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By Ryan Taylor

Photo: Ryan and his cousin Janet in the 1950s

Computers help us organize our family history data. Have we considered that they could help us distribute family history too?

The Dorchester Historical Society is in a suburb of Boston. A creative member of DHS sends out an e-mail newsletter on behalf of the society-every day. It's called Dorchester Illustration of the Day. He scans an historical photo and sends it out with a little information about what people can find in it.

The result of this is that society members have the chance to learn a little about Dorchester history -- and painlessly. The society also ensures they keep in touch. They are reminded of the society's existence every day and see a concrete value for their membership fee.

It's a great idea, and one of the most original historical society projects I've seen.

What has that to do with family history?

A family's historian could use the same means to spread genealogical information to their relations, and perhaps stimulate more interest at the same time.

Most of us have extensive collections of photographs. There are old studio pictures of people in funny clothes, and snapshots showing first days at school, Christmas celebrations, family gatherings. These provide plenty of fodder for a daily photograph. Even non-genealogists like looking at old pictures -- it gives us a chance to laugh at the way we used to look.

I saw a complaint this week about how everyone in the 1970s looked 'unkempt'. You know, the long hair, the bell bottoms, the droopy sleeves. An indignant elderly person (of my own age) answered back, "You don't understand. We spent hours kempting ourselves before we went out. We wanted to look that way."

And now we discover that people born in the 1980s think we looked a mess. That's funny because at the time, people born in the 1920s thought the same thing about us. Two generations with but a single thought.

If you send out pictures, don't concentrate on nineteenth century studios shots. They are fun, but people enjoy seeing pictures of persons they know. Granny aged 18. Uncle Bill with the car he was so proud of.

So you see, old photographs can stimulate discussion as well as entertain. Put together a simple distribution list on your email and start sending family photos to unsuspecting relatives. You'll be popular!

A recent article in the New York Times said that our ancestors a century ago might not recognize us because we are so much bigger than they were.

My Taylor ancestors lived in a slum and didn't have enough to eat. They were tiny. But my Lunn ancestors worked a farm and lived outdoors. My grandmother and her brothers were all over six feet tall.

It is true that improved nutrition and cleaner air have helped us live longer. Apparently people of 50 could expect to be suffering from one or more chronic diseases in the past. Now they can be active and healthy for decades after that.

Although in the past people died younger-often of diseases that we no longer fear-I wonder if they were in general really 'small, relatively weak and sickly'. How would they have done so much work?

Housework, farm chores and factory labour used up more energy then than they do now. One reason we have the strength to play sports, jog and exercise is that we don't work in the same ways we used to. I am not convinced that the world was as droopy as the researchers would like us to believe.

To find the Times article, go to the New York Times website and search on "So Big and Healthy Nowadays."
Posted September 4, 2006
Column copyright © 2006 Ryan Taylor

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