Galesburg City Directory: Part of the Elephant

In today's ever-present computers, it is reasonable to be concerned about privacy. Is big brother or big industry peering in your financial bedroom window? Are the credit card companies and insurance companies gathering data so they can only offer loans and medical insurance to those who don't need it? Perhaps.

However, the gathering and selling of personal data, such as is done on a daily basis today, did not begin with computers. It was alive and well in Galesburg 60 years ago. If you had the money, you could learn all about your neighbors, kin, and strangers who you didn't know but perhaps wanted to know about. Money is power. Knowledge is power. Even in the 1930s, money and knowledge were closely related.

In one of my antique store searches in Galesburg, I came across a 1939 Galesburg City Directory. It had an asking price of $10. I thought it was a little high until I noticed that the printed asking price in 1939 was also $10. That seemed like a lot of money for the time. Particularly since it was heavily adorned with various advertisements. I began to flip through the pages and was confronted with a language, or perhaps more accurately a shorthand, that was about as baffling as computer language. However, I finally found the translator that converted the mix of abbreviations and single letters into usable information. And with the price of $10, that information would be useful and usable to only those who could afford it.

Much of this information contained in this book, for each head of household, we would today, find to be personal and probably would prefer it not to be published. However, it was published and it does provide some insight, good and perhaps not so good, into our ancestors. So, I purchased the Galesburg ''personal database'' for 1939.

I found two great uncles on the Hogan side of my family. For them, I learned that they each owned homes in Galesburg. One was married, with a wife named Ella, but no children living at home. The other had no wife. Both had electricity. One had a telephone. Neither had a car or truck. One worked as a laborer. Since it didn't specify where, I assume he had no permanent work location, as others generally had their employer's name specified. The other was with the ''WPA'' or Works Progress Administration. Humble roots.

On the other side of my family, the Williamsons were also listed. They were farmers and some were also involved in other business activities. Their codes tended to be more complex and longer-- listing trucks, tractors, and sometimes more than one ''auto.'' It became clear who lived on which side of the tracks in my family tree. But then again, I already had a pretty good feel for that.

Although these data have some genealogical interest, I am not entirely sure what purpose they served at the time. Perhaps it was a local Who's Who or a rough guide to the assets that a particular customer might have. The Directory must have served a more practical purpose than simply satisfying your curiosity about a neighbor. From my perspective, the listing of autos, trucks, tractors, telephone, electricity, etc. certainly says something about one's lifestyle, but may reflect either financial success or excessive debt that hasn't come home to roost yet. On the other end, lack of these assets may reflect someone's poverty or someone's disdain for such assets while accumulating substantial wealth.

In any event, such relatively obscure documents do give us nosey genealogists another small tool to peer into the personal history of our ancestors. We can learn a little about the ''quality of life'' they lived, at least in terms of how we define it today. We can find out a little about their assets, how they earned their money, and who they share it with (wife and children). Such documents shed little light by themselves, but when pieced together, like parts of an incomplete puzzle, we begin to create a sense of a real person, a real family. Unfortunately, like the blindfolded scientists who were directed to different parts of an elephant and told to describe what he could ascertain, our perception must be incomplete, partially inaccurate, and always subject to what part of the beast we are given to observe. Also, like elephants, some parts of our ancestry are better to view than others.

It is up to each of us to use our best, unbiased analysis of the pieces of puzzles that we can find to build our incomplete picture of our own ancestry. When we make an assumption, it should be stated that it is an assumption and on what basis the assumption is made. Our descendants and kin, being human (mostly at least), are more likely to remember our errors than our successes.

It is the details of life-- successes and failures-- that open up a window to our ancestors. Study and record your part of the elephant well.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online November 24, 1999

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