I had a chance to read a rather unique book recently. I say "unique" because at first glance it was deja vu: I thought I had seen it before. After reading for a while, I changed my mind. It was similar, but different. Let me explain.
Ancestry.com recently has announced a new offering: hard bound books called "Our Name in History, The xxxxxx Name." In place of the letters "xxxxxx ," insert your own surname. These books are printed on demand, after receipt of each order. If I order such a book, the title on the copy that I receive will say, "Our Name in History, The Eastman Name." If someone named Johnson were to order a copy of the book, the book he or she received would be called, "Our Name in History, The Johnson Name."
Ancestry.com's advertising for the books states, "Our Name in History provides interesting information on a selected last name such as origin, definition, popularity and other relevant historical facts. Ancestry.com researchers pored through more than 5 billion names including the U.S. Census, immigration, birth, marriage, death and military records to fill the pages of this unique book that highlights the various details of a family name."
My first thought was that I had heard all this before. For years, tiny companies have produced custom-created "books" that claim to provide information about your family name. These companies sent cleverly-worded advertisements that insinuated that the books contained information about one's ancestral origins although they never said so in plain English. Instead, each advertisement was shrewdly phrased to sound like each book contained genealogy information when, in fact, there was none.
Once the buyer paid an exorbitant price, a cheaply-manufactured paperback booklet arrived in the mail. The "booklet" was filled with extracts from telephone directories, jokes that had nothing to do with the family name, so-called "family recipes," and even fake "family" coats of arms. Of course, the same jokes and the same recipes appeared in every book, regardless of the surname. The coats of arms were also bogus. The books never had a shred of information about your ancestry.
In the 1960s a lady named Beatrice Bailey apparently pioneered this schlock. Beatrice had an ever-changing middle name. In her advertisement sent by mail to me, she would sign her name as "Beatrice Eastman Bailey." In a letter sent to someone named Smith, she would sign her name as "Beatrice Smith Bailey," and in an advertisement sent to someone named Williams she would sign as "Beatrice Williams Bailey." Her books contained collections of telephone listings of people with the same surname that she used as her middle name in the advertisement. Beatrice Bailey apparently was a one-person operation. She was under investigation by postal authorities when she died.
You can read my earlier reviews of other such books from Halberts of Bath, Ohio at http://www.eogn.com/archives/news9633.txt and my review of a similar booklet from Morphcorp (also known as Mountain West News Service or as the Mountain Pacific News Service or as Family News Network) at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2004/07/international_s.html. Halberts was taken to court many times and eventually went bankrupt. Morphcorp was recently fined heavily for mail fraud by the Colorado State Attorney General. (See the story at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2006/02/morphcorp_settl.html.)
With that as a background, I was skeptical of the new product from Ancestry. Indeed, I wondered if the new "story behind your name" would be similar to the earlier booklets. I was soon to learn.
I was offered a chance to read one of the first such books printed. This one was entitled, "Our Name in History, The Humpherys Name" although this review would be the same for any other surname. All the books are more or less the same.
The first thing that I noticed is that it was a hard cover book with a high-quality binding. The pages are printed on high-gloss paper, similar to the paper used in fashion magazines, architecture magazines, or many of the Time-Life books. Books from the other companies I mentioned earlier always looked like they had been pasted together on someone's kitchen table. The Ancestry.com book certainly is different: it looks good.
Upon opening the book, I found a short index:
- Historical Timeline - Points of interest about the Humpherys name over the past two centuries
- Humpherys Family Facts - A variety of immigration, military, and historical facts about the Humpherys name
- Discover Your Family - Learn how to gather and organize information to help you find and learn more about your ancestors.
- Selected Sources
As I turned the glossy pages, I found a lot of well-written text although nothing that refers to specific individuals. The Introduction was a two-page article that briefly described the contents of the following pages. That was followed by a very attractive timeline that included such items as:
- 1840: Two Humpherys families living in NY and NJ
- Civil War 1861-1865: Two Humpherys Union soldiers and one Humpherys Confederate soldier
- Top Humpherys U.S. Occupations (apparently in the 1870 U.S. census): Keeping House, Farmer, At school, At home, Coal Miner
- 1881 England: Most Humpherys residents lived in London and Essex counties
- 1900: 102 Humpherys families with most living in Pennsylvania and an average household size of 4.42
- World War I: 36 Humpherys draft registrants, with most registering in Idaho
- 1920: 201 Humpherys households of which 43 percent owned a home; 80 percent of the individuals were literate
- World War II: 9 Humpherys soldiers joined the Army
- Today: Most Humpherys families live in Idaho and Utah
As you can see, this is very basic information and never mentions anyone's first name. It gives precious little genealogy information. To be sure, if you have no idea where your Humpherys ancestors lived, there are clues about the states where you might want to look first for records. However, similar information is available in numerous other places as well.
The following chapters were all somewhat similar. The section on "Name Meaning and Origin" said that it was of English origin and also stated that Humphries was an English and Welsh patronymic derived from the name "Humphrey." It also listed Humphrey as an old French personal name often spelled Humfrey.
Another section lists "Places of Origin for Humpherys Immigrants:"
Great Britain 12
New Zealand 2
NOTE: I'll leave it to others to figure out why England and Wales are listed separately from Great Britain. I have no idea why.
Another page is entitled "An Immigrant's Journal" and briefly describes the hardships of trans-Atlantic travel one or two centuries ago. No reference is given to the personal experience of anyone named Humphery.
A list of ships is given, and this time the list is limited to those that actually carried passengers named Humphery. Sadly, no dates or ports are listed.
The book goes on in a similar vein. The "Ellis Island Experience" is described without mentioning the fact that many immigrants landed in other cities and never saw Ellis Island. The westward migration is listed, Daniel Boone's adventures are briefly mentioned, slavery is described, Civil War, World War I, and World War II soldiers are all mentioned, and much more history is given. Numbers and states are mentioned frequently, but little information about Humpherys is presented.
One exception was the listing for military cemeteries: the book states that Calverton National Cemetery has two burials for people named Humphery while Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery and Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery have one each. Again, no first names and no dates are mentioned.
Another exception is the listing for census records. The book states that there were two Humpherys households listed in the 1840 census, nine in the 1860 census, eleven in 1880, jumping to 102 in 1900, 201 in 1920, and then dropping back to 191 in the year 2000 census. Many more pages of similar facts are published throughout the book but never with first names or any details.
The book ends with a section entitled, "Discover Your Family." This is an eight-page elementary tutorial on "how to get started in genealogy." It is followed by blank pedigree charts, family group sheets, and a research log for you to fill out. The last few pages contain a glossary and a bibliography.
I will have to commend this book for several things. Unlike family surname "books" produced by earlier companies, there are no pages of telephone directory listings. There are no "family joke books" and no claimed "family recipes."
The earlier books produced by other companies usually had glowing descriptions of so-called "family coat of arms" that were filled with such words as "noble," "honorable," and "castles." In contrast, the book from Ancestry.com contains a much more factual description. It states:
Faux Family Crests
You might find a print or t-shirt with your family's coat of arms emblazoned on it. Keep in mind that these are for fun. A traditional coat of arms represents an individual, not a family, clan, or surname, and the right to bear a coat of arms by inheritance must be proven through the descent of a direct-line male ancestor who was originally granted a coat of arms.
I do take my hat off to Ancestry.com for publishing that text instead of taking "the easy route" of making grandiose false statements about coats of arms as other surname books have done.
The information in Ancestry.com's "Our Name in History" is obviously derived from the company's online databases. The company has databases of detailed census records, World War I draft registrations, and much more. The books produced by Ancestry.com do contain more facts than do the past books of smaller companies that I mentioned earlier.
It appears that each book is created "on demand." That is, after someone orders it. Each book contains boilerplate text, and then numbers are inserted after a computer counts the number of matching entries in the various databases. While each book is printed on demand, the hard cover binding is first class, as is the high gloss paper used for the pages. These books look great.
In summation, I have to state that "Our Name in History" is not a genealogy book. There is little, if any, information in this book that will help you find the names and stories of your ancestors. However, this book is also quite different from the earlier "surname books" produced by Beatrice Bailey, Halberts, and Morphcorp. First of all, each book does contain many historically accurate numbers, albeit without first names. Next, there is no hype or "breathless prose" claiming noble ancestry, coats of arms, country manors, castles, or other such wild claims. It does not contain telephone listings, jokes, or so-called "family recipes." All data presented is factual.
In fact, this book is exactly what it claims to be: "'Our Name in History' provides interesting information on a selected last name such as origin, definition, popularity and other relevant historical facts."
"Our Name in History" is a glossy "coffee table" book that gives a bit of info about anonymous people who happen to share your surname. It paints a "big picture" without identifying individuals. It also gives a few clues as to where families of the name lived. For someone who is not yet a genealogist, this might be an interesting book to read.
Ancestry.com can create on-demand "Our Name in History" books for nearly 200,000 of America's most common last names - 85 percent of all U.S. households and 90 million households in total - and the company is continually adding names and content to its database.
I believe that anyone who has been seriously looking for their ancestors for more than a few weeks will not find "Our Name in History" to be worth the price of $49.95 plus shipping. (A $10.00 discount is available right now although I do not know how long that will last.)
However, I will recommend "Our Name in History" to the people I often meet who say they "want to learn more about their family name but don't want to spend much time looking at records." For the non-genealogist, this is an easy way to learn a little bit with no effort. Who knows? It might be the exact thing a non-genealogist needs to ignite an interest in properly researching his or her own family tree. I suspect that quite a few books will be sold this holiday season as gifts.
If you are looking for a gift for a non-genealogist, take a look at http://www.ournameinhistory.com.