A number of years ago I read a passage in a book on the British aristocracy that has stayed with me, a passage having little to do with peers and their families and quite a lot to do with how we all can look at our ancestors. The author, the late Richard “Dickie” Buckle, proposed the temporal impossibility that all of his great-great-grandparents might have met in a room in London about the year 1800, and with this rough structure he mused about who they were – and whether they might have known one another.
For my purposes, the year 1875 works best, although my sixteen great-great-grandparents were not all alive at that date. My grandparents were born in New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Maryland, so their grandparents – in this thought experiment – will be somewhat arbitrarily placed in Manhattan, perhaps at a hotel catering to railroad travelers!
Of my paternal grandfather’s grandparents (1–4), two had died by 1875; all four of them lived, or had lived, in New York City, and they all moved in the same circles. Nos. 1 and 3 were both dry goods merchants, a term for (successful) shopkeepers who, during the nineteenth century, tended to move away from serving customers and toward investing their profits in other businesses. My paternal grandmother’s grandparents (5–8) lived in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Newark, New Jersey; the couples almost certainly had no connection to one another, although No. 8 could conceivably have known Nos. 1–4, as she was also a native of Manhattan. No. 5 was a partner in his brother’s patent medicine company, and was probably the richest member of this group; on the other hand, given the glacial reception he received on moving into Boston in 1899 he would not have met Nos. 1 or 4 socially. No. 7 was a music teacher; his wife, No. 8, belonged to a family which had come down in the world, so, as I say, Nos. 1, 4, and 8 could potentially have found a quiet corner in the hotel to have a good, snobbish chat about the rest of the party.
Nos. 9–12 (my maternal grandfather’s grandparents) were then in quite modest circumstances: 9 was a carpenter and contractor (in Richmond, Virginia), just starting his career, while 11 (of tiny New Straitsville in Perry County, Ohio) was what used to be called a “promoter” – he made and lost several fortunes and died, unluckily, during a career downturn. Finally, Nos. 13–16 (my maternal grandmother’s grandparents) lived in Cleveland, Ohio, and Baltimore, Maryland; No. 13 had until recently been a commercial traveler selling paints and varnishes, and No. 15 was a musical instrument maker and the father of a newborn daughter, my matrilineal great-grandmother (the sixteenth of an eventual twenty-three children). No. 14, a native of Brooklyn, might have had a glancing acquaintance with Nos. 1 and 4, if she kept up with Gotham’s society columns; No. 15 is my most recent immigrant ancestor, born in the Grand Duchy of Baden in 1822.
In general, even those of my ancestors who were “haves” by 1875 had started out with less: No. 5, the proto-industrialist, slept on a bedroll under the counter at his first paying job in Baldwinsville, New York, and I can’t actually identify the parents of No. 9 or the father of No. 16. Nos. 1 and 3 had been badly affected by the Crash of 1873, and No. 13 ended his partnership with a younger brother who went on to establish a lucrative varnish company. No. 11 left his widow in reduced circumstances; a corset saleswoman at Lane, Bryant, No. 12 weathered the Long Beach earthquake of 10 March 1933. She was the last of my great-great-grandparents, and for some reason no photo survives of her with my mother, who was five years old when this sole surviving great-grandparent died in September 1937.
This thought experiment, arbitrary as it may be, shows interesting spans of time (my great-great-grandparents were born 1814–1856 and died between 1867 and 1937) and space (from Bielefeld in Baden to Long Beach, from Newcastle, Maine, to Richmond). There are some intriguing parallels, like the Ohio residence of Nos. 11–12 and 13–14: their grandchildren, the Virginia and Maryland natives, met in Annapolis, not in Cleveland. My parents, for that matter, met in Georgetown (D.C.), not in Boston or Baltimore!
 They represent almost three distinct generations, born in 1814, 1832, and 1848 respectively.
About Scott C. Steward
Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.View all posts by Scott C. Steward →