Family Mysteries: Revealed through holiday cards and letters

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This is a guest post by genealogist James L. Tanner, a retired trial attorney from Arizona now living in Utah. He is the author of two popular genealogy blogs, Genealogy’s Star and Rejoice, and be exceeding glad. With over 30 years of genealogy experience, he currently volunteers at the Brigham Young University Family History Library in Provo, Utah.

Many countries around the world have a tradition of sending greeting cards to friends and relatives during the holiday seasons. In the United States, there is also a strong tradition of sending family letters at the end of the year reviewing important events. In the last 100 years or so, these holiday cards and letters  have also contained photos and valuable information about family members. Sometimes the information contained in a card or on a photo may be priceless and could resolve long-standing family mysteries. A card from a distant relative may identify someone whose relationship you never knew about or even suspected.

"Burns Mont. Ayr Postcard 1899" (Credit: Tony Corsini at en.wikipedia. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons)

Because these greeting cards are personal documents, few of this type of genealogical resources have made their way into archives and few have been digitized. There are digital images of holiday cards online, but they seldom contain any helpful inscriptions. To find these valuable records you may need to find relatives and friends of the deceased who saved the cards for sentimental reasons. Even a simple greeting card with only a signature may be helpful in establishing a time and place for a previously unknown relative, especially if the mailing envelope is found with a postage stamp and cancellation. Cards sent for a birthday may also help to establish the age of the recipient.

The tradition of sending out greeting cards dates back thousands of years to the ancient Chinese and the Egyptians who sent out cards to celebrate the new year. In Europe, handmade greeting cards date back as early as the 1400s. The first known published greeting card was created by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 in London, England. The first cards printed in the U.S. are credited to a German immigrant, Louis Prang, in Boston in 1856 (Greeting Card Association, The History of Greeting Cards, http://www.greetingcard.org/abouttheindustry/history/tabid/72/default.aspx, (accessed 26 November 2015)).

Many people save their greeting cards from year to year, but few are preserved after death. It is always important to search home sources for anything that might be related to the family, including letters, photos and cards. Scrapbooks are another good place to find letters, photo and holiday cards. After you do a thorough search of your own old boxes and drawers, you should make sure to contact immediate family members, friends of the family, close relatives, associates of your parents who may still be living, distant relatives and even old folks from the same area. All of these have the potential to have memories or even actual documents and photos. They may not be willing to part with the keepsakes, but may be willing to let you scan or photograph the items especially if you explain that you wish to preserve them for family history. If an older relative has died, it may also be possible to contact their children or other close relatives to see if any valuable genealogical material may have been kept.

Don’t forget to review old guest lists and address books if you can find them. Many people kept an address list and this can be used to find friends and associates who may still have cards or letters from your ancestors. More remote ancestors may have had their “papers” preserved by a special collections library or historical society. It is definitely worthwhile to search the catalogs of any of the major libraries in the state where your ancestors resided and also the holdings of any local or state historical societies. Finding a holiday or greeting card may be the only example of an ancestor’s handwriting and signature that you find.

Vintage Christmas Card (Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vintagehalloweencollector)

From a more personal standpoint, holiday cards and other greeting cards can make a valuable contribution to your own personal or family history. This is especially true if your family has the tradition of writing a family letter around the time of the holidays or at the end of a year. In our own family, we have a tradition of having each of our children and grandchildren write a short letter to their parents and grandparents every year. These letters are preserved in a binder year by year. It is a holiday tradition to open the new letters each year and re-read the older ones. All of these letters become valuable contributions to our family history.

Many of the memories of my own family have been preserved through greeting cards. This is a photo taken of our old “family home” in Arizona where my father was born. Because of the note on the photo sent as a Christmas card, we can accurately date the home and people in the photo. Although they may be hard to located, greeting cards of all kinds can help add important details that might otherwise have been lost.

Greeting card from James' Great-grandmother, 1943.

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  • Lorna Dalzell LeBrun


    December 21, 2015

    Our family retained a post card from my great uncle to my grandfather. He was the son of my grandfather’s sister. She had been adopted by her uncle as a young teenager when her father died and we knew nothing of this family. I was able to track my great uncle because of this post card and the date and location stamp. He was a Minister in Northern Ireland and then Scotland and then went with the Royal Army Medical Corps and died in Mesopotamia in 1917. In the future I hope some of his descendants find my information on my family tree through MyHeritage and are able to track their family back to 1710. More information is found by families sharing information than through historic resources.
    Postcards and letters are gold when it comes to piecing family members together.
    Lorna

  • Jackie


    December 22, 2015

    have a look at the card craft sites. They have Victorian cards.

  • Ruth Lynne Cannon Snow


    December 22, 2015

    What an inspiring article. My mother grieves that she has not kept a personal history, BUT she has told us stories of her life ever since we were born, made Christmas letters all in rhyme of our family’s doings for the year, kept wondrous scrapbooks full of photos and details still remembered at her 95 years of age. I’m calling to read her your words. Thank you SO much.

  • Victoria


    December 25, 2015

    I have so many postcards that were my grandmother’s– all holidays (even Washington’s birthday!), birthdays, get-well, as well as cards to her from her brother’s he was stationed overseas during WW 2 up to travel postcards from my Mom detailing our family vacations in the 1970’s This really is a trove of information, and she gave them all to me! 🙂 And I absolutely treasure every one.

  • geoffrey


    January 1, 2016

    I have found a considerable amount of information from a collection of postcards I have kept since a young boy.They date from early 1900s and have given me so much info regarding my mothers side of the family,but they have also led to facts that have raised more questions.Unfortunately the last person that could have given me answers died some 10 years ago.My advice to all you people who are interested in family is ask questions NOW before granma or grandad or any family die.

  • margaret


    January 9, 2016

    Oh Geoffrey you are so right, ask questions before too late. I have a treasure trove of early 1900’s Post Cards, Valentine Cards, WWI Post Cards, Letters, from Switzerland , Iceland, Missouri, California, England. and the STAMPS are awesome. I have put them in Albums. I am thinking this is just what I have here, as my Grandmother’s went from Family to Family, so they’d get Mail at each place they stayed. Yet not everyone keeps old letters etc. Someone passes away they think it’s junk and throw it out. I have asked Relatives and they didn’t keep any thing How sad. I know they use to send Post Cards with Family photos on front, and I have 2 early 1900’s with painted Photos and have no one to ask if they are Family, or just Paintings of anyone. And I didn’t really get interested in Genealogy till after they had passed. So one does not think of asking questions. Thank God my mother was great at telling her life growing up, in the dirty 30’s, and Dates, she could tell you the exact date. Just awesome!!!. And all the little notes she wrote “The Way it Was” I found after she passed , I taped them to sheets of paper and did a whole Album of them.. What a memory.. Even now I still have questions, and will never know. Also a Note:: LABEL, and DATE , the backs of all Photos you have, so Descendants will know who exactly they are.. Right now I have 12 Albums. I look through them in the evening. What a Treasure.