Horse-drawn wagons clip-clopping down city streets, frosty deliveries from the ice man, candy store bins filled with penny candy, the challenges of cooking on a coal-fired kitchen stove, getting from place to place by trolley – these sights, sounds and activities, once so common to daily life, have long faded away. But they live on in the memories of many of the storytellers recording legacy videos today – and you can use these memories, enhanced with archival photos and films, sound effects and music, to paint a vivid picture of life in days past.
Case in point: I recently finished the video biography of a wonderful lady who was born in Queens, New York, in 1916. Knowing that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren would love to learn what her world was like when she was a youngster, I made sure to ask her lots of questions about her neighborhood and her way of life in the early 1900s. She recalled a time when three sticks of gum cost a penny, sanitation men called ash-haulers came to take away the ash generated by coal and wood-fired stoves and hand-cranking was the only way to start the few automobiles around. Some research turned up archival photos to help illustrate her descriptions. Combined with period music, these elements combined to create a vivid picture of the world that existed during her childhood.
As the opening chapter of her legacy video, the segment provides her family with a very fun and fascinating glimpse into the past. But it also helps put the storyteller’s life in context. None of us live on a blank canvas. We are all products of certain when’s and where’s that influence and inform our lives. Painting in those “background elements” helps flesh out a life story, giving viewers greater insight into the storyteller’s motivations and life choices.
So don’t forget to pay attention to context. It’ll help you craft a much more complete picture of that important storyteller in your family.