for consistency of information or changes over the years, which will provide more family history information.

In Ontario, many of these records are at the Archives of Ontario. MacNamara suggests looking locally first, as many municipalities still have their records either at city hall or in the area archives.

Local photograph collections may include pictures of houses from an early period. MacNamara had found shots of the locale where her house was built from some pictures demonstrating methods of street paving. Searching for these pictures can be fun. You find all sorts of interesting images, even if they don't feature your own family's history.

MacNamara said there were many other resources for finding house and neighborhood history, from these public resources down to private archives, and even the old Eaton's catalogs. The catalogs demonstrate changes in furnishings over the years. You can get an idea when grandma switched from a big wood-burning range to the new, smaller electric or gas stoves (in the 1920s). You'll never look at your house the same after you find that it has both a history and a personality, too.

Posted June 9, 2004
Column copyright © 2004 Ryan Taylor

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