Heritage books - some love 'em, others feel cheated

With a name like Beatrice Bayley Schneider, she could be Everyman's grandmother - a ''combination of Whistler's Mother and Betty Crocker,'' as one acquaintance describes her.

But this grandmother is also chairman of the board of Beatrice Bayley, a mail-order company that promotes and sells books to people with unusual family surnames.

She - and the books - are, to say the least, controversial.

Each year the Bayley solicitations land in thousands of mailboxes. For $27.85 , the buyer gets a hard-bound book that includes charts of the family tree (you fill it in yourself); short chapters on American pioneers, immigrants, and the evolution of names; and a list of addresses of many people in the United States with the same last name. The book is personalized only to the extent it is titled with the purchaser's surname.

Since its inception in 1978, the company has received bags of fan mail from people who purchased its ''family heritage albums.'' But the firm has also been investigated in at least five states for alleged violation of consumer protection laws and by the United States Postal Service for allegedly seeking money through the mail by means of false representations. Postal officials claimed the company's solicitations misdescribed the books, a violation of the Postal False Representation and Lottery Law.

One letter to the Postal Service from an Iowa resident complained of the Bayley book: ''It is nothing that I expected. . . . There is nothing at all about my personal family heritage.'' The information in the book could be ''just as readily obtained from the local library,'' the letter stated.

Thomas Ziebarth, senior attorney with the Postal Service, says the Bayley company and some others like it are ''legitimate companies selling legitimate products. The sin, if any, is that they have misdescribed their product.''

The Bayley company is not the only genealogy-related firm to come under scrutiny. As Americans' interest in family history has surged - thanks to the Bicentennial in 1976 and the TV broadcast of ''Roots'' a year later - a number of entrepreneurs have climbed onto the genealogy bandwagon.

Some also have been investigated by the Postal Service for alleged violation of the false-representation law. Sharon L. Taylor, a company styled after the Bayley firm, last month lost a federal ruling in its fight to keep the titles of its books (one example: ''The Amazing Story of the Mandells in America''). The company was given 90 days to appeal the ruling, and Ziebarth says he expects one will be filed. The company had accused the Postal Service of unconstitutional censorship.

Earlier, the service investigated a sibling firm under the false-representation act; that company created and sold family coats of arms under the mailing name Nancy L. Halbert.

The booming interest in genealogy that followed ''Roots'' has been well documented. Membership in the National Genealogical Society has doubled since then, according to a society spokesman.

''There are a lot of closet genealogists floating around,'' confirms James Bell of the New England Historical Genealogical Society, which saw its own membership rolls double in the last three years.

But Mr. Bell urges that beginning genealogists not be duped by these firms. ''They are fronts for outfits that purport to have genealogical information on your family but really don't,'' he says.

Both Beatrice Bayley and Sharon L. Taylor say they have received hundreds of thank-you letters from enthusiastic customers. One letter to ''Miss Bayley'' from a California customer reads: ''It was with great surprise and delight that I received a copy of your beautiful 'Family Heritage Book.' . . . What a lovely and generous way you are encouraging friends and acquaintances to search out their ancestry!''

Despite such kudos, there were enough complaints to warrant Postal Service action. Mr. Ziebarth says he has worked intermittently with the Taylor and Bayley companies to revise and clarify their promotional pitches ''to get them to a C+ instead of a D-.''

Both claim to have spent thousands of dollars to ''research through'' 70 million American names to locate almost every person of a designated surname. Actually, Ziebarth says, they buy lists of names from companies that sell mailing lists compiled from auto registrations, drivers' licenses, city phone books, and the like.

''The front of the book is standard, canned . . . ,'' admits Murray Mackson, attorney for Beatrice Bayley Inc. It's the ''back of the book (the directory) that is important.''

Someone who buys a heritage book can use the directory to write to people on the list - an interchange that may help uncover the family's roots, he says.

Kurt J. Schneider, Beatrice Bayley Schneider's son and president of the company, says an individual would find it too expensive to get a directory of names on his own. Culling a master list of some 70 million names costs tens of thousands of dollars, he says. But Beatrice Bayley keeps costs down by asking the computer to pull about 10,000 surnames for processing each year.

''We provide 25 or more names for about $25, while a professional (genealogist) provides five names for $500,'' Mr. Schneider says.

Ziebarth agrees the real value of the books is the directories. But he wants to touch up the solicitations to give ''a fair disclosure to prospective buyers that they would be getting a directory, plus a few tidbits . . . and not a report on your family history.''

Professional genealogists remain unimpressed by these books. Duncan Farquharson, a genealogist with Goodspeed's Bookstore in Boston, calls the publications ''a sham.'' The Maine Genealogical Society has denounced the books and asked its members to warn people against buying them.

Mr. Schneider says he is aware that some genealogists regard his company as ''the bargain basement of the heritage-research crowd.'' But he defends the family heritage books, saying they have played a role in finding long-lost relatives. Michael La Force of Bakersfield, Calif., testifies he was reunited with his natural father after 23 years when the senior La Force saw his son's name listed in the Bayley book. Letters from other customers say they have held regional family reunions, using the directory as a guest list.

Schneider says about 1 percent of the people who get solicitations order books - enough for the company to ''break even.''

Customers unhappy with the book can return it within 10 days - as specified on the order form - for ''a full refund without questions,'' he says. Postal officials say both companies have promptly refunded money to dissatisfied buyers.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.