Sunday, January 23, 2011

Are You Using eBay to supplement your research?

Note: the links to these auctions will no longer be active in a few weeks. 

Everyone has been using Google to aid their family history research for a long time. But have you considered using eBay as a source for information? Don't laugh. While sometimes tedious, you might get lucky. Just this week a 1920s vintage photo album from a young lady in Tecumseh, Nebraska is being offered for auction. In this example, the seller has provided enough scans that names can be distinguished. What a treasure chest this would be if it happened to be the family you are researching.

While we can't always be that lucky, there are still many ways to use eBay for genealogy.

Postcards and Stereoview cards

If you are not already searching the locales where your ancestors lived, I encourage you to do so. I like to see photographs of the places where my ancestors lived from the period of time when they lived there. eBay is a great place to find old postcards and photographs. For a general search on eBay, I used Nebraska postcard and there were more than 3,000 results. Among the postcards are inscriptions with the names of people or identifying information regarding the people in the cards.

These postcards include photographs of old buildings such as libraries, post offices, schools, banks as well as street scenes.

Here's what downtown Superior, Nebraska looked like when my ancestors lived nearby.

Here's a card of a family standing in front of their windmill sent from Madison, Nebraska and mailed to an aunt in the Bronx, New York.

If you want to narrow your search, add keywords: Lincoln Nebraska postcard.

This reduces my results to about 300 cards to look through. I discovered a post card of Nebraska's 2nd state capitol building as it looked when my family lived about a block away.

You may also have some luck if you search for stereoview cards. Here's an example I found of a roundup in Kansas. I just discovered a lot of vintage postcards from Belleville, Kansas where many of my family lived in the early 1900s.


It may be like searching for a needle in a haystack, but maybe, just maybe, you'll find a relative by searching on their name. Many of the cabinet cards on eBay do not have identifying information, but some do have it. Perhaps you can find a relative with the search terms cabinet card ohio (substitute your location of course). If there is a surname on the card, the seller will usually include this information in the item title.

Everything but the kitchen sink - and sometimes, even that

What else can you find on eBay that might provide a lead to that brick wall?

Funeral cards

Plat Books

County histories - Be forewarned! There are many eBay sellers who are grabbing up digital copies of public domain books from sources such as Google Books, compiling them onto a CD and selling as many as 30 or more books on one CD. If this saves you some time, go for it, but many of these resources are already available on the internet. Just don't think you will be receiving bound volumes of the books for sale. The same applies to Plat Books. Read the seller's description thoroughly before bidding.

Search Tips

If you have too many (or not relevant) search results, you can narrow the search by eliminating search terms. For example, I search for a man named "John Fitzgerald" and my results include President Kennedy. I revise my search to:

"John Fitzgerald" -Kennedy

Putting the name in quotes searches on that exact phrase. Putting the minus sign before Kennedy removes any results that include "John Fitzgerald Kennedy." If you are used to using these search principles on Google, the same applies on eBay.

You Say You Don't Have Time to Spend on eBay?

You can set up an alert that will notify you when items are listed that match your search terms. For example, I am looking for an out of print book on one line of my family that was written by a woman named Hartsough. The search results page shows the number of results for your search term(s), and an option to Save Search. With an eBay account, eBay will send you an email every time a new item is listed that matches your search.

Give it a try!

I encourage you to give this a try and see what you find. Please share your experiences in the Comments section below. I'll also be happy to answer any questions or help you refine your search.

Always remember - think outside the box when it comes to genealogy research.


  1. I've looked at eBay a couple of times, but not really spent much time with it. I will give it another try now! Thanks for the reminder!!

  2. I'll have to go outside my box, because the last time I checked out eBay was a very long time ago. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  3. Since we are also antique collectors, I have used ebay for along time and have purchased several lots of items from our home towns in Ne and Wy. Not really any good family stuff but lots of great historical items which lend themselves to the genealogy/history aspects of our families. A friend from North Platte found a whole box of her family ancestral photos on ebay...a gold mine for her! Good reminder that is often overlooked.

  4. These are great tips, Susan. I've been buying old postcards on ebay from my hometown and especially for my husband's father's hometown of Trenton, NJ as there are no pictures in his family. It gives me a good feel for what the area was like at the time. You just never know what you will find!

  5. I forgot to mention that eBay is also a good resource for community cookbooks which might have some recipes from family members. Thanks, everyone, for the comments so far. Please post any goodies that you find! (of course, if you are bidding, wait until you've won the auction!).

  6. great tip! I love using eBay for genealogical references (for further away places) and postcards and other memoriablia.

  7. I recently blogged about eBay and genealogy, too! I was inspired by one of my own favorite bloggers, historian J. Dennis Robinson who often posts his ebay finds at his blog at Even professional historians find eBay a valuable resource!

  8. Postcards are another hobby of mine. I had always bought them on vacation and used them in my scrapbooks. Then a local postcard club representative spoke at our state archives, and I was hooked! I have perused Ebay for postcards, and I have purchased a few. I haven't looked in awhile. Thanks for the reminder! (I think! LOL)

  9. Thanks to everyone for your comments - nice to read that others are using this as a potential resource also!