How To Research Your Old House
One of the most rewarding things about an old house is learning about its history, and the life of its occupants. You will learn quite a bit just by living there, but if you want to dig deeper, here are some ways to go about it.
1. Look for the book.
Many historic neighborhoods, counties, small towns, and historic associations published coffee-table books or histories about local families and houses. These are treasure-troves of historical information if you can find them.
But they probably won't be on Amazon. Here are some places you can hunt for them:
- Your local library
- Bookstores: independent ones especially, but the chain stores as well
- Neighborhood associations and historical societies
- Nearby B&Bs and vacation rentals
- The Chamber of Commerce
- The local Garden Club
- Your neighbors
2. Contact the Registrar of Deeds.
This is the county official responsible for keeping property records. Generally speaking, the Registrar will have records of every sale of your home, dating back to when it was built.
You can usually visit the registrar's office and peruse the records yourself. But these days, most records are online and available with a few clicks. Just do an online search for 'property records' in your county or municipality.
3. Contact Your SHPO.
Each US state has a State Historic Preservation Office, or SHPO, as provided for by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1969. This office is charged with managing nominations for the National Register of Historic Places, so they serve as a clearinghouse for research done in support of these nominations. Typically, they also manage state-level grants, and research and preservation efforts.
If you want to know if your house is in the National Register, your state's SHPO can tell you. Note that even if your house isn't listed on the Register, your neighborhood may be. You can find a link to your state's SHPO in our Resource section of oldhouses.com.
4. Invite your neighbors for a visit.
If your house is located among other houses, look for any opportunity to invite your neighbors to see your house, or if you are really lucky, help you with restoration projects.
Chances are they will be curious to compare your house with theirs, and will be more than happy to share their own discoveries and anecdotes about previous occupants. If you show them a good time, they will hopefully return your hospitality. Visiting neighbors' houses is a terrific way to learn about your own: they were often built by the same builders, or shared a common set of blueprints.
5. Look for clues in your own house.
An old wives' tale claims that the blueprints of an old are stored in its newel post. I have never been willing to test this theory, but it is probably apochryphal. Still if you are lucky, previous occupants or the builder left some clues behind.
- Work signatures. Many craftsmen signed and dated their work, so look for these on the backs of added partitions, the undersides of shelves, the tops of added closets, etc. If you expose framing elements during a restoration, look for measurements and other guide marks. Each builder had his own way of using these; they can be as tell-tale as fingerprints.
- Old newspapers. These were often stuck between joists or used to plug drafts.
- Behind light switch covers, window pulls and peeling paint. These places will help you determine when an how often the house was painted.
- Attics and basements. Careful inspection of these areas can tell you a lot about how the electrical and plumbing systems have been updated, what areas of the house have been shored up or repaired and so on. These are also great places to find old bottles, shoes, cans and other artifacts, perhaps buried under a layer of dirt or blown insulation.
- Construction ghosts. In every old house you will find hidden signs of the changes made over the years. Look for ridges of paint, cuts in trim or siding that suggest a pattern, plugged holes in floors, filled-in hinge mortises in doorjambs. These are unremarkable in themselves, but taken together they can form a surprisingly complete story about a major change to the house.
- Wear and damage marks. A worn spot can tell you the busiest areas in the house and how they were used. Every scratch and scar also tells its own story. This damage to the siding on my front porch could only have come from something hitting the siding repeatedly, like the back of a chair. Sure enough, I eventually learned that an old man had spent many hours rocking there.
6. Scan a Photo Archive. Photo archives collected by libraries, historical societies, and government entities are steadily becoming available to anyone with access to the Internet. Check out the the Resource section of oldhouses.com for a list of photo archives.
7. Check the library. Before the days of the Internet, Google and Wikipedia, the library was the place to find historical photos and information. It still is. Many libraries will have decades' worth of newspapers stored on microfiche. It takes a little more time and persistence than a search engine, but it can pay huge dividends.
8. Search the oldhouses.com Archives. These archives contain many thousands of images and stories about old houses. Start by searching for your house; it may have been listed on the site years ago. Otherwise, search for nearby houses, houses in a same style as yours, or built around the same time.