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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 ($).
- 1 Social Notes and News Items
- 2 Basic Contents
- 3 Scanning
- 4 Genealogical Finds
Social Notes and News Items
Having examined the most commonly-used genealogical section of the newspaper, the BMD (Births, Marriages, Deaths) column, we now turn to the rest of the publication. Is it worthwhile spending research time looking at these other pages?
The answer should be obvious by now: it is yes. Almost any other section of the newspaper can add to our genealogical knowledge if a relation is mentioned.
Local newspapers overflow with material about the people in their towns, and even large urban newspapers include a great deal of personal material about residents.
Finding this information takes time and patience. Any newspaper offers a vast accumulation of material to be scanned for data. Even a weekly of four pages per issue means over two hundred broadsheet pages per year to be examined. Most newspapers are more than four pages and dailies are considerably larger.
The happy side is that this kind of research is not only beneficial in finding family information, it is also educational and amusing.
It is educational in the sense that we see how people lived in the period of the newspaper, their attitudes about a great many things and what was important to them.
As for amusement, reading old newspapers is addictive in the pleasure it brings, for the quaint stories, the old-fashioned attitudes and, of course, the jokes, however tame they seem by today’s standards.
Looking through the social columns of newspapers may be necessary in many instances, when the paper does not include a BMD column as such, but scatters the marriages and deaths throughout the paper along with ads for patent medicines and reminders about lodge meetings.
A glance at the contents of historical papers, even short ones, immediately impresses us with the variety of material and the changes in format over the years.
Take time to glance through these listings of the contents of five newspapers representing the pioneer period, the early twentieth century and a big-city daily of the forties:
The British Columbian, New Westminster, 9 May 1861
- ‘Canadian news’ which is entirely ads, mostly for firms in Victoria, and for groceries, bedding, furniture, Chinese goods, books, pans, fishing nets, wine, hardware.
- News from English papers
- Official notices
- Shipping news
- Business cards (professional ads)
- Letters to the editor (political and signed anonymously or using pseudonyms)
- Ads for New Westminster and for patent medicines
The Edmonton Bulletin, 23 February 1881v. 1, no. 13)
- ‘Telegraphic’, i.e., political, news
- Local news:
- Hudson’s Bay Company fur news
- mining and lumbering news
- local amateur horse race
- small local crime (in detail)
- Ads for millers, hotel, books, carpenter, dry goods and grocery stores
- Legal notices
The Edmonton Bulletin, 30 January 1886 (v. 7, no. 13)
In only five years, both the settlement and the newspaper have changed considerably.
- 'Telegraphic’: political and overseas news
- the weather in Winnipeg (in detail)
- Local news:
- people ill
- people leaving and arriving timber<br
- dog shot
- public appointments (assessor)
- organising a cemetery
- meetings of local clubs
- Ads (many more than earlier) for: restaurants, businesses, private school teacher wanted, professional notices (notary, dentist, lawyer, doctor), hotels, churches
- Editorial (political)
- Teacher report
- List of ‘pool and pigeon hole table and bowling alley licences’
- Many straying animals lost and found
- Legal notices.
The Alberta Star, Cardston, Alberta, 18 April 1908
- Politics (Japanese labour)
- Advice on children’s winter underclothing (on page 1!)
- Court records
- Board of Trade meeting
- Whole page of ads for patent remedies
- Page of patterns for clothing trims, bows and braid
- Politics and legal notices
- Joke about cream separators
- Local social news, including several birth and marriage notices
- Notes on ‘pioneer houses’, the Kaiser’s uniforms, illness of the Czarina, farm news (poultry)
- More jokes, a lion hunt
- A children’s story
- A serialised novel
- More political and legal notices
- More ads, including the Chinese restaurant and bakery, which also sells silk and china.
The Vancouver Province, 25 April 1947
- p. 1 - Provincial news and some local (a court case about a strip tease club)
- p. 2 - Mostly ads
- p. 3 - Mix of national and foreign news, short items
- p. 4 - Editorials
- p. 5 - Local news
- p. 6 - Another section of local news
- p. 7 - Full-page ad for Woodward’s department store
- p. 8-11 - Local and mixed news, including fuller account of the strip tease case
- p. 12-13 - Social news
- p. 14 - Bridge, etiquette and cooking columns
- p. 15 - Local news
- p. 16-17 - Sports
- p. 18 - Movie listings
- p. 19 - National news, plus one obituary
- p. 20 - Full-page ad for the Bay
- p. 21-30 - Classified ads
- p. 21 - includes births, obituaries, cards of thanks, in memoriam
- p. 31 - High school news
- p. 32-33 - Stock market
- p. 34 - Comics and children’s page
- p. 35 - National news
- p. 36 - Full-page ad for Spencer’s Men’s Shops
If we compare these five papers, we find a great variation, although the basic contents and format are similar for them all. In essence, the big-city Province is the same as the tiny Bulletin, except that there is more of it.
The British Columbian has no local news at all and seems mostly intended for the business community. Shortly afterward the government gazette takes over most of the space; New Westminster was capital of the colony at the time.
In the 1881 Bulletin, most of the news is commercial, concerning lumbering and mining interests. The only materials of interest to historical researchers today are the ads, the crime and the horse race. However, by 1886, the Bulletin has exploded into a regular small-town paper. Even by November of 1881, the editor of the paper had begun to include material of interest to the populace, not merely business and political news. By 1886, there were a great many people’s names being mentioned, those ill, those arriving and leaving, those obtaining licences, and in the extended ads section. An interesting aspect of the 1886 paper is that there is a great deal of repetition, the same ads and social items being repeated in the same issue as a means of filling the space.
The Star of 1908 is a town weekly, bubbling with long-established affairs in the town. There are BMDs, but not in a column of their own. Obituaries on page one are a feature of these small papers, emphasising the importance of personal news. A great deal of the paper can be skipped by genealogical researchers: the items about the Kaiser and the Czarina, the children’s story and the novel, the labour politics. The jokes might provide diversion, both the intentional ones and the unintentional solemnities about children’s winter underclothing. There is also a great deal of local news which might mention a relative and can be scanned for familiar names.
Scanning newspapers in this way is necessary, but beware of doing it too quickly, when you might miss something. The other danger is that although your eye continues to zoom up and down the columns, your mind wanders elsewhere. If your concentration lapses, you won’t see the names you want when you come to them.
It’s wise to:
- Come to read the newspaper when you feel fresh and alert
- Keep your reading session short enough that you don’t get fuzzy
- Take short breaks often, getting up to walk around, breath fresh air
- If you are looking for many names, keep a list of them at hand, so you can refer to it as you go
The Province is a recognisable newspaper of today; only the hemlines have changed. There is a great deal of the paper which can be skipped: the national and foreign news, editorials, the bridge, etiquette and cooking columns, movie listings, classifieds (except for the BMDs), the stock market, comics and children’s page.
The local news may well contain an individual of interest, although of course in a big city the chances of this are less than in a small town like Cardston. The strip tease story is hilarious, and may work as a compensation for ploughing through all the rest. The full-page ads for Woodward’s, the Bay and Spencer’s take only a moment, and may be historically interesting. The sports may be all national or foreign, without local content.
The parts of the paper richest in genealogical finds will be the BMD column, the social column and the high school news. Even in a big newspaper like this one, it doesn’t take long to look at these pages thoroughly.
A look at the 1935 Medicine Hat News, a small-city newspaper, gives much the same impression. There is a lot of national and international news and little of the sports are local. In the interest of filling the pages, the editors have mixed materials freely. In the local social column, for instance, is an item about Greta Garbo’s birthday, although it is doubtful Miss Garbo was celebrating in Medicine Hat.
The movie page, mostly listings of what was showing that week, includes the social column for Manyberries, a small community near the city. This reminds the researcher not to skip any page completely, but to scan all of them quickly in case local matters have been included.
These local columns gave newsy, almost gossipy, accounts of life in rural communities, and were written by a resident of the locale. The column might appear weekly, or less often, depending on space and the stringer’s ability to find news. As early as the 1908 Star we find these columns and they were very common in small town papers, and still are.
A small city newspaper such as the News featured many of them, but as the city grew, there would have been less room and also the editors may have felt these community columns gave the paper too much of a ‘small town’ feel, so they were eliminated. When they exist, however, they are an important resource for genealogists.
The Innisfail, Alberta Province in the 1920s is interesting because it is virtually all local news in the form of these community columns. Presumably the editors knew that their residents could obtain information about the Kaiser, the Czarina and the goings-on in Ottawa from some other paper, and that their function was to provide material about the neighbourhood. Much of the news is like this:
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
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