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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Newspaper Records by Ryan Taylor. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
The Development of Newspapers
The first newspapers began in the early 18th century. They were painstakingly composed using handset type and hand-cranked presses, so the runs were small and issues appeared infrequently.
Only a small percentage of the populace could read, so the audience was limited, but copies were shared among the readers.
They might also be read aloud to those who could not do so for themselves. Because of the nature of the papers—aiming for an elite and not being concerned with a quick series of events, but more opinions of a broader nature—there may be not as much concern for genealogists in these early newspapers.
Late in the century, newspapers began to take on the face we know better today, with advertising and local stories, and certainly in the early 19th century, the population of Canada exploded and so did the number of newspapers.
As universal education became more common, there was a greater need for newspapers too, as they were one of the primary reading tools for the newly-literate.
Newspapers which began as weeklies might progress to twice-a-week, then daily as the population of their area grew. Some daily papers had a weekly digest version, in which a summary of events could be found for those who did not wish to read the dailies or did not wish to pay for them.
By the 1920s the daily newspapers of even small cities across Canada included more international news, national politics and the various departments which are part of any modern paper—sports, cooking, ‘women’s pages’ with sewing and bridge instruction, comics and descriptions of current films.
Although they have altered in appearance with changes in printing technology, newspapers of the early 21st century are very similar to those of eighty years ago.
The principal difference is that stories about the doings of Queen Marie of Romania have been replaced by stories about the doings of Britney Spears.
Newspapers in Canada
Naturally the first newspapers were in the earliest settled areas in Canada. Settlers in the interior might not see any newspapers, or would receive those from the principal cities. Since their points of interest might still lie back in the old country, many pioneers were happy to receive packets of newspapers from home, sent by relations, and did not bother with domestic news at all.
Thus we find that the letters of the Scottish community in Ayr, Ontario in the 1870s are full of references to political and social events in Greenock and Edinburgh, Scotland, gleaned from newspapers sent by brothers at home and shared with everyone in town. There are few, if any references to political events in Toronto or Ottawa.
Many settlers in remote areas might subscribe to big-city newspapers specifically hoping to obtain world news, or to ‘remain in touch’ despite their location. Thus we find displaced Englishmen who would have subscriptions to London newspapers, people in the Maritimes reading Boston papers or those in Ontario receiving New York publications. Obviously, although these people regarded those far-off newspapers as their source of news, there is no point in genealogical researchers looking in them for information about their ancestors. Their Canadian readers were looking for international information, not local, by reading them.
As cities developed within Canada, their newspapers would become the resource for distant readers to obtain national and international information, but again, readers in Parry Sound would be unlikely to insert their birth announcements in Montréal or Toronto publications. (We should note that families with more elevated social connections, and consequently with friends in Toronto or scattered throughout Ontario, might well have a birth announcement placed in the newspaper there for general distribution. Again, this would not apply to most people’s families.)
For some, religious newspapers, which were sources of general news as well as spiritual materials, would take the place of a geographically-oriented newspaper, because it contained the information needed from a paper and also connected them with others of a similar bent elsewhere in the province.
Today, most people receive their newspapers delivered at home or they pick them up at a news stand. It is important to be aware that in the past the usual way to receive the newspaper was through the mail.
There were special, low rates for sending newspapers (not only as new publications, but also those packets of gift papers sent from brother to brother or friend to friend, mentioned above). Thus, a subscription to a newspaper, local or faraway, was very similar to magazine subscriptions now.
It was customary for it to come through the post and was also affordable. Few people nowadays could afford the several hundred dollars a year it would take to subscribe to a faraway daily.
As recently as the 1970s, weekly newspapers in small towns were distributed this way, even to local subscribers. The current writer received copies of The Russell Banner of Russell, Manitoba this way, first while living in town and later in Ontario.
This fact is important for genealogists because, when we consider the question, “What newspaper did our ancestor subscribe to?” we may wonder if it is a paper much farther afield than the nearest town, for reasons of religion, political bias, or because of it containing specialised information.
An emigrant from Aberdeen living in rural British Columbia might discover that the editor of a newspaper in Halifax was also an Aberdonian, who consequently included a lot of Aberdeen news in his paper. The British Columbian might subscribe to the Halifax newspaper simply because of that. Whether he would place his own news items in that paper is another matter (but he might, as a way of reaching other old friends resident in Canada).
If your relations lived in a town with a newspaper, then the choice of what paper to consult is clear. If they lived in the country, particularly in a remote place, the choice might be more difficult. This is especially true on the Prairies or in the interior of British Columbia, where distances between towns can be great. Here are some suggestions:
- Look at a contemporary map, to see where the roads and rivers run. The most likely publication place for the newspaper is the place where the family did its shopping and picked up its mail.
- Consult a local directory. Farmers’ directories told the post office associated with people, and it may be surprising. The six Lunn brothers living in the Sandy Hook area of Durham County, Ontario in the 1890s all lived within a mile of one another on the same road which divides Manvers and Clarke townships, but some had their mailbox at Kendal and some at Pontypool. To find what directories might help you, consult Mary Bond’s Canadian directories, 1790-1987:A Bibliography and Place-Name Index (National Library of Canada, 1989). This is a listing of the directories in the collections of NLC and the National Archives of Canada library at that time. It can be used as a guide (not a definitive list) to what directories are extant. A most useful feature for family historians is the place-name index, which runs to 23,000 entries, which will assist you in determining which directories include the smaller place which interests you.
- See where the railways went. Since the railways carried the mail, the easiest newspaper to obtain may have come from slightly farther away, but on the train. This may also have affected where people shopped.
- Consider where people came from. If they had moved a short distance they might continue to subscribe to the newspaper from the former home. An example of this is a community of people who lived north of Listowel in Perth County, Ontario. Listowel had a healthy newspaper, but these people’s birth and death notices did not appear in it. Instead, they published in the Elora newspaper, to the east. The reason was that they had all come from the Elora-Fergus area initially, and their friends and family lived there, so that paper would have been filled with news of interest to them. Even if they had moved far away, their notices might well continue to appear in the home town newspaper for a while, since they would want to inform people there of events in their lives
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Newspaper Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.