Tips from the Pros: Read Historical Newspapers for Social History

Lou Szucs, age 2from Jana Sloan Broglin, CG 
Newspapers are the most time-consuming, yet the most rewarding of all research. What a great way to add social history to a genealogy. When using the newspaper, there is more to use than just the marriages, birth announcements, and obituaries. The newspaper gives insight into the day-to-day life of an ancestor. When researching my father’s family, I was able to find information regarding his political affiliation as he had been elected to a county “central committee.” Mention in this small town newspaper’s gossip column let me know my grandma had the measles. A gossip column from the mid-1920s mentioned my grandparents going to Houghton Lake, Michigan, with their friends. Quite a find as I had found a photo from that trip.

Even looking at the ads in the local grocery store let me know how much was paid for items that were used in the home, from meat and potatoes, to balls of crochet yarn.

These newspapers also contain ads for cars and trucks. Did your grandfather drive a specific brand of automobile? Maybe there is an ad for the local Chevrolet or Ford dealer in the town where he purchased that favorite car.

Did your family live on a farm? It is a good idea to check the issues of the newspaper near the county fair. See if great-grandpa had the winning steer or corn, or great-grandma had a prize-winning quilt or pie.

For the youth in the area, check for notes about school plays and the playbill listing the actors as well as a published school “honor rolls” and music competitions. Commencement announcements may list the school faculty and members of the graduating class.

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4 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Read Historical Newspapers for Social History

  1. I work for a newspaper that has intact, if crumbling, copies back to the 1870s. That they were not destroyed by intent or accident is simply miraculous. Part of my job is to cull little items from these papers to use in our daily archive. Even though I have no family from this area, I am fascinated by the insights into everyday life in these papers. Who was run down by a wagon, who had his hand cut off in the mill, who had an elegant wedding with many costly gifts, who has hemorroids. The ads are hilarious. You’d never see one today with a giant headline: Fix Your Bowels! And the obituaries are glorious! So much detail for the lucky few who were written up. This is the best part of my job.

  2. This is so true, I’m fortunate our local Library, The Benzonia Public Library has the local newspaper from 1888 to the present day. AND a local couple has generously created an index for vital statistics, including court news (which is also online).
    I have spent the last couple of years researching background and specific information on my great-grandfather, Elwin Rockwell, to write his biography. Reading the old “local ews” requires a lot of time, but it’s something I enjoy and I’ve learned a lot about Elwin and the area, that I’d never know any other way.

  3. I have researched small town newspapers for years. I came from a small town and it was very exciting for my family or my name to be in our local paper. The newspapers from my dad’s hometown Hamburg, Iowa are now online. I have found out so many events in my aunts, uncles and cousins lives that have never been mentioned to me.

  4. Our newspapers are on very poor microfilm and the reader / printer does not work well. I have been abstracting them for births, deaths, marriages, movements in and out of the county, relatives visiting from faraway places or visiting to faraway places, divorces, and anything that someone might like for their family history (found my Dad broke his arm swinging on a gate age 4). A friend is abstracting them for businesses and events. Someone out of the area with local roots has indexed another newspaper. Societies could take on a project where someone does just a few issues.

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