September 4, 2020
Like most genealogists, over the years I’ve made great finds in various repositories that helped fill in the blanks in my family tree. Some of those treasures are documents that I dug out of old boxes in courthouse basements or from microfilmed copies of estate files, deeds and so on, but some of my favorite treasures came from another source: Vertical Files.
Many local archives and libraries maintain what they call vertical files – usually un-microfilmed and undigitized paper files stored in banks of metal file cabinets. Sometimes a listing of the names of the various files can be found online, but virtually never are the actual files available anywhere except at the actual archive or library. The file names can encompass everything from surnames to place names to subject categories, and the files themselves can contain almost anything – photos, maps, newspaper clippings including obituaries, copies of personal pedigree charts and much more. You never know what might be hiding in those files and exactly what file name it might be found under. That’s why vertical files are sometimes overlooked, except for a quick glance to see whether a surname of interest is listed. Then, if a search reveals nothing more than old, unsourced pedigree charts and a few unsourced newspaper articles that can be easily found online, the researcher moves on. That’s too bad since I have found some of my best information in vertical files.
For example, a few years ago I was researching my husband’s family in Gloucester County, New Jersey at the Gloucester County Historical Society Library in the county seat of Woodbury. Of course, like everyone else, I started my search by looking for surnames from my husband’s lines. Since so many of my husband’s families are from that area, there were a dozen or more surnames of interest, and I spent the next hours making my way through the files. Lots of the contents were either things I’d already found or not pertinent to my husband’s family, which is typical of vertical files since they are usually comprised of items that patrons of the repository have donated or clippings that the staff has located and filed. However, I did find copies of court cases and marriage records that I hadn’t ever seen before. If I’d stopped there, the search would have been worthwhile, but my final find of the day proved that it’s important to check all possible file titles.
Eventually, I looked at files for the townships where my husband’s family had lived. That’s where I found one of my favorite treasures: a school class photo of my husband’s father taken in the early 1920s with PopPop Stetser sitting front and center with his little Buster Brown haircut and knickers and long stockings. On the back of the picture each child had signed his name in shaky, just learned, cursive writing. My father-in-law’s scrawled “Leland Munyan Stetser” was proudly displayed across the middle. Presumably my father-in-law had a copy of that photo at some point, but it was long since lost by the time I began my research because neither my husband nor I had ever seen that photo before. I wouldn’t necessarily have thought that a photo like that would be found in a township file, but there was a section about schools, and there it was – priceless to us.
While vertical files are sometimes difficult to access since they’re often in far flung places and can be time-consuming to search, they’re definitely worth seeking out and planning some time to search. You never know what you might find.
Researcher/Director at Large