Ordinary People

I have noticed that blogs written by Ordinary People (by which I mean people who don’t blog regularly as part of their job assignment) tend to have long silent periods followed by abashed apologies. I will not apologize. It’s been too cold to walk, and I’ve been almost too busy to think, besides.

But this morning I did walk, and one of the things I was thinking about was Ordinary People and the Internet.

I’ve been transcribing some letters written by my great-grandfather. The ones I was typing this morning were written in 1887 and describe the death of his five-week-old daughter, his first child, “My darling little baby that I had learned to love and to hope so much for.” It is inevitable that in a letter that old, there will be references that tantalize. One was to “Metten’s food,” which I took to be some sort of infant formula. In fact, I found that it was actually Mellin’s Infant Food, a powder to be added to cow’s milk for nursing infants, and I learned a great deal about it—its composition, history, and advertisement and sale in the United States.

All this would not have been possible without the Internet and efficient search engines (thank you, Google). Even more amazing, though, was what I was able to find out about poor Mary’s final resting place. My great-grandfather, in his letter to his parents, wrote that the baby had been buried, in a white casket covered with white flowers, in Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery. At that cemetery’s Web site, I found that I could “Locate a Loved One.” A search for “Mary Benton” turned up four results, one of which was the baby who, had she lived, would have been my great-aunt. When I clicked on the ID number, I was presented with a PDF of the actual grave record card, which provided information I could not have obtained any other way.

I am constantly amazed at the wealth of information that is available online, some of it information I never dreamed existed. In a casual search for my great-grandfather the other day, I ran across a letter being offered for sale, a letter written to my great-grandfather when he was at West Point. That letter must have been in the possession of our family at one time, and one can only speculate how it came into the hands of the History Broker, but the price being asked makes me even more determined to guard carefully my great-grandfather’s letters and other writings describing the San Francisco earthquake and his experiences in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War.

We all think our families are special, even if they’re not special to anyone but us, but the fact that we can find so much information online about family members—even information we never dreamed existed—still seems like a miracle to me. As more and more institutions (museums, libraries, cemeteries, public agencies) digitize their holdings, it becomes possible to get more and more information about everything, but in particular about Ordinary People (e.g., my family) and Everyday Life (e.g., nineteenth-century infant formula). To me this value outweighs many times over the waste of server space devoted to porn, spam, and popup ads (not to mention worthless blogs like this one), and I welcome further development along these lines.

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1 Response to Ordinary People

  1. Glad to see you back! We’ve been amazed at the wealth of family information online too. Recently I stumbled upon a site where someone has uploaded photos of all the gravestones from a cemetery where many of our ancestors are buried. Fascinating stuff!

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