There are many primary and secondary sources available within Arlington and nearby that can provide fascinating information about the original owners of your house, subsequent purchasers, renovations over the years, etc.
(in a suggested order of investigation)
Deeds, mortgages, and all other public documents pertaining to land titles are copied and recorded at the Middlesex County Registry of Deeds, 208 Cambridge Street, (East) Cambridge. Documents date from the 1630s to today; a decade or two of the most recent transactions are indexed on computer. By analyzing the documents, a researcher can establish the history of a property's ownership.
Wills of the deceased, inventories of their earthly goods, and lists of their next of kin are part of the records within the Middlesex County Registry of Probate (same address as above.) Most of the original papers from more than a century ago have been transferred to the Commonwealth Archives (Columbia Point, Dorchester, opposite the JFK Library) and are available there. County clerks can retrieve specific files for study in Cambridge on one or two days' notice.
Atlases: There are Arlington atlases, with notations of the homesteads of residents, dating from 1872, 1898, 1922, 1923 and 1937 at Robbins Library. There's also a Zoning Plan map from 1933 that can be helpful. The Registry of Deeds has the same atlases, plus 1900 and 1901. Robbins also has microfilm copies of the marvelous Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps from 1885 to 1927 (more editions are in the Commonwealth Archives.) Street by street, structure by structure, Sanborn mapped America for the benefit of insurance underwriters.
Town Directories, 1869-1940 (with gaps): On microfilm at Robbins Library, these private publications contain lists of residents and their occupations by street address. Be aware that, when street names and numbers were being invented, they changed frequently. Remember also that, like the U. S. Census, this began as a "head-of household" enumeration and women are often unseen until widowhood. Thus are many wives revealed as "straw" owners for their husbands.
Annual Reports of the Town of Arlington, 1842 to Present: From the 1840s to the 1870s these record the property tax rate and the total tax assessed upon all taxpayers. After adjusting for poll taxes, you can sometimes spot the acquisition of a homestead by a jump in someone's tax bill. After the 1870s, you can look up each structure and its valuation by taxpayer. This will reveal, for example, the house built in 1895, and the barn that was added in 1901. After about 1910, these individual listings aren't included in the town reports.
Arlington Advocate: Robbins Library has a two-volume index covering the years 1872-1946. News stories about a house's owners put the social and cultural history back into the real estate. Users should look under "Streets," such as Gray Street or Park Avenue, for stories on residents. It's a homemade index, reflecting the interests of the librarian who painstakingly compiled it. Note well two cautions. First, married or widowed women usually appear by their married names: "Mrs. John Smith," but not Mary Smith. Second, the details of obituaries often came from what the newspaper editor or the funeral director remembered about the deceased. To be sure, rely upon Probate records, or the sources below.
Bureau of Vital Statistics, Mass. Department of Public Health: 470 Atlantic Avenue in Boston (post 1900) or Commonwealth Archives (pre-1900). This is the ultimate source for records of births, deaths, and marriages. Robbins Library has (non-circulating) copies of the single-town editions of these records, each entitled Vital Records to 1850.
United States Census: on microfilm at the Boston Public Library, and at the regional Federal Records Center of the National Archives, on Trapelo Road in Waltham.
(all available from Robbins Library - sources for Arlington history are found at call number 974.44 ARL)
History of the Town of Arlington, Massachusetts 1637-1879 by Benjamin Cutter (1880)
Town of Arlington, Past and Present 1637 to 1907 by Charles S. Parker (1909)
Images of America: Arlington (1997) and Arlington: Twentieth Century Reflections (2000), both by Richard A. Duffy
Ice, Crops and Commuters: South and East Arlington's Historical and Architectural Heritage
Northwest Arlington, Massachusetts: An Architectural and Historical Study
Mill Brook Valley: An Historical and Architectural Survey (the above three studies all prepared by the Arlington Historical Commission)
The great swamp of Arlington, Belmont, and Cambridge: an historic perspective of its development, 1630-2001 compiled by Sheila G. Cook (2002). HIST. COLL. 363.7394 GR
An excellent compendium of local sources is also contained at www.oldschwambmill.org
Updated September 13, 2003