Researching the history of your home

Posted by Samantha Haas on Monday, July 29th, 2019 at 10:21am.

Have you ever looked around your home and wondered who else has enjoyed the beautiful view from that kitchen window or warmed up to that cozy fireplace? Unless you have lived there since the house was built, you might only know the names of the people who sold it to you or your family.  

There are several resources that can help you uncover the history of your home, and not just about who previously owned or occupied the house. You may also be able to research who owned the land before it was developed, when and for what price your house was built, the architect and specific house style, if it’s part of a historic district, and when major additions or renovations were completed, among many other fascinating tidbits.

Perhaps you want to find out these details to help document your neighborhood’s history. You may also want to share your findings with your family to remember for generations to come or future homeowners if you’re thinking of selling your house. Or, you might just like to satisfy your own curiosity. Once you understand why you are seeking this information, you’ll have a better idea of what to do with it, whether that’s creating a timeline or scrapbook, writing an article, archiving the documents you find, or something else.  

A word of warning for those who like simple answers: you may be about to enter a rabbit hole of information. This process can be simultaneously rewarding and frustrating as you sift through what you have amassed, some of which will be both enlightening and confusing. Don’t be too quick to categorize particular sources or pieces of information as useless, because what may seem inconsequential can end up resurfacing as the key to unlock the answer you were looking for...or, in some cases, the next question.  

And for those of you who like scavenger hunts or mysteries: have fun on this archival adventure! Don’t forget to keep track of your sources and label your findings along the way, which can be done by taking notes, photographs, and computer screenshots.

Local resources 

As Wisconsin’s capital, Madison is full of historic homes and neighborhoods with a wealth of information you can tap into online and in person -- especially downtown where the Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison Central Library, and many City of Madison and Dane County public buildings are located. 

Knowing where to start can be overwhelming, which is why the Madison Public Library teamed up with the City of Madison Planning Department and Madison Trust for Historic Preservation to create a community presentation entitled, “Researching the Story of Your House.” 

A summary of the resources is listed below. Keep in mind some require a fee to print copies, scrolling through microfilm or website search results, or being connected to the library’s server, for example.

Researching former owners and occupants 

  • Abstract of the house

  • City directories

  • Register of Deeds real estate records

  • Obituaries

  • Cemetery records

  • High school yearbooks

  • Newspaper articles

  • Neighborhood history books

  • Parade of Homes articles

  • Census records

  • Oral history “house history” interviews with recent owners or occupants

  • Photos from recent owners or occupants

  • Descendants’ and neighbors’ memories

History of the structure

  • Books about the history of the city, neighborhood, or subdivision

  • Neighborhood Walking Tour pamphlets

  • “Custer Cards”

  • Books about the house architectural styles

  • Architecture and history inventory

  • City or County Assessor website or tax bill (identify the legal description and parcel number)

  • County Plat Maps (land ownership in rural areas)

  • Sanborn Insurance Maps (outline drawings of buildings to compare changes)

  • Subdivision Maps

  • Tax Rolls

  • Building Permits

Neighborhood resources

  • Neighborhood Associations (some have history committees)

  • Historic Districts (National Register of Historic Places and nomination papers)

Stay tuned to the library’s events calendar for upcoming workshops on the topic of researching the story of your home. You can also view the entire PowerPoint presentation here, which includes the contact information of the presenters if you have questions.

Regardless of which city, county, or state you live in, there are likely similar resources available to you. Visit your local library or historical society to learn more! 

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