Posted by Linda Barnickel on August 29, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

Have you ever considered doing a “reading history” for your family? What insights might you gain about your more recent family by learning more about what they read, and the newspapers and magazines they subscribed to.

Here’s a few examples from my own family.

It might not be surprising to learn that I was a regular subscriber of Civil War Times Illustrated by the age of twelve. When I was in kindergarten, I remember being highly offended when the teacher told me I could not check out books from the classroom to take home. I’d already been going to the public library for a year, where I could check out as many books as I could carry. No surprise to learn that today I am a librarian and have written a book on the Civil War.

Take my mother’s case. I ask her about some of her earliest memories of reading, and she tells me about sitting in her father’s lap, reading Uncle Wiggly cartoons together from the newspaper. She also has fond recollections of cutting out paper dolls from the same paper.

Her father got only an eighth-grade education in a country schoolhouse, but he was an avid lifelong reader, subscribing to Readers’ Digest, National Geographic, and Southern Living. In his later years, he read and re-read countless times Wild Western Scenes by J.B. Jones. He first discovered this book in his youth, pooling his money together with two or three other boys so they could purchase a copy and pass it around. Though that original is long gone, he recalled it so strongly in his 70s that my mother purchased him a copy from a used book dealer. He read it several times a year, always sharing with us some of the humorous scenes, especially where Joe and Sneak mistook a stump for a bear – one of his favorites, always rich with laughter.

Another treasured heirloom in our family is my grandfather’s very first book when he was a child, Nellie’s Christmas Eve, given to him by his mother. Though the cover is gone and it is tattered now after more than 100 years, the colors remain strong. The fact that it is one of only a very few relics from his childhood makes it special – and shows just how important reading was to him.

This is all a brief synopsis, but I have given you a short history of the reading habits of three generations of my family. What more could you learn about yours?

Consider – many newspapers had overtly political party affiliations, even into the twentieth century. What might you learn about your family’s political leanings if they subscribed to a conservative or progressive or even socialist newspaper?

Did they belong to any trade unions, labor or professional organizations? Or if they worked in a major industry or a large company, might there be industry magazines or company newsletters that they read? Might there be news tidbits about your family member in one of these resources?

This excerpt from The L & N Employes’ [sic] Magazine from April 1936 shares tidbits about men working in the Radnor Shops of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Some newspapers and magazines were geared to particular ethnic, racial, or religious groups, or printed in languages other than English. Were members of your family regular readers of these publications?

Were certain kinds of reading material considered “dangerous” or forbidden, often for political or religious reasons? (Did they read them anyway?)

How did reading vary among different members of the family? Did dad – or mom – have do-it-yourself home or auto repair manuals? What kind of cookbooks did grandma have? Maybe she had none at all, choosing to cook her own recipes rather than anything appearing in a store-bought book. Were books ever given as gifts on special occasions? What were these books, and what were the occasions? Were they inscribed by the gift-giver? Are there any books, besides the family Bible, that have been saved or passed down as heirlooms? Do they have stories attached to them that provide more information about their context, significance, and origin? Were dictionaries, encyclopedias, novels, or child-rearing books especially important to your family?

What can you learn about your family’s aspirations or tastes by the content of publications they had in the home? Popular Mechanics or Sports Illustrated? Woman’s Day or Vogue? What kinds of advertisements and articles appeared in these magazines? Are some of them still around the house, dog-eared or with articles torn out and saved? Did children have their own reading material? What about teens?

Were certain authors or subject matter a focus? My father, for instance, read the massive John Jakes “The Americans” series of novels in the 1970s, and also read historical non-fiction about World War II. I attribute part of my love of history to him.

This technique can be applied with equal success to examining other arts and cultural aspects of your family’s history. Perhaps your family was more musically or artistically inclined. In this case, you might want to ask more about particular musical styles or instruments, favorite songs, or a favorite piece of art, whether in the home or at a museum.

It’s sometimes easy to overlook the ordinary and everyday, especially with our own families. But taking a moment to explore the cultural history of your family history may reap unexpected and illuminating rewards.

Linda Barnickel

Linda Barnickel is a professional archivist and freelance writer. She is the author of the award-winning book,Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory (LSU Press, 2013) and has written on numerous historical, genealogical, and archives-related subjects. Learn more about her work at


  1. Rosemary

    This is such a good idea. Thanks for sharing it. I intend to pick my siblings brains regarding the magazines, newspapers and books they remember.

    • Rochannda britto

      Pick up ur kids brains!? I take that as a threat! I already have people wanting to kill me. They have me listed as dead. Married 32 times I never once had a ceremonies! This is getting way out of hand . I just discovered where I’m at its Compton Cali. A.k.a Coventry RI. Some help me Plz. This isn’t a joke!!! Their a secret society trying to kill me off. From child birth, to infection ceased! Someone please help me. Not sure if this is their web site but if this reaches and outsiders plz inform someone of an higher authority!

  2. G D Barney

    Linda, I’m looking for your father’s favorite . We have same interests, and love good books. Zane Grey was my first love. Raised 8 children w/O tv. They are avid readers of eclectic interests. Thanks for the talk.

  3. anne mortimer

    Talk about sparking memories. The library, our own home, my grandparent’s home, an aunt and uncle’s home, all filled with books, newspapers, magazines, plays. I grew up with of love of reading, which sadly I have not been able to impart upon my grandchildren.

  4. Ann Aucoin

    This did take me back. I remember my parents getting the “Life” magazine along with the “Saturday Evening Post”. Grew up with those – read them too. Both my parents were avid readers so it stands to reason that my sisters & I are too. We had a set of Nancy Drew. I loved & still love Agatha Christie. I still have hardback copies of Grimm’s Fairy Tales & Andersen’s Fairy Tales that my Dad got for me when I was about 5yrs old. He used to read to me from them. I’ve had those books a long time since I am now 66. I also have some of the books I had as a child, books that no one reads much these days — Tom Sawyer, Call of the Wild, Hans Brinker & the Silver Skates, Treasure Island.

  5. Jo Ellen Glasgow

    Enjoyed this blog post. Reading was a big deal in my family of 5 kids growing up. We had a few books that us kids shared and I couldn’t wait till I was a good enough reader to read the Hardy Boys. We had the complete set. My parents read all the time too. I made it my mission to read to my girls from day one and they too became advise readers. Now they are passing that passion on to their children. Books are all over our home. Maybe too many! Having a memorial reading list for family members would be a great motivator for future generations.

  6. quailecynthiakay

    i love to read,white indian series is my favorite,i’ve always loved westerns, i own about 170 cookbooks and religious plus a list of others. i hope that others have that love of reading as i do.

  7. Regina Slater

    I have no clue where or how to find marriage or divorce records for my grandparents. Married 1927. She was 16.

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