Wondering what the status of ephemera is given in genealogy?

Like a dance ticket or dance card, Grandma's recipes, Valentine cards stored in a scrapbook, Grandpa's receipt for a carwash, etc.

There seems to be a scheme for the quality of evidence... primary, secondary, tertiary.

Can someone explain these or guide me to a definitive list of what they entail?

7 Answers 7


Strictly speaking genealogy is the task of determining the biological descent of persons from other persons. Key is finding birth, death and marriage information which allows you to link persons together with parent/child relationstionships.

Most genealogists take a more relaxed view and consider many other aspects of life valid genealogical fodder. Many wish to create as complete a biography as possible about their persons of interest. I am definitely in this camp. This is an extended form of genealogy that borders on and evolves into family history. Dance cards and other ephemera rarely yeild genealogically significant data, but they do serve to provide great color in a family history.

When you ask whether ephemera is evidence I would say the answer is yes, but it's not the kind of evidence that most genealogists call genealogical evidence. It forms biographical evidence, evidence that a person was at such and such a place on such and such a date doing such and such a thing. These things are rarely "genealogical" but they can definitely be an important part of family history.

  • 1
    I wanted to write all about the importance of such artefacts (or "artifacts" in the US) in family-history but you've said everything I wanted to say Tom. Grr! :-)
    – ACProctor
    Commented Dec 2, 2012 at 12:11

Are you doing pure genealogy or are you doing family history?

For genealogy, ephemera is only useful if it provides information you can use as evidence to support or deny a needed fact for your genealogy work.

For family history, ephemera is gold, since it expands the story of your family in a very meaningful way.


Murder in the first! Crime scene investigations and forensics consider ephemera as sources of evidence. Why would it be any different for genealogists?

Just like crime scene work, genealogists sometimes do a great job. Sometimes we (and they) misunderstand something so that evidence becomes mistakenly applied.

As with any source, ephemera would be categorized to whether it was original or a derivative; the information it contained or represented would be categorized as primary or secondary. Finally as evidence, whether it is direct, indirect or circumstantial evidence would be based on how the evidence was used.1

As a form of artifact (indeed, any source), ephemera faces challenges to its authenticity, condition, identification, provenance, etc. The information contained is subject to interpretation and decipher. These items may be annotated, which begs further questions of identification or interpretation, etc.

In the abstract, there is no reason to consider ephemera somehow superior or inferior to any other source. Among my mothers recipes are those written entirely in Norwegian; some are annotated and signed by aunties.

Genealogy is more than a link to parents, it is about identification and life.

1 This manner of general categorization of sources, information and evidence is modern and widely accepted by genealogists, I believe because it is practical and recognizes how we apply reason and logic to the materials we handle. Some references for comments by others on the topic follow:
(a) Linda Woodward Geiger , CG, CGL, "Skillbuilding: Guidelines for Evaluating Genealogical Resources" [2008], Board for Certification of Genealogists. (b) Kory L. Meyerink, MLS, AG, FUGA, "Evaluation of Evidence," n.d., ProGenealogists (c) Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence explained: Citing history sources from artifacts to cyberspace, electronic edition (Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Pub. Co., 2007).

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    That it can be used as evidence for family history, does not automatically imply that it can be used as evidence for genealogy. See the answers by Tom Wetmore, Louis Kessler and Jane Taubman. Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 21:42
  • Even beyond the "let's get folks to fight" notion about who says genealogy is what, this seems simple folly. In and of itself, no source is evidence--it is the information that source provides that has a basis of evidence. In the abstract, there is no basis to declare that any source type has no evidentiary value.
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 21:53

enter image description hereSome ephemera contain useful primary genealogical data: funeral cards, wedding invitations, birth announcements (IT'S A BOY!), sympathy cards, etc. Some give us clues: wedding showers, baby showers, train tickets, get well cards. But most ephemera relate to everyday life, and not birth/marriage/death.


Ephemera although for Genealogy does not further research of your Ancestry, it does allow you to build a much better picture of peoples lives so can be a treasure trove to build a picture of some ones life, so from the Dance ticket you can imply they enjoyed going to Dances, recipes give you an idea of what they liked to eat. For me in many ways these items are more important to building a Family History, than the simple Birth Marriage and Death dates and places.

Personally I would class these as Primary Evidence, as they are the original documents which have been handed down and therefore have good provenance.

I treat different levels of Quality based on the "distance" from the original so a Birth Certificate is Primary Evidence, where as a transcription of a original documents would normally be secondary especially if you do not have sight of the original (or a photocopy).


Information is not "evidence" in a vacuum. We always refer to evidence of something. While a pure genealogist has a limited view of which events deserve or require evidentiary support, most family historians will have a broader perspective.

A dance card belonging to your great grandmother that lists your (future) great grandfather as a partner several years before their marriage is evidence that they knew one another for an extended time before the wedding. If the name is in the handwriting of one or other of them, then that will constitute a primary (that is, first-hand) source of evidence of their meeting.

A greeting card that contains family news from the past year could be a secondary source of evidence that other family members named in it traveled in Europe and should be linked to the record of that event.

On the other hand, a receipt from a bookshop might indicate only that someone bought books. It may be an intriguing object that provides human interest but is not "evidence".


In my opinion ephemera is Genealogy gold.

We use newspaper clippings as Genealogical evidence and that's a piece of derivative evidence.

The definition of a primary source is an account from someone who was there at the time that something was happening. How about a diary? If an entry read, "I woke up to the sound of gun fire the Union was fast approaching the steps of the courthouse here in Atlanta". We could deduce that this is an account of someone that was there at the time this occurred. That makes it a primary source of evidence.

Genealogy at its best is building the evidence to support the case we are trying to make.

Even birth, death, and marriage records have mistakes in them.


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