Aug 11, 2023

Mug Books – A Great Genealogical Resource

August 11, 2023

Have you ever heard of mug books? I don’t mean the ones that cops have witnesses comb through in search of a perp on television. I mean the kind that genealogists use to help them flesh out their family history.


Mug books were never called that when they were published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That’s just what genealogists have fondly nicknamed them. They’re local histories that contain lots of biographical sketches. They even contain lots of photos, hence the name “mug” book.


Mug books were especially popular in the Midwestern and Western parts of the U.S. The books were written about towns, counties and even states. Genealogists love them because they can provide a rare glimpse into what an area was like as well as biographies of some of the area’s leading citizens. Every genealogist hopes that at least some of his or her ancestors will appear in these books.


Mug books were always meant to be a money-making venture for the publisher. An area was canvassed for folks who were willing to pay to have their story appear in the book. For a little more money, the biography’s subject could have his photograph included. To double the money-making, the people who paid to have their information published would also buy copies of the finished book.


This means that lots of mug books are still around. A copy of the local mug book may still lurk on Grandma’s parlor bookshelf. The local library will likely have copies of it as will the state archives. Since these books are old, many of them are out of copyright and have been digitized. Check with sites such as Google Books and Internet Archives. Genealogical websites such as Ancestry and Family Search have digitized numerous mug books.


If you’re not sure that a mug book exists for an area, check on the Family Search Wiki. Search for the name of the county, town, or state plus genealogy. You can also Google local history plus the name of the place and see what pops up.


Once you find a book for the area you want, the temptation is to go straight to the biographies. Everyone wants to find a biography for their own ancestor. You may get lucky, or not. If you don’t, try checking for biographies of your ancestor’s relatives and neighbors. You may find hints as to place of origin or family names in them.


Whatever you do, don’t leave the book after you’ve looked at the biographical sketches. The history section can also offer insights into your ancestor’s life. It usually contains historical facts about an area including the earliest settlement dates, denominations of churches in the area and info about prominent local businesses.


For example, the History of Hancock County, Illinois, by Thomas Gregg, published in 1880 was initially a disappointment to me. My second great grandfather Timothy Terry lived in Hancock County for over forty years, but there was not a biographical sketch for him in the book. I did, however, find a section of the book that dealt with the early schools in the area. Timothy Terry was listed as one of the founders of the first school in the county. His children attended that school in the 1840s, and the book included their names, including one son I was unaware of. This glimpse into my ancestor’s life showed me that he valued education and made sure that his children attended school as soon as one was available.


You never know what you might find in a mug book but remember that people paid to have their biographies printed. That means that you’re likely to find a sanitized version of your ancestor’s life portrayed in them. You probably won’t find references to the family black sheep or scandals. Still, mug books are worth seeking out.


Carol Stetser