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DNA & Genealogy

Tracking down Genealogical Treats on eBay

Family historians and genealogists are always on the alert for new clues relating to their ancestors, so once all known memorabilia has been gleaned from extended families, a broader hunt and speculative searches can be implemented for:

  • Old family bibles, diaries, family letters, used postcards, autograph books
  • Photos, real photo postcards (rppc), cabinet cards, albums, scrapbooks, yearbooks
  • Funeral and memorial cards, eulogies
  • Paper ephemera: disposable paper items such as tickets, receipts, menus, labels, invitations, greeting cards, calling cards, business advertising
  • Society application or membership forms, employment mementos
  • Military memorabilia, medals, badges, diaries, paybooks, dog tags
  • Sporting memorabilia, awards, engraved trophies, medals, plaques
  • Artwork, books, poetry and other published items
  • Engraved jewellery, lockets, love tokens
  • Labelled canes, pocket watches, smoking paraphernalia
  • Apparel, embroidery, uniforms, silverware, antiques, trunks
  • Any items with provenance to your family


IOOF receipt 1901Unexpected items may have survived intact, been passed down more distant branches of the family, and may eventually find their way through deceased estates, antique stores, collectors, garage sales or other sources to online sales sites such as eBay.



eBay online sales

If you have not used eBay before, you will need to register first – at the eBay site for your country (eg. Australia, UK, USA).  [Refer to Important Tips at the end of this post].



eBay provides two search functions:

  • General Search – the main search box found at the top of each page
  • Advanced Search – accessed via the link next to the search box

Both search functions contain most of the same options. The difference is that the Advanced Search enables you to select your desired options all at once before you search, whereas with the General Search you refine your search progressively from the results page.

Advanced Operators can be used in either of the above search boxes to further customise your search – and these are the main focus of this article.

Followed Searches can trigger email alerts when any new listings match your search criteria.


General Search

Most eBay users hunt for items by performing simple searches using relevant keywords in the General Search box at the top of the page, and refining their results using the options on the left panel (eg. categories, condition, location and price), and listing format and sort options along the top.


eBay's General Search box found on the top of most eBay pages


  • Some very basic tips are provided on eBay's General Search Tips page.
  • Simply insert keywords with a space between each word.
  • Quotes (“ “) around a group of words will search for the exact phrase.
  • Searches are not case sensitive, so there is no need to use capital letters.
  • eBay searches automatically include plurals, so words with and without 's' on the end will be included in results and there's no need to search separately for the word 'letters' as well as 'letter', and 'bible' as well as 'bibles', etc.


Advanced Search

eBay’s Advanced Search feature allows you to customise your search using various drop-down and checkbox options.

The Advanced Search page can be accessed from the text link to the right of the main search box near the top of each page.

 eBay's Advanced Search link


Link to eBay's Advanced Search pageThe Advanced Search page is too long to include here in full size, as it displays all available options on one page.

Click the image on the right to view the page on eBay Australia, or follow the highlighted text link (as in the image above) to see your country's page.

The panel on the left of the Advanced Search page includes links to search for:

  • Members,
  • Stores, and
  • Items by seller, bidder or item number.


For assistance, refer to eBay's Using Advanced Search help page.




  • You can limit searches to particular categories or sub-categories.
  • A common category for historical items is Collectables.
  • Research the categories of particular items of interest beforehand, or search on All Categories and use the minus operator to exclude irrelevant results (refer to Advanced Search Operators below).


  • Items may be listed as New, Used or Not Specified.
  • Examine the number of results under Condition in the left panel, and refine further if needed.
  • Note that you can only select one condition directly from the side panel or from the Advanced Search page, but if you click the see all text link in the left panel, you can select more than one option, as follows:
    eBay's Condition see all link
  • The following example would exclude New items by enabling you to select both Used and Not Specified (eg. helpful if you were searching for old wedding photos):

    eBay's Condition see all box



  • Broaden your search to Worldwide, instead of limiting it to your country.
  • Your family's memoribilia may have been taken to other countries by other family branches.


  • By default, eBay always searches for your keywords in the listing Title, so try searching the Title and Description to get many more results.
  • Tick the checkbox either under the Search button on your results page:

    eBay's Include Description checkbox
  • Or, select the relevant option on the Advanced Search page:

    eBay's Include Description Advanced Search checkbox
  • In order to be listed in as many search results as possible, some sellers load their listing descriptions with popular keywords, including lists of every product they sell, every county in the UK or USA, brands, names, accessories, etc. If you find this is the case for the items you are looking for, you may need to limit your searches to titles only, or exclude any unwanted words using the minus operator (refer to Advanced Search Operators below).

More refinements

  • By default, eBay lists all items for sale, but you can limit results by clicking on the More refinements... link in the left panel and selecting your choice of listings:

    eBay's Show Only see all box


Advanced Search Operators (Boolean Logic)

With clever use of Advanced Search Operators (Boolean logic: AND, OR, NOT) in either the General Search box or the Advanced Search box, searches can be more comprehensive.

  • Parentheses (brackets) around sets of words separated by commas allow multiple keywords to be searched at once, equivalent to ‘OR’.
  • A plus sign is equivalent to ‘AND’ and will ensure all results contain that word.
  • A minus sign is equivalent to ‘NOT’, and will exclude any listings containing that word.
  • Refer to eBay’s Advanced Search Operators page for further details.
  • The examples below demonstrate some genealogy-specific searches.



Search for multiple items and surnames at once

  • Instead of performing 25 separate searches for each of 5 collectable items and 5 surnames, this search will complete all 25 in one:

(letter,bible,photo,diary,postcard) (smith,jones,taylor,brown,davies)

  • Similarly, this search will complete 144 searches in one (12 names for 12 items):


  • The above searches will find all listings that include ANY of the keywords in the first set of parentheses, AND ANY of the keywords in the second set of parentheses, so each result will have one of the surnames listed in combination with one of the collectables listed.
  • Separate keywords with commas, with no spaces between them.
  • TIP!: Copy and paste the above queries into your eBay search bar, and replace the surnames with some of yours and see what you find (if you get too many results, refine the search by clicking on the Collectibles category and Used condition in the left side-bar).

Search for unusual surnames

  • If you have an unusual surname, there may be no need to include any items or locations, just search for any listings that include variations of the surname:


  • If there are no results, click on  + Follow this search  so you are notified of any future listings.

Search for common surnames

  • For very common surnames, try restricting your search to include variations of the placenames that may be listed:

(letter,bible,photo,diary,rppc) (smith,jones,brown)

  • The above search will find listings with at least one of the words from each set of parentheses, and could potentially replace 150 individual search combinations of 3 keywords each.
  • Note that if a seller does not include one of those placename keywords in the listing, the item will not be included in your results.
  • To avoid irrelevant results, only include surnames that come from the same area.
  • Perform separate searches for surnames in different areas.

Search for surnames in an area

  • To search for any items for specific surnames in an area, try placename variations:

(smith,brown,wright) (staffordshire,stafford,staffs,staff,sts,lichfield,brereton,

  • The above search will find listings with at least one of the words from each set of parentheses, and is equivalent to 30 separate searches.

Search for variations of one surname

  • To search for a range of collectables for variations of a surname, such as for one-name studies, try:


  • Or simply search just on the surname variations (without the items), restrict the results to Collectables, then perhaps to the Paper & Postcards or Ephemera categories, or other categories relevant to your interests, as well as Used condition.

Search for one area

  • If you participate in a One Place project, you may be interested in reviewing every item listed for a particular area.
  • Search on variations of a place name, plus names of districts, towns, villages, hamlets.

longdon,farewell,ridware,cannock,”slitting mill”, "kings bromley","abbots bromley")
-terrier -dog -pottery

  • For larger areas of interest, multiple searches may be required.


Search for particular items

    • If you collect particular items regardless of surname, set an email alert for your favourites, and then refine the list by clicking Used in the left side-bar to eliminate new products, and perhaps narrow to a particular location as well.  For example...

      (“wedding photo”,“school photo”,“family bible”,“autograph book”)
  • Simple searches without surnames are a great for getting ideas on what is listed and keywords used.


Remove unwanted listings

  • If your search results include many irrelevant listings, you can remove listings which include particular words, by using a minus sign in front of the unwanted word (eg. -pottery -terrier -plate,  as these often get included with Staffordshire results):

(letter,bible,photo,diary,rppc) (brown,wright,smith)
(staffordshire,lichfield,brereton,rugeley) -pottery -terrier -plate

  • Or place the words to be excluded in one set of parentheses with the minus sign at the front:
    eg. -(pottery,terrier,plate)
  • If your surname is shared with famous actors, sportspeople, celebrities, products, or similar, you may like to exclude certain words with a minus sign:

(letter,photo,diary,card) (matthews,cook,jones) (england,australia,staffordshire)



Keywords used in your searches can be combinations of any relevant items you are looking for, and some suggestions include:

bible, diary, letter, postcard, card, photo, rp, rppc, “school photo”, “wedding photo”, portrait, cabinet, album, autograph, scrapbook, funeral, memorial, eulogy, obituary, wedding, marriage, certificate, document, paper, ephemera, ticket, receipt, menu, label, invitation, greeting, calling, advert, ad, society, application, membership, form, military, medal, award, badge, paybook, log, logbook, dog tag, memorabilia, sport, engraved, trophy, plaque, art, artwork, painting, sketch, drawing, book, poem, poetry, token, “love token”, jewellery, locket, necklace, bracelet, chain, cane, pocket watch, smoking, paraphernalia, apparel, embroidery, uniform, silverware, antique, trunk, case, lettersheet, letter-sheet, correspondence, content, cover, circular, contract, deed, note, receipt, bill, stampless, stamp-less, pre-stamp, pre-adhesive, hand-written, handwritten, hand-stamped.

  • Don’t use too many keywords and sets of parentheses at once or you will get zero results.
  • The more sets of parentheses you use, the fewer results you will get, as the results must include at least one word from each set.
  • For example, if you search using 3 sets of parentheses containing keywords (eg. items, surnames, placenames), any search results must have at least 3 of the keywords, one from each set. A listing title may include just a surname and item description (eg. Smith Family Bible) but no place - so consider what you may be missing.
  • Break your searches down into several smaller, logical groups of surnames, places, items, and test them, and then don’t forget to save them by clicking on + Follow this search, to be notified of future listings matching your search criteria.


Followed Searches and Email Alerts

After you have refined and tested your search and are happy with it, click on + Follow this search which is at the top of your search results and tick the checkbox to receive email alerts:

Follow this eBay search


Check the box to receive email notifications from eBay


    • You will receive emails alerting you to any new listings that match your search criteria.
    • Even if your search results in few or no items, you can still click Follow this search and you will receive an email alert whenever a matching item is listed in the future (providing you did not untick the option to receive email notifications).
    • Edit your Followed Searches whenever you like - just go to your Followed searches list that is in your My eBay tab at the top of any eBay page:

      Followed Searches on My eBay menu tab

      Example of Followed Searches list in My eBay


  • Followed Searches can be executed at any time by clicking on the search name, or by clicking the View items option at the right.
  • You can change the email notification settings by clicking on More actions at the right, then Edit Email Options.

    Email notification settings for Followed Searches on eBay
  • If you turn off automatic email alerts, you can still execute the Followed Searches manually at any time.
  • You can also create your own lists and add Followed Searches to your lists.


Browse Categories

Try browsing particular categories and sub-categories – such as collectables, memorabilia, antiques, genealogy, or books – to see what other items are listed, and what additional types of items or keywords you could include in future searches.

Start browsing at a high level and refine searches within those results to drill down.

Note that categories are revised over time, and may be different on international eBay sites.


Completed Listings

It is also worthwhile clicking on Completed listings (left column option; or in Advanced Search) to see any items you may have missed in recent weeks, to see how much items have sold for (the price is shown in green), or not sold (the price is shown in red).

If an item of interest didn't sell, click on it to view the expired listing, as there is often a link to the relisted item near the top of the page (if the seller has relisted it), or you can click through to the seller's current items, to see if it has been relisted with a different title, or to see if that seller has other similar items for sale.

The Sold Listings option will only show the items that have sold.


Misspelt Listings

Before I started using eBay many years ago, I read many reference books on how to use it well and to understand the little tricks, and one of those tricks was searching for misspelt listing titles. You would be amazed at how many misspellings there are in common words and brand names.  As a test, search on eBay right now for 'geneology' and see if you find something.

For bargain hunters, the aim is to search for misspelt items in the hope that other buyers do not find them via their regular searches and email alerts, and you might get yourself a real bargain if no-one else bids.

For collectors and genealogists, the aim is to find any misspelt items so that you have a chance of buying them before the listings end.  It would be disappointing to miss out on buying an old family bible or other family memorabilia simply because the seller had incorrectly spelt a keyword in the title.


Search Strategy

Genealogists have so many surnames, places, and types of items to search for, that search coverage can be a bit hit-and-miss unless it is organised, efficient, and repeated regularly.

Every family structure is totally unique, so researchers must experiment and customise searches to suit their particular requirements, and refine or broaden them as necessary.

Items listed on eBay change very quickly, and some sellers list in big batches and then take breaks, so test and revise your searches regularly to improve results.

Plan your searches to cover all your desired surnames, perhaps including locations for common surnames. Be careful not to restrict your searches too much, or you may miss something that is listed differently to your expectations.

Try to imagine how a seller may list an item – some simply use one word, such as ‘letter’ or ‘bible’ with no additional clues. Others maximise the title space, filling it with useful keywords.

Follow your searches so they are repeated automatically, and you will receive emails whenever any such items are listed on eBay in the future.

Create Lists in your My eBay to organise your saved searches methodically.


Start winning!

Historical collectables are very sought after by genealogists and family historians, as they not only add a little something extra special to our family collections, but they may also help resolve unanswered questions and provide leads for further research.

Start experimenting with eBay searches, and have fun hunting, bidding, buying, winning, and waiting for the postman to deliver your latest genealogical treat!


Important Tips

  • If you are new to eBay, don’t be tempted to register on the eBay site of a country other than where you live, or you will create havoc with currencies, postage, account verification and payment setup.
  • If you find an item of interest listed on another country's eBay site, simply copy the Item Number, then go back into your own eBay account for your country and paste the Item Number into the eBay search box and click Search to find it again.
  • The Item Number is found at the top right of any item's Description box, as below:

    eBay Item Number
  • Ensure you are back on your own country's site before you bid or buy!




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