Teachers Write 7.24.17 Mini-Lesson Monday: Biographical Research with Margaret Powell

Good morning, Teachers Write campers! Your Monday Morning Warm-Up with Jo is here.

Today’s a special day because I get to introduce you to a brilliant debut author who’s also a friend.

Margaret Powell is a decorative arts historian from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is the Curatorial Assistant of Decorative Arts and Design at the Carnegie Museum of Art and she writes about fashion history on her website www.hiddenfashionhistory.com. Margaret and I are the co-authors of an upcoming picture book called ONLY THE BEST: THE EXCEPTIONAL LIFE AND FASHION OF ANN LOWE, coming soon from Chronicle Books. (We don’t have a cover to share quite yet, but it’s being illustrated by Erin Robinson, and we’re both so excited!) Margaret’s post this morning is all about biographical research!

Digging into Biographical Research

I started learning about Ann Lowe during an internship in 2011. The chief curator wanted to know more about the designer of a dress in our collection and the existing scholarship available about Ann at that time boiled down to brief profiles in two 1980s books about African American fashion designers and a journal article written in the late 90s for the Alabama Historical Society. Not a lot of info, but they led me to a magazine interview Ann gave in the 1960s. Her story fascinated me, but from source to source, many details about her life were inconsistent.

Working to make sense of those mixed up facts turned into my masters thesis and this was the first biographical research I ever really attempted. To have enough information for my thesis, I needed dresses to study, former clients to interview and hopefully, some family members. Ann’s career spanned sixty years and three states: Alabama, Florida, and New York. I had the budget of a student, so research trips were limited and finding primary sources was a challenge.

A lot of Ann’s dresses are in museums, but the biggest collections nearby were not available for research that summer. The Metropolitan Museum had ten, but they were renovating the Costume Institute. The Smithsonian had a few, but those were caught up in inventory and research for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. The JFK library held Ann’s most famous work: Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress. That dress was permanently off limits to researchers (especially students!) because of condition issues. With all of those barriers, I wasn’t sure where to start at first, but then I thought about newspapers. Newspapers are a fabulous starting point!

All in all, my strongest research has been a result of interviews (in person and over the phone), but those take time to arrange, so they usually won’t be your first step. At the beginning of biographical research, newspapers and public records can give you the info you need to track down those living people. Genealogybank.com is my favorite website for this, because of their strong regional newspaper offerings, but if you have a membership with Ancestry.com, or one of the other genealogy sites, or even the New York Times, you already have access to some extensive newspaper archives.

What are you looking for? If your subject is well known, there could be interviews, profiles, book and tv reviews. Ann wasn’t well known, but she had a lot of well known clients and she created dresses for one of the most popular annual events in Tampa: the Gasparilla festival. Ann’s dresses show up on the front page of the Tampa Tribune throughout the 1920s and they are also described in detail inside.

Ann is never named here, but when I learned about her Gasparilla work, the rest was easy. The names of her customers led me to living granddaughters of those customers, and one of those ladies even mailed me an Ann Lowe dress to borrow for my research!

Obituaries may be the first link to finding living relatives. Wedding announcements will also help you to keep track of name changes.

The census can be another treasure trove of information and give you countless jumping off points. Google Books and Archive.org often have full scans of directories and trade journals from professional organizations. If your subject was a professional or an artisan, you may be able to find information that way.

Your Assignment: Choose someone you’d like to research. What can you find out about your subject through public records (the census, marriage, military, and death records), newspaper and genealogy websites? Has your subject ever given interviews to magazines or on television?

If you wish to keep going, on your own, create a list of five living people associated with your subject and reach out to them for interviews. Interviews can be in person, over the phone, or in writing (I started with a questionnaire to send out to a dozen of Ann’s former clients. Five of those people replied). These can surprise you. Descendants of Ann Lowe’s business partners, and a few of Ann Lowe’s 1960s bridal customers have been my greatest help! I hope you have fun while you uncover some interesting information about your subject!

As always, feel free to share a bit of your thinking in the comments today to continue the conversation!

29 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.24.17 Mini-Lesson Monday: Biographical Research with Margaret Powell

  1. Thank you so much! These are some great tips. I am researching right now for a biography, so these resources will hopefully help me uncover even more information!

    1. Wonderful!! So glad this is right on time. It’s surprising how many free or low cost options are available online to get you started!

  2. Thank you for the post and these tips. I look forward to checking out Genealogybank.com.

    1. Their newspaper archive is fantastic and the full text search function is really easy and gets great results! I’ve found it easier to navigate than ancestry for newspapers Have fun!

  3. Thank you so much, Jo and Margaret! I have several picture book biography ideas that have been simmering in my brain for a long time, so this is very helpful in applying some structure and a starting point!

  4. Margaret, thank you for these tips. I actually had not heard of Genealogybank.com before. Or that searching Google books could be a good jumping off point. I look forward to reading your book on Ann Lowe, that is one I’ll be picking up!

  5. Oh, my goodness….what an amazing post and so related to one of my wip’s. When I was visiting family members this summer, I had access and about 24 hours in a peaceful cabin to a big box of old family letters and diaries.

    The letters were being save for the valuable stamps on the envelopes! I wanted what was inside! One letter was a New Year’s greeting written January 18th, 1900. I photographed the letter and made a slide show of the photographs for my family….set to ragtime music (youtube makes this easy)

    Anyway, for years I’ve been talking with my sisters about collaborating their love for genealogy with my love of creative writing.

    The sources you give are wonderful…..but without your excitement over how you got to valuable information for your research they are just links. Your work makes biographical writing possible. Thanks so much for being here and the inspiration. I can’t wait to share this post with my sisters!

    1. Thank you!! Research can be so much fun, especially when different bits of info start pulling together to form your story! I found the 1920s building permit purchased by Ann Lowe’s husband for work to enclose their back porch and it was SO exciting to me because a 1960s newspaper article about her Tampa work mentioned that she had a workroom at the back of her house on the former porch!! Little bits of info can be so fun

  6. I was so excited when I saw this morning’s post would be about biographical research! I have just recently decided to write a biography (probably for middle grade students, although I’m also considering a picture-book biography) about the poet Ogden Nash. I have a huge personal connection, because my father was Ogden Nash’s biggest fan, possibly literally. He had hundreds of Nash poems memorized, and after he retired, he gained a local reputation for the Ogden Nash programs he gave to local civic and senior citizens groups. Once, while we were on vacation near the Nash’s summer home when I was a teenager, he looked up Nash’s widow, and to our surprise she invited us all over for tea. What a thrill that was! We were introduced to several of Nash’s granddaughters, and my father kept up an occasional correspondence with them. Years later, we were invited to the 2002 ceremony dedicating the Ogden Nash postage stamp, held at his original Baltimore home. Another thrill! There, Ogden Nash’s daughters told us they were fascinated by the story of their mother inviting my father into her home, as she was extremely private. As far as they knew, my father was the only “fan” she had connected with after their father’s death. My father’s health deteriorated shortly thereafter, and I’ve had no contact with the family since. I was able to find contact information for one of the granddaughters. Whether or not she remembers my father, I am hoping I’ll be able to get an interview with her and other family members (although I plan to do a bit more research first). One of his daughters is still living. Fortunately, a lot of his papers survive, although they are a bit scattered. I’m willing to make a few field trips, though!

    I have a question for Margaret:

    Do authors often provide photos to be used to illustrate biographies? In other words, while I’m researching, should I be taking quality photographs of some of the more interesting sites and documents I find, or even of the people I interview (all with permission, of course)? Or does that all happen after one finds a publisher (if one is so lucky)? Thank you!

    1. Definitely, Maggie. One of my tasks this week involves sifting through my computer for reference pictures for our illustrator. Doing this along the way is the best way, I think. And photos, pdfs etc will also be helpful for you as you write.
      You will have worked so hard on your project, you want everyone to have the best tools available so they can get their parts of it right!

    2. Maggie,
      What a fascinating story about your father. I wonder if you are considering doing a book about both Ogden Nash and your father’s work as his fan. I think that is a genre–it kind of reminds me of Leonardo’s Horse and others I can’t think of right now.

      All the best as you make your research happen.

      1. I have thought of including my father as part of the book, but I am still in the earliest stages of figuring out what I want to do. Thank you so much for suggesting Leonardo’s Horse–I was trying to think of something to look at for inspiration! Interestingly, my mother bought that book for one of my daughters years ago.

  7. Wow, talk about timing. I was actually doing some geneological research this last weekend. I found things written in Google Books, I found some articles in old newspapers. It is funny how newspapers have changed over the years. The old papers talked about a family member coming home from Germany where he was serving in the army to attend his grandfather’s funeral. So much info in them I am excited for check out Archive.org. Thank you for this wealth of information. As much as I love writing, I love the research aspect just as much if not more.

  8. Family lore has always had a connection with Quanah Parker, a Comanche war leader of the Quahadi, through his mother, Cythinia Ann Parker. Recent genealogy has made it difficult to definitively prove the connection, but her history has always fascinated me. She was captured during a raid as a young child and assimilated completely into the Comanche tribe. She married Chief Peta Nocona. Later, through a treaty, she was forced to leave all of her children behind and, as an adult, return to the family of which she had no memory and no connection. There are pictures and some primary source documents about her son, as a war chief of the Comanche nation, in the Library of Congress, but her history is not as well documented. The family does have roots in central Texas still so I would need to find ways to reach out to see if they have anything written by her or her family members from the time. They were a large frontier/ranching family.

    1. That sounds fascinating!! How neat to have such an intriguing bit of history in your family! My family doesn’t have any interesting stories like that Although I wish we did!

  9. Thank you, Margaret, for this wonderful post.

    I am thrilled about how much that I am learning about research through Teachers Write. My sixth grade students do quite a bit of research during the school year (in both social studies class and ELA). At the middle to end of this coming school year, I am going to let the kids choose a topic to research in addition to required research assignments (in social studies, they are assigned topics about the impact of agriculture, the question of whether the Dark Ages are truly dark, and the greatest ancient legacy of all time; in ELA, we researched alternative agriculture, explorers, countries, and Native American cultures). Our school library has a thorough electronic database, so the students can access old newspaper and magazine articles (my favorite is JSTOR). The librarian is so wonderful about finding and ordering us books about the topic being researched.

    I am currently researching about a baseball player named Fleet Walker because he played in Syracuse (where I live) for a few years. The more that I research, the more that I find. I plan on writing about him (have already started), but I must admit that I am thoroughly enjoying the aspect of reading and researching about him.

    Thank you again for the post. And happy researching!

  10. I am such a sucker for biography research! I had to cancel my Ancestry.com subscription because, other than being expensive, I lost 8 hours one day searching my family history! And the same happened today!

    My WIP is fiction so there aren’t necessarily characters to research. However, my mc is based on my niece Alice, who we are pretty sure has dyslexia. So I thought, “I wonder who discovered dyslexia.” Four hours later I am knee deep into Anna Gillingham, half of the Orton-Gillingham duo who revolutionized reading strategies for dyslexia. This woman is so fascinating!!

    I didn’t find any interviews or videos that were free so I bookmarked resources to look into later when I am done with the first draft of my WIP. She was born in 1878 and was first published in 1935 at the age of 57. Her first ten years of life were spent living on a Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. She went to Swarthmore College, Radcliffe, and got an MA from Columbia. I couldn’t find any information on relationships or potential children. I learned that she went blind later in life and, despite this, was still travelling consulting as a reading specialist.

    I am so curious to learn more and found that Swarthmore College holds a lot of artifacts that can be checked out for research – including photos and letters from when she lived on the reservation. I read, not confirmed, that she didn’t learn to read until age 10 and thought that was apporpriate because it allowed her to be a child first. I want to research more and find out if that is true, and if she ever changed her mind.

    Thanks Margaret! I’m thinking this is the seed of a new story for me!

    1. Megan,
      I love the passion with which you researched Gillingham today. This was really interesting, and it’s great to see it’s a seed inspiring you for another story. Good luck with your mc and all the best for Alice.

    2. Dyslexia is a fascinating topic! I love Margarita Engle’s and Caroline Starr Rose’s novels in verses featuring dyslexic heroines (The Wild Book and May B., respectively). I did not know all of that about the history of Anna Gillingham. So interesting! I hope you pursue your research about her!

  11. Margaret and Kate,
    That’s exciting that you have done a collaborative book about an interesting character that not many of us know about. Congratulations.

    I did a little research about an Olympian that my character did a report about. Here is a snippet:

    “OK, here is my bio poem…
    Strong, quick, determined, overcoming
    Father of Taleya and Tamere
    Whose friends call him Slash
    Who loves sprints, hurdles, jumps, relays
    Who feels lucky to have conquered Myasthenia Gravis at age 12
    Who fears MG could come back
    Who is a three time U.S. Champion and two time Olympic finalist
    Who wants to help others win the gold in track and field
    Born in Baltimore, lives in Durham, NC

    After he finished, he asked his classmates, “Any questions?”
    Hands raised around the room. Bailey called on the children one at a time.
    Do you like track and field?
    “Kind of.”
    Is his nickname Slash?
    Why did you want to study James Carter?
    “Because he has MG and he’s Lisa’s dad’s cousin.”
    What is MG?
    “myasthenia gravis”
    What is your sathinny graves?
    “It’s myasthenia gravis. It’s an autoimmune disease that makes people have weak muscles and other stuff.”
    Why did you want to do your bio poem about that disease?
    “Actually, I have MG.”

    1. Denise-
      This is such a cool idea of how to weave your research into your story. Bravo! The connection between MG, James Carter, and your character is compelling and unique. I also love the addition of how one classmate mispronounced myasthenia gravis, very authentic and something that happens all the time in my classroom!

      I really loved this snippet today. Well done!

  12. This would be great to implement into my classroom! They do research on a topic, but the interview piece is something I haven’t tried before! Plus, that’s a great skill in itself for my students.
    Thank you for this post!

  13. Thank you for naming these resources. I am excited to follow up and search them out. I was aware of archive.org, but had not thought to use it this way. Interviews really are enlightening. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  14. I’ve never thought about writing a non-fiction or biography story, but your suggestions and insight to your research process on Ann Lowe makes me want to do some research on my own family history. I know I’ve talked with my mom at one point as to where my family comes from, and after all these years, it’s now a guess as I can’t remember. Genealogy is something that always seemed interesting, but I never wanted to put in the effort to do the research work myself. Hearing stories like your research on Ann keeps adding more fuel to the fire.

    I’ll have to add this to my list of resources for the teachers at my site as well, as I know 6th grade has a project around various Gods/Goddesses, and 7th/8th grade does a living history project around famous people and I’m sure they would find this interesting and something to pass on to their students.

  15. Hope you don’t mind, Margaret, if I share your dress research with my middle schoolers to make it clear how many items can be considered source material. I often talk about stamps, part work, etc being source material. It’s a great springboard to get them interested, especially if they have assumptions that delving into history in print is boring. If they are engaged in the topic, it may all of a sudden no longer be boring.

    I’m starting to gather info related to a man who had a house that still stands near where I live in PA. Although the local historical societies have a little info about how he helped support Thomas Edison’s research by producing some resources Edison needed and shipping them via rail ine that used to run right thru a nearby village, already have a list of places where I know there are archives to tap.

    I’m curious about doing research from a female perspective. Is there anything unique about what we find about women from the past?. So many who curated years ago might have assumed that women’s words were not important, so letters and diaries kept by families are more important to uncover yet today. Our 5th graders used to take an overnight field trip to Mystic Seaport. I spent a joyous morning in The library there, reading diaries and journals.

    1. Barb, all of our Teachers Write posts stay online, so just bookmark this one – it’ll be there for you to share with your students!