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Friday, August 22, 2008

The provenance of a hairbrush: Thievery and the family historian

For many, many years I have been collecting documents, photographs and artifacts related to my family tree. I was a young girl when I first became interested in the stories of my forebears. Although I have taken a few breaks from my genealogical efforts due to life getting in the way (in terms of years at a time), along the way I have compiled a nice assortment of items related to my family tree.

One of the events which I entered as a competitor in the 2008 Genea-Blogger Group Games was Cite Your Sources! In the process of going through fifty of my various sources (a small sampling, but the number needed for a "platinum medal"), I have waded through some interesting items and tried to determine how to cite them properly.

Here are a few I've cited:
Perhaps my most interesting effort at creating a bibliographical reference was when I tried to cite my great-grandmother's ornate hairbrush and mirror set.



In citing my sources, I rely on Elizabeth Shown Mills' comprehensive reference Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. According to Mills' guide, a citation for an artifact (a set of grooming accessories in this case) normally includes provenance. The provenance "will typically include the identity of the current owner and how that owner came to acquire it".

Sounded simple. Until I started out with my citation...

Hairbrush and mirror belonging to Agnes (Donnelly) Cowhey, Cowhey Family Collection; privately held by Lisa, [address for private use].

Now things got a little tricky. You see, the example from the book seems to indicate that the next portion, the provenance, would say something like this:

This hairbrush and mirror set was passed from Agnes (Donnelly) Cowhey to [her daughter] to [her niece], from whom her daughter Lisa inherited it.

Problem: I didn't actually inherit it, I stole it.

Well, sort of.

Before you lose all respect for my family history methods (not to mention my character), let me explain.

As I child I often admired items around our home that had some sort of historical significance to our family: my grandfather's old business cards, needlework done by my grandmother, etc. My great-grandmother's hairbrush and mirror set was no exception.

One day, as a young girl (I'm not sure what age) admiring the set in my mother's bathroom, I took the liberty of moving it to my bathroom, thus "acquiring" the items for myself. They remained there for many years, until they later moved with me once I grew up and moved out on my own. Thankfully, my mother, who understands and appreciates my propensity toward genealogy, gave me her blessing and never returned the items to her bathroom. (So kind of you, Mom.)

As I set out to create a citation for these family artifacts, I didn't quite feel right about writing:

This hairbrush and mirror set was passed from Agnes (Donnelly) Cowhey to [her daughter] to [her niece], from whom her daughter Lisa inherited it.

But this didn't quite sound right, either:

This hairbrush and mirror set was passed from Agnes (Donnelly) Cowhey to [her daughter] to [her niece], from whom her daughter Lisa outright stole it.

So, getting a little creative with the art of bibliography, I considered this one:

This hairbrush and mirror set was passed from Agnes (Donnelly) Cowhey to [her daughter] to [her niece], from whom her daughter Lisa proactively inherited it.

I felt I might have hit upon something here. Any of you genealogists out there ever "proactively inherit" a family artifact?

Actually, I finally settled on this description of the provenance of these family heirlooms, artfully avoiding the suggestion of my childhood method of acquisition:

This hairbrush and mirror set was passed from Agnes (Donnelly) Cowhey to [her daughter] to [her niece], to her daughter Lisa, the current owner.

It looks like Elizabeth Shown Mills might have a new citation format to consider adding to her revised edition of Evidence Explained, if she ever ends up doing one.

Watch for a new listing: "Basic Format, Family Artifacts, Provenance: Proactive Inheritance".

***
This story has been submitted as part of the 55th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy. The topic is "Show and Tell!". Visit Jasia's Creative Gene for more stories about family heirlooms and other special items in family collections.

6 comments:

footnoteMaven said...

Lisa:

O.K. - I died laughing. So funny!

But high marks for constructing a source citation for this difficult scenario.

This hairbrush and comb set was passed from Agnes (Donnelly) Cowhey to [her daughter] to [her niece], acquired from the home of [her niece] while an occupant, by her daughter Lisa, the current owner with retroactive consent of [her niece].

To protect the innocent, well almost innocent.

Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself. Sort of a chain of possession much as I would have done in a criminal law class.

fM

Lisa said...

I knew I should have consulted you on the matter earlier, wise footnoteMaven.

Thanks for sharing your expertise. :)

Lisa

pastprologue said...

Lisa,

I love it. I can see a whole new book: "Evidence Explained for the Rest of Us".... "story obtained by Aunt Mary, who told it under the condition that Uncle Joe never find out the true circumstances surrounding Grandpop's death." LOL

Donna

Lisa said...

Those family stories are "a whole 'nother" category unto themselves aren't they, Donna?

Lisa

Mills said...

Donna of pastprologue wrote:
>I can see a whole new book: "Evidence Explained for the Rest of Us".... "

You're tempting me, Donna. In that version, I could cite the bathroom wallpaper on which my husband found an ancestor. (Commercial wallpaper, newsprint pattern :)

Elizabeth

Lisa said...

I'd be one of the first to buy it, Elizabeth!

Hope you can fit the writing of that book into your "spare" time. ;)

Lisa

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