Friday, December 16, 2011

Old Newspapers: A Treasure Hunt

What Are You Looking For?
As genealogists we know to scour old newspapers for any information on our ancestors. They are everywhere online: Ancestry.comarchives.comLibrary of Congressand so many more subscription searchable database services, which puts less strain on our search.

But what are you missing?  Usually our interest peaks when we arrive at the Local News section or Society section. We quickly go into scanning mode, looking for a familiar name. But, there is so much more to be found that may give us a hint about our ancestor’s lifestyle and a bit of the social history of the time.

I like to keep a few timelines in front of me on a few key areas: 1) Presidential Elections, 2) the Railroad, and the Westward Movement and 3) land avail abilities, and of course plagues, epidemics and such. This is especially helpful when reading the old newspapers. The abundance of movement and change that shaped America also influenced your Ancestor’s lifestyles and decisions. There are many hints in old newspapers to what was going on around your ancestor so take note of what is going on in that small (or larger) community, as well as nationwide.

Things to Look For:
What was going on in the community six months before and six months after the Presidential Elections? Was the election reviewed by the Democrat or Republican newspapers ugly or civil? Did the community have respect for one another?

Be sure to review the local fairs and jubilees. Did the newspaper go out of its way to mention a certain ethic group or their behavior? This may be a hint on whether your family lived in a cohesive or intolerant community.

What was the information given on the local churches? Did the paper dedicate two of its three pages to church information? Even the way an obituary is written can give you an idea of the importance of religion to the community. I have one obituary where the man did not belong to a church, but they squeezed in “…was not a member of any church but a believer in God and friend of all churches…” This one phrase was included at the end of a four column obituary, and appeared to be for the benefit of the readers.

The newspapers even posted recipes to be shared across cultures. Perhaps this is where you got Great Grandma’s famous crust recipe. No longer was sauerkraut and ribs a German dish, but due to the meshing of ethnic groups it became a common Midwestern favorite. My great grandmother passed down a horrific Tomato Pie recipe. But, I guarantee you, it has been squashed as a tradition.

Tomato Pie:
Line a deep dish pie pan with biscuit crust rolled thin; peel tomatoes and cut in half and place in one layer in dish; rub one large cup of sugar and tablespoon flour together and spread over it; season with pepper and butter and sprinkle with flour; fold over half and spread with butter and more flour; double once more; roll over carefully and you have a better crust than one made of lard.

In the society information, what was deemed valuable? Some areas found education most important, others found hospitality to dominate the society page, while other newspapers used the society page as a boasting column for the lucky few. Either way, by analyzing your ancestor’s profession, their neighbors and the names in this column you can determine the makeup of their community and its cohesiveness.

And never forget the ads. What was advertised? Real estate? Books? Medicinal Remedies? I found that in one Kansas newspaper for about four months in 1885, there was an onslaught of ads on cures. When I did the timeline for the town, Coldwater, there was a “mountain fever” epidemic during that timeframe.

There’s so much more to find out about your ancestor, than a name in the paper (although exciting). Take the time to analyze the information given that developed their way of life and traditions.

Happy Reading

Kathleen Brandt
accurate, accessible answers
originally posted 13 Jan 2010


  1. Very well stated. Thank you!
    Understanding the social history of the community of our ancestor under study is a great way to build a "relationship" with that person. They come so "alive" when we begin to know their surroundings, as well as what they might have been doing. Bravo!
    After all, they were really just like us... ;-)

    Bill ;-)
    Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"

  2. Kathleen, thanks so much for bringing this post to our attention during "Using Historic Newspaper" with Antoinette Harrell BlogTalk Radio program this evening. This is great information and tips. Again thanks!

  3. I love newspapers for my genealogy research. You can find out so much more than just names and dates. I found out my ancestor in the 1860s was badly attacked by a dog when she was only about 7 or eight yeas old. Where else would you be able to find out about an event like this?

    Regards, Jim
    Newspaper Genealogy at Hidden Genealogy Nuggets