Victorian Family Trees

by Bob Brooke

The Victorians, with their characteristic love of family matters popularized the decorative Family Record, a lithographed variety of family tree. These decorative wall hangings, adorned with angels, wreaths, and ornate banners wrapped around portraits of beloved family members, also provided space to keep a record of the family.

Smaller versions could be found in family Bibles, either as a special leaf printed between the Old and New Testaments or merely ticked between them for safekeeping, or a separate section at the beginning and end of the book. One such Bible, produced by A.J. Holman and Co. of Philadelphia in 1872, features a entire section between Apocrypha and the Parables. There's a full-color illuminated page for marriages, births and deaths, as well as a Bonds of Holy Matrimony page for the original owners. In addition, this Bible also has a Family Temperance Pledge page to list all those who promise to abstain from "intoxicating drinks." These decorative chronicles gave a nation of immigrants an attractive way to document their sometimes sprawling families.

Edward West Currier, a lithographer in New York and son of Nathanial Currier of Currier and Ives, among others, printed mass-produced lithographs which were hawked on street corners. Printed in black and white so an individual family member could hand paint them as well as add birth and marriage dates, they became a popular way to spend long Victorian nights. Though many were framed and displayed, a good number remained in Bibles. Because they rarely saw the light of day, their colors are still brilliant.

The last two decades of the 19th century saw an explosion of interest in genealogy. This trend prompted magazines like Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion" and "Harper's Bazaar" to print blank family records for their readers to tear out and keep. Generally, one family member filled it out and then added to it as major occasions came along, thus making it a collaboration of different hands -- and pens -- across generations or even state lines.

While the most common type of Victorian family trees were the lithographed variety, decorative genealogies flourished as an art form long before magazines decided to reproduce them. At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, itinerant artists, local clergymen and teachers were hired to create commemorative watercolors recording births, marriages and deaths in flowing calligraphy, surrounding the writing with colorful banners.

At the same time, schoolgirls learned to embroider embellished genealogical samplers, patterning their work after their teachers' designs. Some girls and their mothers went so far as to stitch elaborate quilts of the family tree at home, while young Pennsylvania German women became famous for the lineages they embroidered onto hand towels.

As with most folk art, family records were rarely signed, but the written information they contained makes them extremely valuable research tools. Even if a genealogist isn't interested in the particular family featured on a register, these records can help show the influences individual painters' styles had on one another.

The advent of inexpensive printing inevitably spelled the end for this form of folk art, but it also brought the family record to more people. Even today, those who want to fill out an old-fashioned register still have that option--The Old Print Factory in Michigan (800/325-5383) reproduces handsome Victorian examples.

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