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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, revised by Susanna de Groot, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
BIRTHS, MARRIAGES & OBITUARIES
The part of the newspaper we think of first in genealogical terms is the birth-marriage-death column (BMD). For this reason, there is an assumption that this column exists in all newspapers and will be there for us to consult if we wish it.
Many also assume that everyone made a point of entering their loved ones’ birth and death notices in the newspaper. None of this is true.
Styles in the announcing of births, deaths and marriages change through time, it being fashionable to have lengthy and flowery, if uninformative, obituaries at one time (the turn of the 20th century), no obituaries at all (large cities in the 1930s) and, now, obituaries which list all family members and often the dead person’s occupation and interests.
Some of the extra wedding announcements, with full descriptions of showers and the wedding day itself, have gone now because newspapers no longer have the room to include them. If we find them for family members in their heyday in the mid-20th century, they make fine additions to the family history.
Pioneer newspapers might have no BMD column at all, these events being sufficiently publicised by word-of-mouth in a small community. The publisher of the first newspapers in New Hamburg, Ontario, wanted to fill his columns and thought that marriage announcements might be suitable, but no one was bringing them to him.
His solution was to visit the local clergy and ask if they had married anyone lately. The resulting columns would make a modern reader think that only a single clergyman at a time was performing weddings in the community.
While later BMD columns had paid insertions, these early ones were regarded as news items of sufficient interest to be included at no cost.
Some editors might not regard BMDs as worthy of space, and many newspapers would not include them. An alternative was for these bits of news to be incorporated into the social column or as news items.
Finding them requires careful reading of the social columns.
Nineteenth century birth announcements are not very informative, but they do provide the basic information in the form:
At the Branch, on Monday the 14th inst., Mrs. Wm. Beach, of a son. (Brockville Gazette, 25 September 1829)
Eaton—In Toronto on the 7th inst., the wife of Mr. T. Eaton, of a son. (St. Mary’s Argus, 18 August 1881)
This at least provides the birthdate and place, and the father’s name. The form is somewhat incomprehensible, but the part omitted for reasons of space is ‘was delivered’ as in ‘was delivered of a son’. These very brief announcements provided the news and nothing more was considered necessary. The era’s view that the woman’s contribution was peripheral is obvious in the format. This family is indeed that of Timothy Eaton of department store fame.
Stillbirths were treated as births and not as deaths as they are now. The birth announcement would usually read as for a live birth, with the addition in parentheses (Stillborn). In the present day, stillbirths are presented in the deaths column with the usual account of surviving family members and funeral services, which are often private and conducted at the graveside. Many stillbirths were not recorded in the newspaper.
In the past, genealogists omitted reference to a stillbirth from the official record. Now, it is more likely they will want to include mention of the event in a narrative family history, although genealogies or generational charts may still omit them. For many decades after the turn of the 20th century, birth announcements were less common in newspapers. It is not clear why, although newspapers had begun charging for publication, which may be why, or it may be that people regarded the event as more private and the sending of printed or hand-lettered birth announcements through the mail had become the usual form. After World War II, there was a return to public announcement of births, which continues now.
Bennett: To Mr. & Mrs. Robert C. Bennett (née Maureen Constance Drummond), 6074 Argyle St., at Grace Hospital on April 19th, 1947, a son, Robert Lindsay. (Vancouver Province, 25 April 1947)
The full name of both parents now appears, including the mother’s maiden name, address, birthplace (hospital), date and baby’s name. The baby’s name may not be published if the parents have not made a final decision as yet.
It has taken a full week for the announcement to be published, in which time, presumably, all the close friends have already been informed, so the newspaper item may be regarded as a formality, or to include those outside the immediate family circle.
The address is included so that people might not confuse the family with any other Robert Bennetts, and to make it easier to send congratulatory messages. This form of birth announcement is much more useful genealogically than the brief nineteenth century version.
The current-day birth announcement will probably not include an address (fearing an avalanche of commercial importuning) but the other additions of 1947 will still be there. Other possibilities are the names of older siblings (‘a brother for Joel’) and happy grandparents or great-grandparents (‘a seventh grandchild for James and Hannah McKee’). Birth weights, of undoubted genealogical interest, may be given also.
The most recent change in birth announcements deals with parents who have different last names, either because they are not legally married or because the mother has retained her birth name.
Abicht-Warder: Walter and Hilary are pleased to announce the birth of Alexander Harry Lewis Abicht on August 11, 2002, at Kingston General Hospital. Alexander is the grandson of Marshall and Betty Warder of Kingston and Harry and Helga Abicht of Waterloo. (Globe and Mail, 24 August 2002)
It is helpful that the baby’s last name is clearly stated (which it often is not), since in modern families there may be some uncertainty on the subject. The residences of the grandparents will make some future genealogist happy, since it makes tracing them easier.
It might be useful to consider the newspaper birth announcement as genealogical evidence. Many jurisdictions, particularly in Canada, restrict access to birth certificates. Will a newspaper birth announcement do in place of a certificate? Since it is contemporaneous with the event, and probably placed in the newspaper by the parents, it should have a high evidential value. In addition, a scanned copy of the newspaper birth announcement is a good illustration for the family history.
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 email@example.com
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.
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