An oft-repeated phrase when one enters an old house is “if these walls could speak, the stories they’d tell.” In Germany, it is possible for the walls to speak about the families that lived there for centuries in the form of a book called a häuserchronik.
What would you say if I told you there might be a book that is like a City Directory, only it is listed by street addresses and also records deed transactions of the houses? And, the book also contains some personal information about the residents, including occupations, marriage information, and more? Well, if your ancestors came from Germany, there really may be such a book!
When I first visited the town my Bavarian ancestors came from, I was given a “häuserchronik” as a gift. The full title of the book, published in 1982, is Häuserchronik der Stadt Pfaffenhofen a.d. Ilm by Heinrich Streidel. It provided tons of genealogical information that was later verified by researching decades of church records. I couldn’t believe that such things existed…and that you don’t hear more about them!
Here is an example of one entry found in the book. The house is currently known in the town as Löwenstraße 14, formerly Judengasse 11. Before that, the house had a number assigned to it. Beginning in 1676, it was 67 II District. From 1810-1861, it was house #55. And from 1862-1927, it was house #79. In old towns such as Pfaffenhofen, houses were numbered as they were built. So, house #10 was not necessarily in between houses #9 and #11 – it could be on the other side of town! Occasionally, the houses were renumbered, probably because by then it became too difficult to find an address! At this particular house, the record begins back in 1614! My ancestors appear in the house’s record in 1746 as follows [translated to English, with my comments in brackets]:
1746, 4 Jan
Eger, Bernhard, shoemaker – purchased (Kaufsumme or “sum”) for “280 fl”
[According to the book’s preface, in 1982 the “fl” or gulden was equal to about 1.71 Marks. Today, that’s roughly 236 Euros! He was about 25 years old at the time.]
1746, 21 Jun
The above marries Arnold, Maria Anna, from Jägern/Edlmünster
[She’s not my ancestor…she dies in April, 1761 at age 35 during childbirth.]
1761, 30 Oct
Eggerer (Eger), Bernhard, widower, shoemaker, marries Stainer, Maria Margarete, from Freising
[Note the changing spelling of the surname, which will change one more time in a later entry before “stabilizing” – it was common for names to change over time as spelling became more formal and/or more people became literate. Unfortunately, he dies 17 years later in June, 1778 after they’ve had many children, including my ancestor Ignaz.]
1778, 18 Jul Eggerer, Maria Margarete, shoemaker’s widow
[This entry shows that changes were made to the records for events such as the husband’s death.]
1797, 10 Jan
Echerer (Eggerer), Ignaz, son, and Maria Anna, born Kaillinger, glassmaker’s daughter
[He was 32 years old; they married on 22 Jan 1797]
1844, 13 Feb
Echerer, Ignaz, son, marries Nigg, Magdalena
[He was 41 years old; they married on 19 Feb 1844]
1847, 12 Jun
He sells to a new family for 1400 fl, or 1200 Euros in 1982 money. Interestingly enough, the new owner sells it three years later for 2400 fl, proving that “house flipping” isn’t such a modern concept.
So, where did the family go? The house had been in the family for 100 years. The answer was also in the book. They moved to a different house, the current address of which is Schulstrasse 5. This house is even older than the previous one, as the records begin back in 1511! What is interesting is the immediate history prior to the purchase by Ignaz. Before I had done research with the church records, I would have only looked for his surname and ignored the rest. But, after complete research, I know the full story of the family relationships, so I will back up a bit in the house’s history.
1784, bought for 420 fl by Höck, Johann, master carpenter
1794, 12 Apr, daughter Therese marries
1794, 26 Apr, Nick, Karl, Town Master Carpenter
1844, 02 May, Nick, Rosalie, daughter, marries Aicher, Christian, master carpenter
It is from this couple that Ignaz and Magdalena buy the house for 3,980 fl. We saw from the previous entry that Nigg is Magdalena’s maiden name. Rosalie is her sister, Karl is her father (so she was born in this house), and the owner back in 1784 was her grandfather! After the couple purchases the house, it remains in the family until 1899. My great-grandmother, Maria Echerer, was born there in 1875 to Karl Echerer, son of Ignaz and Magdalena, and Margarethe Fischer. It appears that the house was owned by my great-grandmother’s brother, Karl, from 1896 to 1899 when he sold it for 10,800 Marks.
As you can see from the above example, there is an extraordinary amount of genealogical data to be found in such books. Other entries were less detailed, but nearly every house’s history had some information on marriages, including where the spouse may have come from if the town was not the same, and occupations. It appears based on the above that a new entry was made after the death of a spouse, a marriage, or the passing of the house to a son or daughter, which is why this sort of history has more in common with deed records than what Americans would call “city directories”.
But, where do you find such a treasure if it exists for your town? Well, it’s not easy. What makes the search even more complicated are the different names that Germans use. For my town of Pfaffenhofen, the book is called a häuserchronik. But similar information might be found in a heimatbuch, or town history. Some towns even have something called a ortssippenbuch or ortsfamilienbücher, which are books containing the genealogical data of an entire town or village. None of these useful resources are maintained in one place, so they are difficult to find.
First, I would try a search at www.familysearch.org for your family’s town – there are some of the above resources that would be listed if they are microfilmed.
Next, simply search on www.google.com for your town name, plus one of the above words.
You can also find success at German bookstores. One useful site that seems to have many “historical” books – and also has an English search page – is www.zvab.de. Put the town name in the subject search and see what you find!
Did you know that there are foreign versions of E-bay? You’re more likely to find a German book on Germany’s E-bay at www.ebay.de. Search for the town name, or even a surname. I found many heimatbucher waiting to be found by genealogists. It does help if you speak the language, though. While ordering via E-bay isn’t that difficult in any language, once you get the book it helps to be able to decipher the contents! I have several German books, but I don’t read German. If I did, or if I tried a little harder with a dictionary, I might know a lot more about my ancestors’ towns by now.
Finally, there is a database available at www.ortsfamilienbuecher.de that has listings of some “town heritage books”. I have not found an online resource that lists “häuserchronik” books specifically, but a local heritage book may also have genealogical information. You may have better luck contacting town or local archives to determine if any exist for your town.
Good luck, and I hope you all find similar genealogical treasures from your ancestors’ towns.