07 August 2018

5 Things to Learn from Your Ancestor's Yearbook

I hope your ancestors weren't like me. In high school I didn't join any clubs, and I played no sports. My yearbooks won't tell you much about me. Except that I'm a nerd because I was in the National Honor Society.

When my husband (the former high school track star) told me about all the sports his father Ben played, I wanted to find Ben's yearbook. So I searched Ancestry.com and found the 1934 yearbook from Sanger High School in California. That was the year Ben's older brother Abe was a senior, Ben was a junior, and their brother Bill was a freshman.

My father-in-law, center, as a tough 17-year-old student.
My father-in-law, center, as a tough
17-year-old student.

If you can find your ancestor's high school yearbook, here are 5 key things to look for.

1. Which Sports They Played

I found photos of all 3 brothers on different teams:
  • Abe played basketball and ran track.
  • Ben played basketball, ran track, and played football.
  • Bill played basketball and ran track.
Their faces in each sports photo told me a lot, too. Ben looked determined and angry—nothing like the kind man I knew. Abe looked confident and pleasant. Bill looked sweet and shy.

2. Which Clubs They Joined

Bill grew up to be an accountant, so we weren't surprised to find him in the Scholarship Society and the Latin Club. But finding Abe there with his little brother in the Latin Club was a surprise. We think Ben was too busy with sports to pick a club.

My husband's uncles, Bill and Abe, standing together in the back row of the Latin Club.
My husband's uncles, Bill and Abe, standing together in the back row of the Latin Club.

Maybe your ancestor was in all the school plays. Does that match what you know about them?

3. Who Their Friends Were

In my own high school yearbook the seniors included a quote or a few words. My words seem like utter nonsense. But if you read what everyone wrote, it becomes clear who my closest friends were. We all used the same bizarre phrases.

Look at the candid photos, too. If you find your ancestor goofing around with some other students, try to find them in a class photo and identify them.

4. What Ambitions They Had

In some yearbooks, seniors will write what their plans are. They may say where they're going to college and what they'll study. Maybe they're joining the military. Or they may say which trade or profession they're about to start.

Will you be surprised by what your ancestor was planning to do?

5. What Their Community Was Like

My father-in-law's yearbook includes advertisements from several local businesses. The names of the businesses and their owners reflect a variety of ethnicities. Yet they don't match what I see in the student photographs.

The Sanger High School students in 1934 were about 45% Japanese, 20% Armenian, and a mix of English, Irish and Scandinavian. Of course I spotted the one Italian kid.

My husband's Uncle Abe and father Ben on a pretty short basketball team.
My husband's Uncle Abe and father Ben on a pretty short basketball team.

It may tell you something about your ancestor if you learn they were in a small minority. Or that they were part of a large group.

More than all these facts, it's the photos I'm thrilled by. I love having so many never-before-seen photos of my father-in-law and 2 of his brothers as teenagers.

If you can access Ancestry.com, search for their "U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1990" collection. There's also Classmates.com and other sites that may have what you need.

Ancestry has 3 of my father's Bronx, New York, yearbooks, and now I know he was in the school band with my godfather—his future wife's 1st cousin. How cool a discovery is that?

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