Placing Your Female Ancestors in Historical Context

Her Story - Uncovering Women's Lives

Women cycling in Paris during World War II.
Getty / Hulton Archive

We can’t completely understand our female ancestors without studying the history of the times and places in which they lived. Social history can help us to understand your ancestor’s motivations and decisions, and the factors which influenced them. It can also help to fill in the gaps in their story that are left untold by more traditional records.

Create a Timeline

Timelines are a good first step when placing ancestors in historical context. A traditional ancestor timeline would begin her birth and end with her death. In between, add significant events in your female ancestor’s life and supplement with historical events from the community, the country, and even the world. This will most likely help you to uncover interesting facts about the life your ancestor led, as many of their actions were undoubtedly deeply influenced by the events of the world around them. There are many sources for historical timelines, both printed and online, which can help you to complete a timeline for your female ancestors and understand their lives in the context of the world around them.
More: Using Timelines to Document Your Family Tree


For female ancestors who lived during the 20th century, postcards are a delightful way to learn more about their lives and communities. The first ‘picture’ postcards are generally credited as appearing in Austria about 1869. European countries quickly adopted them and the U.S. soon followed suit with postcards being very popular worldwide by the dawn of the 20th century due to their novelty and the fact that postage was cheap. These picture postcards depict towns, villages, people, and buildings around the world and are a great resource for reconstructing the lives our ancestors lived. From automobiles to hairstyles, postcards provide enticing glimpses into the past. If you are lucky enough to have postcards sent or received by your ancestors you may learn tidbits of information about the family, gain handwriting samples and even find addresses to help you track family movements. Even if you aren’t fortunate enough to have access to a family postcard collection, you can often find postcards depicting your ancestor’s hometown, clothing or hairstyles of the time period, etc.

Start with the local historical society in the area in which your ancestor lived. Many postcard collections are also beginning to spring up on the Internet. Look at postcards as a wonderful alternative to photographs for illuminating the lives of your ancestors.
More: Vintage Postcards in Family History

Period Books - Advice Books, Cookbooks, Fashion Books ...

Printed sources from the time period in which your ancestor lived can be a great source of insight into the social history of the era. Consulting period cookbooks to gain a small understanding of what life was like for women in various time periods is a favorite research technique of mine. The descriptions sometimes are more about what the author thinks women should be doing if they were more informed or organized, but even such assumptions about what women are really doing can provide helpful insight. For instance, The Art of Cooking by Mrs. Glasse, printed in 1805 and available in a reproduction edition, paints a very vivid picture of life at the beginning of the 19th century when you read her instructions for "how to remove the putrid smell which meat acquires during hot weather." It may not be a pleasant image of life at that time, but definitely provides a more complete picture of the very different challenges our ancestors faced. Similarly, advice and fashion books, as well as articles and magazines written for women lend a fascinating perspective.

Historical Newspapers

Advertisements of popular products, ‘gossip’ columns, obituaries, notices of births and marriages, long-forgotten news items pertinent to the day and even editorial comments reflecting the area’s sentiments provide another neat source for insight into the lives of your female ancestors. Newspapers are true ‘history in context,’ with local area newspapers commonly listing more biographical data than newspapers in large cities. Historic newspapers have been preserved in many areas around the world. Newspaper collections can be found in libraries, universities, archives and other repositories – primarily on microfilm. You can also search and browse many historical newspapers online in digitized format.
More: 7 Tips for Searching Historical Newspapers Online

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Placing Your Female Ancestors in Social Context

© Kimberly Powell and Jone Johnson Lewis.
A version of this article originally appeared in Everton's Family History Magazine, March 2002.