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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:
Mrs. J. S. Hanson of Sydenham, Ont., is spending the winter with her parents, Mr. & Mrs. Chr: Sigurdson (from the Markerville column of The Province,1 February 1923)
Mrs. Wm. Pennington returned on Thursday from visiting her daughter at Carstairs. (same)
Both of the above items provide information about where a family member lived away from the home location. Which of Mrs. Pennington’s daughters lived at Carstairs might require some research. The fact that Mrs. Hanson could be away from home for the whole winter also provokes some questions. Did she bring the children with her? Was her husband working away, on board ship or lumbering? Her father’s name is given in one of those pesky abbreviations; it perhaps stands for Christian, but may be something else.
When you read even the simplest piece of news involving a family member in a newspaper, ask yourself: does this tell me more than the obvious? Does it raise other useful questions? The social column noted particular events such as club meetings, teas or luncheons, dinners, illnesses, and people’s movements visiting from out of town or going elsewhere. One aspect completely forgotten now is ‘who poured’. One way of bestowing a small mark of favour at an event was to ask a woman to pour the tea. Since coffee was also served, this meant two favours, and for a long event, the pourers might work in shifts.
|Tea was poured by Mrs. F. Martyn Oliver, the serviteurs [that is, those passing the cups] being Mrs. Oliver Boyd and Mrs. W. Thomas. (Medicine Hat News, 21 September 1935)|
The tea was a late-afternoon entertainment, requiring less food than having people in for a meal, and enabling the hostess to invite more people as well. Coffee as well as tea might be served, along with tiny sandwiches or, more likely, squares, cookies and cake. It grew out of the English afternoon tea, but was considerably less formal in most instances in rural Canada. It was a common way to have a group of people to meet a visitor.
|Mrs. J. F. Kane has as her house guest this week her niece Miss Olive Dowdall of Winnipeg in whose honor she entertained at the tea hour yesterday. (Medicine Hat News, 10 October 1935)|
Celebrations—birthdays, wedding anniversaries, retirements—might be marked by parties which are reported in the newspaper. All of these are interesting to genealogists, but the wedding anniversary can be especially helpful if it is found and no marriage record has been located.
| Were married 25 years ago last Saturday
Mr. and Mrs. William White, Milton street, were married twenty-five years ago Saturday. Their silver wedding anniversary was celebrated Saturday evening when a large number of their friends gathered at their home and spent a most enjoyable night in dancing, song and story, Mr. and Mrs. White being the recipients of many beautiful gifts in commemoration of their 25 years of married life.
A toast to the silver-wedded couple was proposed by Mr. E. W. Harding, and fittingly responded to, Mr. White making a nice acceptance on behalf of himself and wife. Mrs. Joseph Somers on behalf of many friends, presented Mrs. White with a handsome vase and after partaking of a most elaborate spread, the party broke up with the singing of “For they are Jolly Good Fellows.”
During the course of the evening Mrs. A. Bradfield played Mendelsshon’s Wedding March, and Mrs. Levi Dendoff accompanied the various singers of the evening.
This notice appeared prominently on page one.
The club notices can provide interesting details if we already know that our relatives belonged to a particular organization, but if we did not know it, then the club name opens a new avenue of research.
|Mrs. Chas. Hall went to Calgary this week to attend the Rebekah Assembly, as representative of Coronation Rebekah Lodge no. 16. (The Province, Innisfail, 15 February 1924)|
Since Mrs. Hall was of some importance in the Rebekahs (otherwise, she wouldn’t be representing them at a provincial assembly), there will be information about her in their records. If there is uncertainty about Mrs. Hall’s own name, a directory, a later voters’ list, a cemetery listing or other record might supply it.
Detailed reports of some club meetings may appear, especially in the local community news. It may be that the club in question played an important role in the community, as so many Women’s Institute chapters did, or it may simply be that the reporter belonged to the club and had an interest in its affairs. During the 1950s and 1960s, theBowmanville Statesman’s Long Sault column contained regular reports of the meetings of Club 50, a local social group. From a collection of these, a history of Long Sault could probably be written, and certainly if a researcher had a relation in Club 50, there would be plenty of detail for their biography to be gleaned.
Here is an excerpt from the Women’s Institute meeting reported by the Manyberries correspondent of the Medicine Hat News:
| …best of all, two more members, Mrs. Strand and Mrs. Wieland answered roll call by turning in five dollars each which they had earned during the year for the W.I. funds.
The members then stood and sang “Ole Olsen” and enacted the jumping in this song for exercises.
Later researchers will find it frustrating that the correspondent has not given full names, falling back on that familiar tone mentioned earlier. However, we learn that Mrs. Strand and Mrs. Wieland were particularly industrious (what had they done to earn the five dollars?) and that Mrs. Webster had the threshers in. Threshing was a time of hard work for the women as well as the men, preparing mountains of food for a crowd of hungry workers three times a day. The image of a group of staid W.I. members jumping and singing would make any genealogist happy, too.
Accounts of visits, paid or received, were the bread-and-butter of social columns.
|Mr. Larry Smith returned on Saturday from Ottawa, where he has been spending a few days with his sister, Mrs. Elliott. (Collingwood Bulletin, 10 March 1927)|
|Mrs. Christianson, a sister of John Franks, Kimball, who has been spending a few weeks visit in Canada, returned to her home in Utah last week. (Alberta Star, 17 September 1909)|
|Mr. Charles Blanchard was among the out-of-town people who attended the funeral of the late William Hardill, of Peterborough. (Oshawa Daily Reformer, 7 January 1927)|
|Mr. A. McNair, who has been on a trip up to Lake Superior for his health, has returned home again greatly improved in health. (St. Mary’s Argus, 29 September 1881)|
The question to ask if a familiar name is found in this kind of entry is: are there connections I should know about here? The sisters in the first two items are obvious connections. Blanchard may only have been a friend of Hardill, but there may also be a family connection. What was wrong with Mr. McNair? Among the items about people leaving and arriving will be those for students going away to school.
|William Brown, John Roger and William Good will soon leave to qualify themselves better in the profession of teacher. The first two go to the Model School, the last to the Normal. (St. Mary’s Argus, 1 September 1881)|
This item poses a difficulty. What are the Model and Normal Schools and where are they? These were two names for teacher-training colleges.
There were several Normal Schools in Ontario, the nearest to St. Mary’s being in Stratford. A researcher wanting to follow one of these boys would have to use provincial records to determine first what these schools were, if they did not know, then where they were located in 1881.
The next step would be to ask if the records for the school in question were available. All these queries could be made at the provincial archives.
This item is a good example of a term so familiar to the newspaper’s readers it could be given in a truncated form (‘the Normal’) without anyone wondering what it meant, except the modern reader.
Even more useful for tracing wandering relations is the notice which records where they have gone to work, or simply that they have moved away.
|Miss Annie Sled left on Friday for Nipissing Junction where she has accepted a position as teacher on the public school staff. (Nottawa News in the Collingwood Bulletin, 24 March 1927)|
|Miss V. E. Jenson left on Friday last for Alhambra, where she will resume her duties as school teacher on Monday the 10th inst. (The Province Innisfail, 22 February 1924)|
|The family of Mr. Noel Green have removed to Georgetown, and the family of Mr. Wm. McNeil have left for London. (Mitchell column in St. Mary’s Argus, 29 September 1881)|
This sort of notice is good if all the information you have is ‘he went West.’ Often the news item will specify exactly where, or there may be notices of many people from a certain town all going to the same place in the West. It would be worth investigating if your lost relative went there too, as people tended to follow their neighbours when migrating. As the editor of theSt. Mary’s Argus noted in 1881, “People are leaving North Easthope weekly for Manitoba,” in the same column that he reported a group of sixteen people had gone there from Listowel.
|Mr. B. Colter departed last week for Portage La Prairie, where he intends to settle for the remainder of his days. (Stratford column in St. Mary’s Argus, 29 September 1881)|
|John Campbell, son of Peter Campbell of Logan, has gone to South Africa. (St. Mary’s Argus, 6 October 1881)|
If the migrants were given a send-off by their neighbours, the newspaper account can be transferred word-for-word to the family history:
|It is regretted by everyone in Winnifred and district that we are losing Mr. and Mrs. Ross Beath and family. They are held in high respect by everyone and were always so ready and doubly willing to share in all the doings of Winnifred, especially in church work. Best wishes possible go with them in their new home. Mr. Beath bought a farm two miles from Battle Lake post office. Their new occupation will be dairy farmers, selling milk, butter and cheese—for a change from wheat farming in this locality, where we are without moisture for a great length of time. (Winnifred column ‘from our own correspondent’,Medicine Hat News, 11 October 1935)|
An advantage of this item is that it answers one of the great genealogical questions: why did they move? Here, the Beaths were driven from wheat farming by the droughts of the 1930s, moving north to try dairying.
You may know that a relative went West, then returned. Determining the dates of the migration for his biography may be difficult, but both departure and return may be noted in the social column.
|Mr. George Roy of Mitchell has just returned from a visit to Manitoba, and has not fallen in love with the country. (St. Mary’s Argus, 1 September 1881')|
A good possibility for finding migrants from an area is when news of them appears in the social column, either because they have come visiting, or someone has gone to visit them, or simply because their news is being reported to their friends at home.
|Mr. George Rice, formerly of Fullarton Corners, had all his buildings and furniture destroyed in the Michigan fires. (St. Mary’s Argus, 29 September 1881)|
The unfortunate thing about this item is that it doesn’t specify where George lived in Michigan. However, elsewhere in the issue is a news item about the fires, which were extensive and warranted government intervention to compensate those with losses, so it would be an easy matter to use a larger newspaper, especially one from Detroit, to determine exactly where the fires had happened, narrowing it down to a few counties. From there, directories or census indexes would find where George lived.
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