Houstory Herd: Hestia, Goddess of Hearth and Home

In honor of Women’s History Month, we remember Hestia, the Goddess of Hearth and Home.

By Mike Hiestand, Houstory Founder

This is a reprint of an article first published on the Houstory Hearth on December 12, 2012, and has become one of the most requested on our site. 

Before there was Houstory, there was Hestia. Literally.

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An early prototype of company logo — before we became Houstory.

An early prototype of company logo — before we became Houstory.

After the muse struck and we had shopped around the idea of the Home History Book with positive results, we figured the next logical step would be to give our dream company a real-life name.

In inspired fashion, Hestia came to mind.

I knew almost nothing about her at the time, but I learned that Hestia is the Greek goddess of Hearth and Home, charged with the important task of keeping the home fire stoked. Sounded like a pretty good fit for our company.

While I won’t go into the details of her birth (which like many God/Goddesses involves considerable oddness — in Hestia’s case being swallowed at birth and later regurgitated by her dear old dad), she is regarded as one of the 12 great gods of Greek mythology.

Specifically, she is goddess of domestic life. Of motherhood and child-rearing. She is the “mom goddess” – even though she never married. Curious that.

An early depiction of Hestia, Goddess of Hearth and Home

According to Wikipedia and other sources, she blesses one with domestic happiness. (Or withholds her blessing if not asked for it.) She is often thought of as the nicest goddess. As the goddess of the sacred fire of the altar, she feels comfortable in the kitchen and has a special affinity for cooks and bakers. Hestia has a keenly developed spiritual side and plays a special role in the rituals of the various gods and goddesses, always making sure that their temples are prepared and everyone is comfortable. She is a wonderful hostess.

While I’ve not seen it written down officially, I feel Hestia actually would have been very comfortable being the Goddess of the Heart. But that, of course, was a position firmly occupied by Aphrodite. So the next closest thing to the heart, she felt, was the hearth. While today we generally think of the hearth as simply part of a nicely designed fireplace, in historic times the hearth was essential. It was used for heating, cooking and cleaning. It was also the focal point for religious rituals. Both literally and symbolically, it was heart of the home.

Hestia and Aphrodite actually have an interesting relationship. Hestia rejected the marriage proposals by both Poseidon and Apollo, both much admired – and desired — “studs” at the time. She thereby rejected Aphrodite’s values and became, to some extent her Wikipedia article says, Aphrodite’s “chaste, domestic complementary, or antithesis.”

While the Goddess of the Heart and Goddess of the Hearth are both deeply loving beings, there often does seem to be some sort of inner war going on between them. Certainly their paths have been quite different.

One wonders if Hestia might not have been caught off guard at how much work it was going to be. Instead of passionately pursuing romance, lovers and adventures of the heart like Aphrodite, Hestia shouldered the heavier, more demanding job of making sure dinner was on the table, the home cleaned, the laundry done and the family and home operating smoothly. It was her energy that kept the family looking and feeling like a family.

Sandro Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus (aka Aphrodite) from the mid-1480s shows the goddess rising from a seashell.

While the work could be incredibly rewarding – phew! – it can also wear you out. As any modern day Hestia/Mom will tell you, the other heart — the fun loving, party-going, libidinous heart — often ends up taking a back seat due to physical exhaustion. (You hear about the same even happening with some stay-at-home dads (Baby Daddies), though most of them I know still seem to make time for Aphrodite!)

In her book Love Magic, Laurie Cabot describes the various personality archetypes and says that Hearth Goddesses, which in addition to the Grecian Hestia also includes Brigit, Cerridwen, Vesta, Hera, Isis, Hathor, Frigg, Arianrod, Nanna and Juno, are “very centered, inner-oriented women who develop great wisdom concerning the importance and meaning of everyday things.” While they can enjoy an active, rewarding love life, Cabot says for some Hearth Goddesses it’s often with more of a “take it or leave it” approach.

In the end, in naming our company, we found that Hestia had already found a couple suitors in the all-important world of Internet domains so we moved on and soon landed on Houstory, which also felt good at the time – and is feeling better and better and better every day.

Still, it was Hestia who called to us first. And we thank her. She’s done a wonderful job keeping the home fire stoked and helping us at Houstory establish a strong foundation for our young company. But the time has come to take off the permanent apron and put on your party shoes, girl! Because, just like here at Houstory, it’s starting to feel more and more these days like you actually can have it all.

I recently read a fun lesson plan that asked students to identify real-life modern day persons that possess the same traits as traditional heroes or figures from Greek mythology. Beyonce and Marilyn Monroe, for example, were mentioned as possible Aphrodites. Alas, Hestia, who never went in too much for the fame stuff, went  unclaimed. Any suggestions? Who do you think would make a good model for a modern-day Hestia? Leave your thoughts in the comment suggestion, below.

Now, on to The Herd for this month…

What is “The Hearth Herd.” It’s simply a roundup (or “Herd”) of a few stories we’ve seen recently that we feel our fellow Houstorians would be interested in. The Herd’s content will generally focus on three things: 1) House and property history; 2) Family heirlooms; 3) Environmental sustainability. If you see something that you think belongs in The Herd, we’d love to hear from you!

 

Family Heirlooms

Author: ABC News

Title: Woman reunited with heirloom wedding dress lost after tornadoes destroyed her home

Herd-Worthy Because: A feel-good story about the return of a family wedding dress after a tornado ripped through its owner’s home in Iowa. 

 

house history

Author: Washington Post

Title: Who died in your house? Here’s how to find out

Herd-Worthy Because: What can we say, it’s a popular question amongst many home history enthusiasts. We came across this article while trying to research a Web site called DiedInHouse.com — that for a modest fee — says it will search public records to find out if anyone has died at any valid U.S. address. As a bonus, the site says its search will also turn up any information about any fires or drug activity (i.e., was my beautiful old historic home — or the one I’m thinking of buying — ever a meth lab?) that took place on the property.

 

Author: The Daily Nonpareil, Council Bluffs, Iowa

Title: The History We Live In” series

Herd-Worthy Because: What a great idea! (If we do say so ourselves….) This Iowa newspaper picks out homes in the local area and digs into their past — and the stories of those who lived in them — as part of an occasional series it publishes.

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Houstory Herd: Louisiana Plantation Rich with Black History

black history, houstory, house history

A “slave cabin” at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, LA  [Photo by Michael McCarthy, https://www.flickr.com/photos/msmccarthyphotography]

In honor of Black History Month, we seek lessons learned from a plantation with a dark history.

By Mike Hiestand, Houstory Founder

Every home, as we like to say at Houstory, has a story.

And while much of our marketing material shows families happily living their stories and enjoying their homes, the truth, of course, is that not all home stories are rosy. Some stories can be hard to hear. But such stories are often those most worth preserving and sharing.

In honor of Black History Month and the idea that these difficult but important stories are worth sharing, we turn our attention to the Whitney Plantation on Louisiana’s River Road, 35 miles outside of New Orleans. The location opened its doors to the public in 2014.

Records show that an immigrant family from Germany bought the land for the plantation in 1752. Its second owner named it Whitney, after his grandson.

While there are a number of historic plantations on River Road, most focus on what one writer called the “hoop-skirt version of Southern history,” where visitors can tour grand, restored antebellum southern mansions and have picnics under trees or host weddings under big tents.

Whitney is the first plantation museum in the country dedicated to telling the unvarnished story of slavery. And much of that story is told by houses on the property.

A society’s architecture, and particularly the way those who make up that society choose (or have chosen for them) to put a roof over their heads gives unique insight into what life was like at a given time and place. It does so in a way that historical facts and statistics cannot.

At its peak — statistically — Whitney Plantation included 1,700 acres, most of it planted in sugarcane. According to historians, the original owners became one of the largest slaveholders in Louisiana. In 1860, a household inventory showed they owned 101 black slaves.

Over the years, many more people were enslaved on the Whitney Plantation; the names of 356 of them are etched in granite slabs on the museum’s Wall of Honor.

The biggest building on the property — simply known as the “Big House” — had seven rooms on each level and was completed sometime prior to 1815.

 

black history, houstory, house history

The “Big House” at the Whitney Plantation in 1926 [Photo by Robert Tebbs, The Collections of the Louisiana State Museum]

black history, houstory, house history

The “Big House” in 2015. [Photo by Michael McCarthy https://www.flickr.com/photos/msmccarthyphotography]

The Big House’s residents included the house slaves, who were — euphemistically — “on call” 24/7. Unlike their owners, slaves in the Big House slept on pallets on the floor.

The majority of Whitney’s slaves lived in cabins on the property. Before the Civil War there were 22 cabins. In the 1970s, 20 of the cabins were torn down to make it easier for tractor-trailer trucks picking up sugarcane to enter and exit the property. Since then, a few slave cabins from nearby properties were moved to the site and today visitors to the Whitney Plantation can tour seven cabins that housed slaves.

black history, house history

A “slave cabin” at the Whitney Plantation [Photo by Michael McCarthy, https://www.flickr.com/photos/msmccarthyphotography]

Made from cypress wood, the cabins look to have held up remarkably well over the past century-plus, bearing witness to our past in a visceral way that sticks.

As New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu said, “Go on in. You have to go inside. When you walk in that space you can’t deny what happened to these people. You can feel it, touch it, smell it.”

That’s the power of architecture. And particularly the power of a house. A house tells a story in a way that history books never can. As you see where slaves cooked their meals day after day, where they slept, where they washed and how they lived their lives as humans, the story of slavery in America changes from something we’ve all read about to something you feel, something that touches the core.

Interior of slave cabin on Whitney Plantation. [Photo Courtesy of Whitney Plantation]

Interior of slave cabin on Whitney Plantation. [Photo Courtesy of Whitney Plantation]

Interior of slave cabin on Whitney Plantation. [Photo Courtesy of Whitney Plantation]

Interior of slave cabin on Whitney Plantation. [Photo Courtesy of Whitney Plantation]

As one visitor remarked:

“When we can get visitors to actually think about who these folks were and what their lives were like? That’s when you’ve made a difference.”

While the story of the Whitney Plantation is powerful, the story of the storyteller — and how the museum came to be — is also fascinating. The short version is that John Cummings, a white New Orleans trial lawyer now in his late 70s, purchased the plantation from a petrochemical firm in the 1990s and has spent millions of dollars on research, restoration and artifacts.

In an interview last year with National Public Radio, Cummings said he was inspired to turn the Whitney into a slavery museum after reading the slave narratives collected from 1936-1938 by the Works Progress Administration.

Americans, he said, have a hard time talking honestly about the legacy of slavery.

“If we can demonstrate that there is a hangover from slavery, they will then understand exactly what happened, and what obligation we [have] as a nation,” he says. “Maybe not as individuals — we didn’t own slaves. But as a nation, what is it that we can do to right some of the wrongs?”

 

Now, on to The Herd for this month…

What is “The Hearth Herd.” It’s simply a roundup (or “Herd”) of a few stories we’ve seen recently that we feel our fellow Houstorians would be interested in. The Herd’s content will generally focus on three things: 1) House and property history; 2) Family heirlooms; 3) Environmental sustainability. If you see something that you think belongs in The Herd, we’d love to hear from you!

 

Family History

Author: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Title: Jesse Owens and me: My family has some ties to the 1936 Olympic Games

Herd-Worthy Because: The author remembers her great grandfather and the issues he faced regarding race and culture—as well as his connection to Olympian Jesse Owens. “Recently, I inherited a precious family heirloom, a signed souvenir book from the 1936 Berlin Olympics.”

 

Family Heirlooms

Author: PRI (Public Radio International)

Title: Heroes’ journeys end far differently, depending on their country of origin

Herd-Worthy Because: Author Marie Mitsuki Mockett explores how the Japanese often tell stories through their family heirlooms and precious belongings. “I have this theory that one of the reasons why the Japanese are so good at design, is because they see objects as alive,” she says. “It’s not just a thing. Like when you pick up a cup you want to feel good about the cup and feel it’s an object that has a soul.”

 

house history

Author: Yankee

Title: How Does the National Register of Historic Places Work? | Ask the Expert

Herd-Worthy Because: Do you think your home belongs on the National Register? Read this article and find out if you make the grade.

 

Author: Charlotte Observer

Title: Black History Month: Charlotte’s vanishing historic sites

Herd-Worthy Because: Old vs new. Gentrification vs recognition. Historically black neighborhoods in Charlotte face a lot of challenges. “It has taken a while for buildings to get enough mileage on them for people to look back and say: ‘That’s history.’ Many buildings have been torn down here before that magic moment arrived.”

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White Friday anyone? Try an Alternative to Stuff This Holiday Season

By Mike and Dan Hiestand, The Houstory Brothers

 

no more stuff, #nomorestuff

Instead of waking up earlier and earlier on Black Friday (or increasingly never going to bed as more stores compete to open their doors first), battling the traffic and fighting the crowds for more stuff, what if you gave White Friday a try instead?

For the past few years, we’ve run our “No More Stuff” holiday campaign that encourages people to re-think the relationship they have with the objects and things that surround them before they head out shopping for things they may not really need or even truly want.

This year, we’re giving the campaign an official kickoff day — the day after Thanksgiving. Yes, we know we have some competition — so we’re calling ours White Friday.

Here’s how White Friday works: You sleep in as long as you need to. You sip your tea or coffee and bask in the memories of family and Thanksgiving the day before. Maybe you have a bit of breakfast. And then — when you’re ready — you take a leisurely stroll around the house taking notice of — and being grateful for — a few of the important pieces of “stuff” you already have. Maybe it’s an old family clock. Or a table that’s hosted family gatherings (such as dinner the day before). Or a treasured family photo. Or a special family cookbook. Or the crazy doo-dad sitting on the shelf that’s been in your life for as long as you can remember. And you write down their stories. (We call the things that you choose “heirlooms” here at The Heirloom Registry — but it’s really anything — old/new, expensive or “price-less” — that holds meaning for you.)

If you’re traveling and you’re waking up at your folks’ house (or grandparents’ — or some other relative) all the better! Let them choose the things that are important and whose stories they feel are worth sharing. You walk around with them, listen and take some notes. Maybe snap a photo or two of your family member in front of things he/she is talking about.

Here’s what I promise:

  1. You will learn something memorable you didn’t know before.
  2. You will smile.
  3. In years to come, you (and your family) will appreciate this simple gift more than almost anything else you could buy at 4 am.

It doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated

To make it easy, we are gifting you this free, downloadable form that will help you collect some of the more pertinent information. When you finish you can simply attach the form to the back of the “heirloom” or file it with your important documents.

You can also try out The Heirloom Registry — for free — by signing up this holiday season for a complimentary registration number when you visit our Web site. (If you want to get a bit more fancy by ordering a permanent registration label or plate, we can help you with that.) But you don’t need to.

The important thing is that you do it. Because the stories of our family heirlooms usually disappear with our family members. And an heirloom without a story is — as we say — just more stuff.

We know it might sound crazy. And if you genuinely need that digital bathroom scale and can get it for the insanely low price of $9.99, go for it. (We all need things. That’s life on Earth.) Heck, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy a mixture of both Black and White Friday. A Shade of Grey Friday feels like a step in the right direction.

But be the change you want to see in the world, right? We’d like a world that  makes room for a White Friday.

And we’d like to sleep in.

Happy Holidays!

Mike and Dan

 

Preserve, conserve, #nomorestuff

 

Houstory Herd: A Magic Treehouse

By Mike Hiestand, Houstory President

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“All treehouses are sort of magic, don’t you think?”

I’m having pizza with Karen LaVerne, sitting in her treehouse, outside Bellingham, Wash., and I have to admit, lit up with candles on this beautiful fall night, a bit of a mist settling into the woods outside, this place feels very, very magical indeed.

“This place has that feeling for me,” Karen continues. “Pretty much everything in here has a story, has some meaning.”

And though I’d just come to have dinner and catch up with my friend, I knew it was time to put on my home historian hat and get out my notebook. Because, like all homes, it occurred to me that every tree house also has a story. And this one sounded like it would be a good one.

Karen tells me that she and her husband Peter moved into their main home in 1992. That home — which has its own impressive history — sits on about 5 acres, most of which is heavily wooded. There are only a few paths disturbing the natural setting, which includes soaring old growth maple and cedar trees.

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Peter, she said, loved these woods. He was a horticulturist for the county park department for several decades. Part of his legacy, I learn, is being the primary force in creating a popular fragrance garden in my hometown of Ferndale, Wash., which has always been one of my favorite spots

Peter, Karen tells me, had promised their grandson Dane that he’d build him a treehouse amongst the trees and plants he loved so much. In fact, he’d just started putting the plans together when he was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. He died about four months later in January 2011.

Time passed as Karen and her family adjusted to their new life. After several months, she said, talk about the treehouse came up again.

Dane, she said, assumed the treehouse plans had come to end with Peter’s death.

“I heard that,” Karen said, “and asked myself ‘What’s a grandma to do?’”

Still working through the sudden loss of her husband, she said something told her she needed to move forward and finish Peter’s vision.

And so she told her grandson the treehouse plans were a go and hired a carpenter.

“I gave him pretty much free reign. He was creative and having fun. But it was pretty rudimentary, like most treehouses.”

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The front porch view. The porch railings were repurposed from a teepee Peter had built on the property.

That would soon change.

The first thing was that I wanted some doors and paint, she said. And then Dane came up and asked for rugs and curtains.

“He’s a city boy,” she laughed.

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When it became clear this was going to be something more than a kid’s tree fort, she hired a second carpenter and friend, Rebecca Meloy – who was also an artist – to take on the project and add the features she and Dane were looking for.

Rebecca, she said, saw the treehouse’s potential from the beginning.

“She loved this place. She loved the setting and the idea. I gave her creative license and she ran with it, adding flourishes here and there, and really turning this into the magical place that it is.”

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Part of Rebecca’s vision was incorporating Peter’s presence.

“This is definitely Peter’s treehouse,” Karen said. “He was a packrat.”

Karen said her husband would pick up odd pieces here and there and set them aside, storing much of it in their basement.

“It (the basement) was a mess,” Karen said. “But on some level he knew what he was doing, because pretty much everything in the treehouse came out of that basement – and fit perfect.”

In addition to incorporating many of Peter’s finds into the treehouse, Rebecca added one big thing.

“Rebecca told me one day, I’m going to make you a bedroom.”

“And that was it!” Karen said.

Adding a small separate sleeping area, she said, made this more than just a playhouse to spend a few hours — it made it a magic home in the woods, a real place to entertain occasional guests and to live with the trees and plants and animals in the forest.

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The sleeping area

 

Karen frequently spends the night in the house during the summer listening to the wind and the birds, sometimes the rain.

The back of the treehouse incorporates some old mirrors that Peter had collected to create a floating effect.

The back of the treehouse incorporates some old mirrors that Peter had collected create a floating effect

She says she’s never alone. And not just because she is usually accompanied by her beloved dogs, who are still learning to navigate the open stairs leading up to the treehouse.

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Karen and her Corgi companions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I love this place. And Peter loves this place.”

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Now, on to The Herd for this month…

What is “The Hearth Herd.” It’s simply a roundup (or “Herd”) of a few stories we’ve seen recently that we feel our fellow Houstorians would be interested in. The Herd’s content will generally focus on three things: 1) House and property history; 2) Family heirlooms; 3) Environmental sustainability. If you see something that you think belongs in The Herd, we’d love to hear from you!

 

Family History

Author: WBUR, Boston Public Radio

Title: “This Thanksgiving, Listen To (And Interview) Your Elders”

Herd-Worthy Because: Yes! Yes! Yes! We’ve been urging folks for a couple years now to use Thanksgiving (or any family gathering — but we love Thanksgiving!) to walk around the house with older family members and have them tell you the stories of a couple important things to ensure their stories aren’t lost. (In fact, we’ve created a simple form you can download that helps you do just that and makes it easy to later enter that information into The Heirloom Registry if you are so inclined.) The folks at NPR’s Story Corp would have you do much the same thing — they’re just asking that you take a recording device with you. A great idea, if we do say so ourselves!

 

Family Heirlooms

Author: Kara Baskin, Boston Globe

TitleCan Heirlooms Really Fit Into Your Decor?”

Herd-Worthy Because: Heirlooms are special — different from a piece of furniture you just picked up from Ikea — because they have a history. But that “specialness,” this article notes, can often bring with it interesting, sometimes difficult, emotional and practical issues as one tries to incorporate heirlooms with a past into a present-day life.

 

house history

Author: Keri Sanders, HGTV.com

Title: “Restored! Nicole’s Best Historic Home Saves

Herd-Worthy Because: No surprise, but we’re big fans of HGTV’s Nicole Curtis, host of the TV show “Rehab Addict.” Nicole is passionate about honoring a home’s past and telling its stories as she brings properties back to life. It is simply part of her DNA. Here’s a fun before/after photo slideshow showing some of her favorite projects.

 

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Happy Birthday Houstory!

By Mike Hiestand, Houstory Founder/President

So I’m filling in this month as my brother Dan takes a well-earned summer break from the Herd.

Dan will return in the fall to remind you that you’re going to die — yes, it could be next week — and yes, a living obituary is a wonderful idea and loving gift for those you leave behind.

[Shameless Promotion: So is snapping a few pics with your smart phone and spending 15 minutes with your dad while he tells you the story of that interesting knick-knack that has sat on his shelf for as long as you can remember. It’s a part of his life and he’s around to tell you about it now. (Do it. Just do it!. We’ll even give you a free registration to get you started.) That is all.]

houstory, heirloom registry, birthday, home history book

 

As substitute editor, however, I thought I would take a break from Dan’s healthy and important DeathTalk to do a little celebrating.

Yes, Houstory officially turned 8 years old in June. Unofficially, we’re closer to 9 years old as the company was actually “born” the night of October 29, 2006. (In my my hot tub. Keep reading for details….)

It has been quite the ride. Quite the ride indeed. Marked, most recently, with my hand-delivering one of our Premier Home History books – one of just a handful handcrafted by the oldest custom bindery in America — to The Playboy Mansion, one of most famous homes on the planet.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…. Let’s start from the very beginning. It’s a very fine place to start.

 

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Instant heirloom: A heartfelt Mother’s Day gift

Mother's Day 2013. Jessica, Gerri and Ally Hiestand.

Mother’s Day 2013.

By Mike Hiestand, Houstory Founder 

One of the things we hear from folks when we tell them about The Heirloom Registry is, “But, I don’t have any heirlooms.”

It’s unfortunate that we had to attach a name to our registration service, but we did. And “The Heirloom Registry” just sounded catchier than “The Special Things in My Life Registry.”

But either would work. It’s not the age of an item that makes it an heirloom. It’s the story behind it.

The Heirloom Registry is simply a place to record the stories about the special things in your life. Those things can be old — or brand new. The key is that they have a story that gives them meaning. The Heirloom Registry simply ensures that story will always be easily accessible.

For Mother’s Day, my daughters created and gave their grandma a hand-painted hanging mobile. Of course, my mom absolutely loved it. An instant heirloom! By affixing a small tag and registering it, I was able to briefly tell its story and attach a couple photos (there is room for up to six) of my daughter painting it and presenting it to my mom on Sunday. It took 10 minutes. But now, if my mom would like to show it off to her friends tomorrow — or if my daughter inherits it 50 years from when she’s the grandma who “fills the world with joy”  — the story of how it came to be and the memories of a very special day are as close as the nearest computer.

It is an official, irreplaceable part of Hiestand Family History

An example of the Certificate of Registration — which users can view or print for free after registering an item on The Heirloom Registry — is below.

 

Registration Certificate from The Heirloom Registry

Registration Certificate from The Heirloom Registry

 

Navigating the Law: Access to Vital Records for Genealogy, Family History Research

gavelBy Mike Hiestand, Houstory Founder

The following is the first part of a two-part series written by Houstory’s Mike Hiestand on access to vital records for genealogists and family historians. Visit here for part two.

Mike’s background in open records law is extensive: He worked as an attorney for more than two decades, helping journalists with their questions about access to government records and meetings. He has spoken all over the country, written a book and produced various other resources to help journalists and others navigate state and federal freedom of information laws that, when used, can be highly effective tools for accessing government records and meetings.

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Oddly, when giving a talk to folks on freedom of information law, some of the most frustrating questions I would receive concerned the particular subcategory of public records of most interest to genealogists: vital statistic records (or vital records). That is, records that document the important milestones that make up a person’s life: their birth, adoption, death, marriage and divorce. A person’s military service records are also sometimes lumped into the category of vital records.

Answering questions about vital records is frustrating because access to such basic public records should be so much simpler than it is. Increasingly, states are stepping in to implement rules they claim are meant to protect against fraud, identity theft or, in recent years, terrorism. The dangers vital records actually pose and the efficacy of the laws intended to curb such nebulous risks are matters of hot debate. The undeniable casualty of lawmakers’ meddling around, however, has been a user-friendly records system. Rarely does the current system lend itself to a quick answer. Unless you’ve memorized the rules of a particular state, you always have to look them up because there is not a lot of rhyme or reason — and certainly not a lot of consistency — that informs those rules.

The first thing to know is that there is no national set of rules. Vital records are local records that are governed by an individual state’s open records law. That means that while another person’s birth certificate might be available to you today in state “A,” that same record could be off limits in state “B.” (The rules for getting a copy of your own vital records are less stringent.)

According to a 2009 survey by the Records Preservation and Access Committee of The Federation of Genealogical Societies and The National Genealogical Society, “Birth record release dates range from 72 years [after birth] in Delaware (the same restricted period as the U.S. Census) to 125 years in Alaska. Death record release dates range from 25 years [after death] in Alabama and Texas to 50 years in a majority of states.”

As for adoption records, whose rules can get particularly gnarly, the same Committee found “nine percent of the states…allow access to this information for adoptees between eighteen and twenty-one years of age. Four states have open access with either higher year age restrictions or other regulations.”

Many state laws include rules about who may obtain a copy of a vital record. State laws often restrict access to those with a “direct and tangible interest.” (Or language similar in effect.) Way too often, the statute leaves that term undefined, which means it’s up to the government record-keeper (or eventually a judge if a dispute arises) to interpret and determine who has a direct and tangible interest.

Fortunately, lawmakers in other states have at least taken a stab at clarifying what the terms means. Hawaii, for instance, defines someone with a direct and tangible interest as including the following:

  1. Registrant
  2. Spouse of the registrant
  3. Parent of the registrant
  4. Descendant of the registrant
  5. Person having a common ancestor with the registrant
  6. Legal guardian of the registrant
  7. Person or agency acting on behalf of the registrant
  8. Personal representative of the registrant’s estate
  9. Person whose right to inspect is established by an order of a court of competent jurisdiction
  10. Adoptive parents who have filed a petition for adoption and who need to determine the death of one or more of the prospective adopted child’s natural or legal parents
  11. Person who needs to determine the marital status of a former spouse in order to determine the payment of alimony

Points (4) and (5) would cover the work of most individual genealogists researching their own family, but could leave genealogists and historians without a direct family tie scrambling.

Next week, Mike will discuss the specifics of tracking down vital records information for family historians and genealogists — including who, how and when to ask for the information.