Monday, April 4, 2022

Tracking down the family and the famous


     What do we owe our departed loved ones? The people once behind the faces that stare at us — happily or blankly or beseechingly — from those black-and-white photographs?
     I’ve been thinking about that lately, moving my parents here from Colorado, packing up box after box of albums jammed with fading Kodak photos of ordinary moments and once-in-a-lifetime vacations. Albums now in storage; albums no one might ever want to look at again.
     I know I’m not alone here. But I was pleasantly surprised Saturday to see the big front page treatment the Sun-Times gave Friday’s unlocking of the 1950 U.S. Census Bureau data by the National Archives. I thought the joy of plunging into old records and tracking down relations was a personal quirk. Apparently not. 
     Saturday morning I dove into the database, starting with my mother’s father, Irwin Bramson. Too easy. Go to the website, Go to “Begin Search.” Plug in the state and city, in this case Cleveland Heights, Ohio. There was exactly one result. Zoom in on the photographed census form. There is his little household: wife Sarah, my mother June, then 13, her younger sisters, Carol and Diane. My grandfather’s nation of origin was Poland and his job, an accountant in a factory — Accurate Parts Manufacturing, maker of clutches. My grandmother was born in Russia. Nothing surprising there.
     My father’s father I knew would be harder. A more common name in a far bigger pool. When I plugged “Sam Steinberg” into the census for the Bronx, New York, up popped 4,585 hits. The machine learning used to read scrawled cursive entries can be maddeningly imprecise. One of the hits was “Sam Silibority.”

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  1. Even more insane, they didn't put the street names on the census files, just the census district & then the street numbers.
    It took me a long time to find my parents & 6 month old me, because I had to go through page after page of poorly written paperwork, that's also yellowing.

    1. Oh, the street names are there, but they are written vertically along the left-hand edge of the page. Took me a while to notice that, too....

    2. Sorry, but not on the ones I searched!
      There just isn't a single street name on census tract 103-639!

  2. "Gwendolyn Brooks had no official occupation in the eyes of the government. I looked at the top of the form: May 13, 1950. Two weeks earlier, she had won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry."

    An outstanding kicker to wrap this column up. I don't know why it's not at least all over local Twitter today.

  3. Whoa....I just found my mom's entire family in Edgar County IL. Thanks for sharing that Neil!


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