For my independent research project, I am focused on uncovering the truth behind a piece of family folklore passed down on my maternal side. The story is not particularly long or exciting, but it does link my family to a grand figure of American history, albeit a peripheral link. Through the exploration of this tale, I am also becoming better acquainted with the figure of my great-grandmother and the Swedish side of my family.
The story, in essence, is this: my grandmother, an impeccable seamstress herself, claimed that her mother had once sewn a dress for Eleanor Roosevelt. I have no skill for sewing, and until then I believed that my connection to the famed First Lady was only through our shared gender and politics (also a first name, although she didn’t like or ever use it, which I find disappointing). To learn that I may have a tangential link to Eleanor through a legacy of women was an inspiring mystery that I had to uncover.
The first step in my research was to track my great-grandmother’s whereabouts, starting with a birth certificate. The most illuminating thing about the research thus far has been learning how difficult, but ultimately informative, tracking one individual can be. For instance, on her birth certificate, my great grandmother was born “Svea H. E. E. Larson.” I found, however, that by the time my grandmother was born in 1929, her mother was listed at Elizabeth Larson. She was listed as Elizabeth in the 1930 and 1940 census, as well (she died in 1945). I surmised that Elizabeth must have been one of Svea’s middle names, but why the name change? Did she ever use the name Svea?
The answer to this question ultimately came after arduous searching through several death records, birth records, and censuses. Through the search for Svea, I was able to find the death certificate for her mother (my great-great grandmother, Hedwig), her spouse, and her in-laws. Tracking these other people gave me a better clue as to Svea’s interpersonal life and whereabouts, but it only was able to inform me about her life post-1930. After several creative re-interpretations of the spelling of Hedwig’s first name, I was able to locate my great-grandmother as Svea in Brooklyn in the 1920 census. I was also able to find a piece of corroborating evidence to the family story in this census – her industry was listed as dressmaker.
The next task for this project is to do some research into Eleanor’s life around the time my great-grandmother was in the dressmaking industry. I intend to call the museum at Hyde Park on Hudson to learn more about how Eleanor may have had her clothes made and what that would have entailed. Would she have placed an order at specific establishment? Would she have been acquainted with the seamstress who was to make the dress? Would they have had regular visits? Hopefully contacting Hyde Park will answer my questions, or at least point me in the right direction.