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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 US: Newspaper Records  by Rhonda McClure. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


A Look a the History of American Newspapers (cont.)


Advertising was one of the ways that the publisher stayed in business. If he had purchased the preprinted cover then there are national ads that offer the genealogist insight into what the latest tonics and time saving gadgets for the housewife were. If your ancestor ran a business in the community though, then it is possible that you may find an ad for his business either on page one or two. The ads may also give you an idea of what life was like for your ancestors at that time, especially the local ads. Think about how you feel when you are looking at a newspaper that is advertising the local blacksmith, or a buggy builder. It conjures up pictures in your mind of the community where your ancestor made his living and raised his family.

Example of an Advertisement


The variety of the medical ads may surprise you, as will some of the things being advertised. You will find many “miracle cures” for just about every ailment that were hawked in the newspaper. There were tonics, cough drops, pills, balms and more.

Of course there were many other ads as well for the local services in town, such as the dentist or the drug store. Other ads that you will frequently find include want ads and personal notices. Remember that even if your ancestor didn’t have an ad in the newspaper that the ads offer good descriptions of American life at that time.

Sample of a personal ad: Michael Todd, of New Haven, has salt and sugar for sale. (The Connecticut Journal, October 30, 1767).

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about the advertising in the older papers is the fact that they appear on the front page, in place of what we have come to expect, which is the biggest headlines of the city or nation. In fact, for the most part the only pictures in the newspaper in the 1800s were the advertisements.

Front Page Advertisement

Front Page2bY.jpg

Daily Living

While genealogy concentrates on the tracing of a family lineage from one generation to the next, family history looks for more than just the names, dates, and places where the events took place. Family history wants to know more about the lives of those who hang on the ancestral tree. Newspapers are one way to get some insight into the life of your ancestor.

While your ancestor may not be named in the newspaper that you are reading, if he lived in that community and you are reading about what was going on in the town at the time, then you are begin to get insight into what it might have been like when he visited town. Instead of just knowing that he paid his taxes, perhaps you may learn about political discussions that determined the taxes he had to pay.

In understanding what daily life may have been like for your ancestors, whether in a small town or a large city, reading news items about political debates, road expansions, crime and more will definitely give you a more rounded idea of not only your ancestor but the community he lived in and how the people in that community interacted with each other.

Serial Stories

Serial stories were a staple of newspapers for many years. Much as women (and some men) are hooked on daily soap operas, the serials were a similar way to entice readers to keep getting the next issue of the newspaper.

The serial stories would be continued from issue to issue. Readers would purchase the next issue of the newspaper so that they could find out what would happen next. Just as the advertising rates paid by the merchants helped keep the newspaper in business, the serial stories helped keep the subscriptions coming in, which meant that the ad rates might be increased due to the circulation of the newspaper.

While the serial stories do not tell use anything about our individual family members, what they do offer is a look at the ideology of the time. Just as today’s movies and books reflect our own time, the serials offer a look at what types of stories the residents found interesting.

Screen from a Serial Story
Gettysburg Times, September 17, 1910, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.


Serials stories were also sometimes the only fiction reading that a small town might have. Books were not always prevalent, especially in frontier towns. The printer may have been devoted to the newspaper and a few other projects that helped guarantee that he could continue. Publishing a book, using the old typeset method was laborious and prevented many copies from being printed, so serial stories were often the best alternative.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: 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

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.