At our last Family History Roundtable program a woman mentioned that she found information on her family in a mug book. Someone asked her if she was talking about the books at police stations that contain photographs of criminals, but that was not at all what she meant. According to the A Field Guide to Genealogists, mug book is a slang term meaning, “a county or commemorative history with biographies containing portraits.” Most mug books were produced in the late 19th century by various publishing companies throughout the United States. Usually the books contained biographies on early settlers or prominent business men of a specific county in the United States. Because the books were sold through subscriptions, publishers usually included more biographical entries on living people who bought subscriptions, than on deceased individuals. The subscription rates varied depending on the length of a biography and whether a portrait of the individual was included.
The easiest and quickest way to find out if a mug book exists for an area is to simply search Google Books (http://books.google.com). They have digitized a good selection of these books, but before you search, it helps to know the names of some of the mug book publishers. The most prolific publisher was Chapman (some years listed as Chapman Brothers). Other companies were L.H. Everts (some years listed as Everts and Abbott), D.W. Ensign and Lewis Publishing. A search for a mug book for Suffolk County, New York, was found in Google Books by using the keywords Chapman and Suffolk County. Other places you can check for mug books are Heritage Quest (see our database links), and Internet Archive (http://archive.org/index.php). Of course, you can also go the traditional route and contact libraries with local history collections and historical societies.
If you have an ancestor who held some significance to an area, you should definitely check to see if he appeared in a mug book. It might provide you with valuable information. As Chapman Publishers stated in all their prefaces, “coming generations will appreciate this volume and preserve it as a sacred treasure, from the fact that it contains so much that would never find its way into public records, and would otherwise be inaccessible.” I think that nicely sums up mug books.