Family history researchers know that old newspapers are treasure troves of family information. If your family lived for a long time in one location, then local papers likely hold information about your relatives.
Examples of such details can range from birth, marriage and death records. \if your ancestors owned businesses, there may be legal records or advertisements in the pages of the paper. Additional information may include real estate records, school data and the cost of consumer goods.
In the San Francisco Call of December 10, 1905, a large display ad for Dragers department store, at Market and Jones, indicated they were selling cushion covers, Christmas post cards, slippers, gift handkerchiefs, toys, holiday silverware, gift glassware and even groceries (Kona coffee, 19 cents/pound, maple syrup, 63 cents/half-gallon, the best sweet Washington navel oranges, 30 cents/dozen).
For $15, a stylish woman could purchase a suit described as: "Coat 32 inches long; strictly tailor-made; collar, cuffs and pocket trimmed with velvet and braid, buttons to match; loose back; lined with satin; plaited skirt; blue, red, green and plum; sizes 12 to 40. This is the suit at left; the other was $18.50.
Consumer goods are only one area of life detailed in historic newspapers. Current events and major historic events are of great interest.
Let's look at the same paper dated May 10, 1906, a few weeks after the major San Francisco earthquake:
Page 1: City bank vaults withstood the quake. The Fireman's Fund Insurance Company discovered that the vault containing all its insurance business records was destroyed when a huge steel girder fell and broke off a corner of the vault, allowing fire to get in and destroy records (policies, maps, etc.).
Page 2: Fire was the principal cause of city damage; no properly constructed building was damaged more than 10%; buildings erected on stable ground prior to the earthquake of 1868 had no evidence of damage.
Page 3: The extraordinary work of the Signal Service Corps who began fixing communication lines immediately after the quake. More than 1,000 individuals and companies paid to rent steel boxes in the bank safe deposit vaults. Provision trains are plundered by organized gangs; there is looting.
Page 4: Professor John Milne, described as the inventor of the seisometer, is spotlighted. The article described a special interview with him on the Isle of Wight, how the machine works and that the tinkling of the machine's bell woke him up and he knew about the earthquake in California hours before the London papers learned about it. Genealogists looking for death certificates will note that the city's mortuary clerk will enforce burial laws, requiring burial certificates be made out on the proper form.
And talk about rumors ... The first report received in Panama on April 18 by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company manager R. P. Schwerin, said that there had been an earthquake and tidal wave and that 5,000 lives were lost.
A later cable however said that San Francisco was destroyed by earthquake; 200,000 lives lost; business portion of city swept by tidal wave and remainder of residence part being destroyed by flames; Chicago in ashes; New Orleans has disappeared beneath the waters of the Mississippi River.
There are columns of the missing, meeting notices of organizations asking members to send in change of addresses. Ads for furniture, rooms/houses for sale or rent, the repairing of gas lines, columns of ads detailing the new temporary offices of many businesses.
Digitizing programs for historic newspapers are underway. Such sites as GenealogyBank.com, and the Library of Congress are helping researchers learn more about our ancestors' lives.
Google has also just announced its plans to begin digitizing millions of pages of old newspaper archives and placing searchable images of dozens of newspapers online for free, the same way it has done with Google Books. This is what a page will look like:
In addition to the New York Times and the Washington Post, other papers include the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "the first newspaper West of the Alleghenies; and the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, published continuously for 244 years - the oldest paper in North America.
Have you accessed historic newspapers in your research? What details have you located about your ancestors? I look forward to reading about your discoveries.