You've seen the commercial. It's the one in which the young lady sitting at
the computer bursts into song, steps out of her recreational vehicle onto the
highway, and extols the virtues of "doing it eBay" to the tune of Frank
Sinatra's classic "My Way." You may have ventured into this new-fangled world of
online auctions yourself. The success of eBay and other online auction sites shows that there is indeed a
market for everything. Online auction sites are very helpful to genealogists,
making available thousands of useful resources that otherwise would have been
difficult or impossible to find.
What types of treasures await on online auction sites? There is no limit to
the materials you might find to assist in your family history research. It is
not unusual to discover Bible and family records. Handwritten genealogies and
manuscripts, as well as published genealogies and local histories, are also
waiting to be found. Online auction sites have also made it easier to locate
photographs of ancestors. Since copies of photographs were often sent to
relatives who lived in other parts of the country, it is common to find images
in locations far removed from the place where the images were taken.
While these items can help you directly with your genealogy, there are many
other creative uses for online auction sites. Family history includes more than
just the bare bones of dates and places. It is often not possible to visit in
person all the locations where our ancestors lived. Online auctions can be used
to locate images of places that we cannot visit ourselves. In addition to
photographs, posters, postcards, stereopticon cards, and other types of images
can be found. The turn of the twentieth century saw an increase in postcard
production, and these cards showed buildings, streets, landscapes, ships,
people, and many aspects of daily life. Churches were popular subjects. Wouldn't
it be great to see a picture of the church where your
great-great-great-grandparents got married — especially if it no longer exists?
Did your ancestor own a business, such as a hardware or general store,
butcher shop, or market? These businesses often produced materials printed with
the company's name to assist in marketing. Perhaps your ancestor didn't own the
shop, but you know that he or she worked there. Such items will help you better
visualize his or her working life.
Souvenirs and memorabilia were a huge business — even many small towns had
cups, spoons, thimbles, pennants, or other merchandise. These items can be fond
indicators of places where your ancestors lived.
Many NEHGS staff members use eBay for genealogy or hobbies. Director of
finance Catherine Moore is an avid collector of antique fountain pens. She uses
eBay often to add to her collection. She suggests researching buyers and sellers
of merchandise. eBay offers the ability to record feedback about your
interaction with other users; these comments are available to any eBay user and
can help you avoid uncomfortable situations. If many people report difficulties
in dealing with a particular seller, you might want to avoid his merchandise.
You can check also to see how many sales an individual has performed. Obviously
one or two bad comments about someone who has concluded dozens of sales is to be
expected. But one or two bad comments about someone who has sold only three
items is a warning signal.
It is easy to get hooked on eBay. Catherine suggests that once you are using
it frequently, you maintain contact with other eBay users, especially those
interested in the same areas. There are chat groups and mailing lists available
on eBay, located under "eBay Communities." YahooGroups also has many mailing
lists available for eBay users — visit www.YahooGroups.com and search for "eBay" to find user
group lists and information about joining.
Assistant executive director for content management Lynn Betlock is an avid
eBay user. She has been searching eBay for materials to help in her family
history research for four years. During this time Lynn has purchased over one
hundred items that have become treasured possessions. She looks for different
types of materials, seeking items pertaining not only to her families but to the
areas where they lived. Pictured here are a creamer showing the Morrison County
Courthouse in Little Falls, Minnesota, and a level from the Esser & Virnig
store in Morris, Minnesota — Joe Virnig was Lynn's great-grandfather's brother.
Also pictured are two postcards: one shows the church where her husband's
ancestors were married in Houston, Texas, and another shows the town of Namsos,
Norway, where her great-grandmother was born.
Lynn suggests using "My eBay" to create favorite searches, which can be used
to set up automatic searches of eBay based on certain keywords. You can also
exclude words to eliminate items in which you are not interested. For example,
Lynn is searching for items pertaining to the town of Little Falls, Minnesota.
There are, however, towns of that name in both New Jersey and New York. She uses
her favorite search to scan eBay auctions for items about Little Falls, but
excludes items with terms like New York, NY, N.Y., Mohawk, N.J., and New Jersey,
which would return items from the wrong areas. Favorite searches can also notify
you by email when new items come up for bid on the site.
Member John T. Fitch recently notified assistant executive director D.
Brenton Simons of a leather-bound volume published in 1916 entitled History
of the Manhattan Club of New York being offered for auction on eBay. What
made this find so exciting was that the volume was printed especially for Ashbel
Fitch, Brenton's great-grandfather, and his name was printed inside by the
publisher. The auction was over by the time Brenton knew about it, but
fortunately the item was relisted, and he was able to purchase this volume that
had found its way outside of the family.
Archivist Timothy Salls often uses eBay to hunt for materials to add to the
NEHGS manuscript collections. Pictured here are some of the items NEHGS has
acquired through eBay. The Sperry family record is from a Bible belonging to
Alan Sperry, published in Schenectady, New York, in 1814. Other family records
written on loose pieces of paper were included with the Bible.
Another treasure found on eBay is an undated handwritten genealogy of the
Bingham family. Astute observers will note the reference to volume 1 of The
New England Historical and Genealogical Register on the first page. The
genealogy covers five generations of the family of Thomas Bingham of Sheffield,
Yorkshire, England, who settled in Norwich and Windham, Connecticut. The
manuscript pages are numbered 337 through 353, indicating that it was once part
of a larger work. This paging provides a tale of caution when using online
auction sites. While it is possible that the genealogy was parted from the rest
of its original volume years ago, some sellers separate items — even items that
were once bound together — to sell them individually. If you see an item such as
this available, be sure to check the seller's other auctions. You may find other
pieces. You may also want to watch this seller's auctions for some time
Tim has used eBay to add several family registers to the collection. The
example pictured on the previous page is that of Courtland C. Smith and his wife
Rhoda Beardsley of Ulysses, Tompkins County, New York. The register lists not
only information for the couple and their children, but also data on the family
of their son, Philo B. Smith.
There are many auction sites on the Internet. Some, such as eBay, cover a
wide variety of merchandise. Others, such as RelicAuction.com, which
deals in Civil War artifacts, have a narrow focus. One way to locate such
auction sites is to visit the Internet Auction List at www.internetauctionlist.com, which arranges hundreds of
auction site links by topic. While this article focuses on eBay, the largest and
most popular such Internet site, many of the principles will apply to any
auction site you visit.
Getting started on eBay is easy. You do not need to be a registered user to
start your search, but you might consider registering first. Once you have
delved deeply and found a treasure, you may not want to back out to register — a
necessary step before placing a bid or purchasing. Registering as a user is easy
and free. If you wish to sell items on eBay, you must complete a separate seller
registration. The process is similar, but requires a credit or debit card and
your checking account number (with routing number) to verify identity. Charges
will never be posted against your account unless you first sell an item.
Frequent sellers can even set up their own store on eBay.
Once you have registered, it is time to explore! The best way to familiarize
yourself with the site is to visit the site map. There is a link to the map at
the top of every page. The site is divided into six parts: Buy, Sell, Search,
Help, Services, and Community.
The Browse section allows you to jump to different areas immediately. Items
for sale on eBay are placed into one or more of twenty-four major categories.
Separate sections are given to featured products and big-ticket items.
The basic search on eBay is quite detailed, beginning with keyword and item
number searches. You can search for any or all of the words chosen, or an exact
phrase. Certain words can be excluded and searches can be limited by category,
location, or price range. You can also choose how your results are displayed: by
auction end date, price, or date of listing. The advanced search allows even
more options. You can use the search function to see what items a particular
seller has listed or the items a particular buyer has bid on. It is also
possible to limit searches to specific stores within eBay.
A basic search on the word "genealogy" across all categories brought up 2,223
items for sale. Try combinations of words such as "handwritten," "family Bible,"
"account book," etc. Beware of hidden pitfalls! For example, a search on the
words "family record" will return many hits for music albums.
When you find an item that you would like to purchase, click on the "place
bid" button. You will be prompted to enter your maximum bid; eBay will place the
lowest possible bid on your behalf and automatically continue bidding as
warranted until your maximum is reached. If your bid is not higher than another
person's maximum bid, you will be asked to enter a new maximum bid. It is
important to keep track of the auction's end date and time. The time left is
displayed on the main page of every item. If your maximum bid is surpassed by
another bidder, you must enter a new maximum to stay in the auction. You will
receive a notice by email if you are outbid. Beware of individuals who swoop in
at the last moment to grab an item — if there is something you really want to
purchase, remember to visit eBay during the last moments of the auction.
The winning bidder is notified by email. Once you receive that email, you can
click on the "pay now" link to make payment. The seller will ship the item to
you as soon as payment is received. Most sellers will wait ten days to ship if
you are paying by personal check.
For those who want to get hands-on assistance with the site, eBay runs eBay
University at locations around the country. eBay University has both a basic and
an advanced user track to teach you many tricks. Another good resource is David
A. Karp's eBay Hacks: 100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools
(Sebastopol, California: O'Reilly & Associates, 2003). This volume helps
basic users become power users.
Online auction sites are a treasure-trove waiting to be discovered. You will
be amazed at the variety of materials you will be able to acquire for your
family history research. And, unfortunately, you too will know the
disappointment of losing an item in the very last minutes of an auction.
However, the riches you do find will be worth a few disappointments.