Why “Vernacular Genealogy?”

On my new Instagram account I’m posting images of genealogical objects–mostly texts, printed or manuscript, but also art and other materials–that I’ve come across in my research about how genealogy and genealogical thinking saturated early America.  I’ve called it  VernacularGenealogy.  But why?

A genealogy is how one thing relates to another, or more properly, how one thing descends from another.  We describe aesthetics,creatures, ideas, and places – and so, not just people – as having genealogies.  For any of these or other categories of things, as well as humans, a genealogy is an expression of relationship.  

A genealogy can be asserted, it can be claimed, it can be contested.  It can be useful to express that relationship, or it can be an act of aggression to do so.

Genealogy is often used, casually, in American and other popular cultural contexts, to mean undertaking either as a hobby or a profession the exploration of a family history.  It used to mean, in these same contexts, a rather formal rendering of a family history through a publication.  

There are lots and lots of other ways that human “genealogy” is used and rendered, however, now and in the past.  

The sheer range of fascinating ways that people express genealogy is one of the subjects of my forthcoming book, Lineage.  A vernacular is a local or ordinary or informal expression; thus, “Vernacular Genealogy” is a local, ordinary, informal expression of family relationships.  Most genealogy is in a vernacular form (for another post, how family history software has helped encourage new vernaculars).  

In fact, one of my book chapters is titled “Vernacular Genealogy.”  In the book I explore the wider cultural echoes present in vernacular genealogies, but also the very local, sometimes family specific contexts.  I’ll do a little of that in the Instagram posts, where I’ll share what I know–briefly!–about specific pieces.  I’ll also be posting materials I come across in my own research and in others’ work, because it’s all around us. 

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