14 Newspaper Sections To Step Into Your Ancestors’ Shoes
A vintage newspaper can be a treasure chest of historical gems for family history enthusiasts.
The newspaper has been the keepers of our stories for generations. It provides us with much more than just birth, death and marriage notifications. Papers give a snapshot of what life was like at a particular time. Therefore, giving you a glimpse of what your ancestor saw and experienced during their lifetime.
Because when it comes to storytelling, we need more than facts. We need to convey emotions and experiences. And while certificates or records can provide us with details, they don’t show us much more than that. But newspapers do.
You are already checking the newspaper for birth, death and marriage notifications. As well as obituaries or checking the social column hoping to see your ancestors’ name. And maybe your even searching articles to see if they pop up there.
But a newspaper can tell you a lot more about your ancestor without ever mentioning their name.
They’ll give you a picture of:
- the cost of living
- level of unemployment
- type of jobs available
- social activities
- level of crime in the local area.
Newspapers also often reported school academic and sporting achievements, full inquests, and criminal trials. All of which provide a unique insight into the past.
Learn about your ancestors in the newspaper
Newspapers can provide a general overview of an era and significant details of a specific region. Not just from the details but also from the writing style. Something more noticeable before the regular use of photos or illustrations when words had to do all of the work.
Regular sections or features you can check to learn more include:
1. Public Notices
Usually used for the government or other legal notifications. Therefore it’s a great resource to see the growth of an area. As well as what other changes were taking place in the law and society. Both things would have had an impact on your ancestor. Would they have been excited to see their town developing? Or would the changes have had a negative influence on their lives?
If your ancestor was a business owner, then you might get a bonus and find notice of their application.
2. Council Meetings
The newspaper is a wealth of information about local development in the council meeting reports. Some newspapers had a full description of the meeting, including attendees and outcomes. Read these to learn about things such as:
- Local infrastructure and services – e.g., a petition to build a post office?
- Who was on the council – e.g., find prominent local families and influencers
- What were the most prominent local concerns, – e.g. were they at risk of natural disasters or a sickness epidemic?
And you might even find your ancestor mentioned as an attendee at a meeting!
3. Lost and Found
The lost and found notifications provide insight into what was valuable at that time. It’s a great way to see what was important and what impact losing such items might have.
What do these notifications tell you about:
- The financial impact of losing that item?
- Any patterns of loss in the area during a particular era?
- The general perception of honesty vs dishonesty?
- A rising crime rate?
In early newspapers, advertisements were predominantly words only, so they blend in amongst the other articles. So you might need to hunt for them! It’s worth the effort though because you’ll find out:
- the type of items advertised
- who the big retailers were
- whether the salespeople local or from out-of-town
- why making a purchase could be an outing for the whole family
For example, if your ancestors’ were farmers, then they would need to purchase seed. There may not have been a store in their nearest town so they’d wait for seed salesman to visit. Due to long distances, the salesman would stay in a hotel in the nearest large town. Therefore the farmer travels to town, and this becomes a major social and shopping event for the family. It may happen only once every quarter and could mean a few days to a week spent in town.
So, one small advertisement can indicate something that was a significant influence in your ancestor’s life.
Newspapers would often report inquest findings, most significantly for spectacular cases such as an unexplained death or murder. You can learn a lot about what was happening in the local area and the influence it had.
- How were people dying?
- Was there an epidemic, a murder or even a serial killer? It sounds dramatic, but rumours of a local serial killer can influence people lives.
Even deaths that were far away may still impact locally. Horrific or tragic deaths can influence our lives by changing our perceptions of safety. Was there anything that might have had an impact on your ancestor?
6. Trial reporting
This type of article is as popular today as it was when your ancestor was reading the newspaper. And back then it was common to have the full trial publish in the paper. Which is great because you can gain insight into:
- the typical crimes in the area
- what the usual types of punishment for different verdicts
Then you can contemplate the impact would these trials have locally. You might even discover familiar names from your research, (e.g., neighbours, friends, etc.). Or maybe even your ancestor.
7. Letters to the Newspaper Editor
When using the newspaper for storytelling, you’ll want to read the letters to the editor. These give great insight into the characters, expectations and what was troubling the locals.
You can find out if there was a
- crippling pest problem
- animal disease
- flu epidemic
- lack of public infrastructure
- rising crime rate
As well as a variety of other ongoing local matters.
8. Shipping Notices
These will only be relevant for port-based cities or towns. These notifications can tell you about the industry and activity that was happening in the area.
- Was regular transport arriving and leaving?
- Were any cargo only ships?
Depending on where your ancestor lived, then this can give you an idea about the arrival of
- Food and supplies
Weather can have a significant impact on our lives, and it was more so for our ancestors. Because for many of them, their food source was what only they could grow.
So check the weather report for hints about:
- Natural disasters such as flood, fire or drought
- Differences in the seasons (e.g., could they grow crops all or only part of the year)
The personal column was a little different back when your ancestor was reading the newspaper. There may not have been telephones, and not everyone had a permanent address. So, the personal column became a way to send messages to family and friends. It was often a request to visit the post office to collect a letter or to get in touch.
11. Newspaper Classified Advertisements
One of the best sections when using newspapers for storytelling is classified ads. It’s a fantastic snapshot of the products available at that time. You can tell a lot about an area by what people are buying or selling.
Compare the classifieds to similar retail advertisements for insight into the cost of items and what was affordable. Remember that your ancestor probably fixed things instead of throwing them out. And just like today, the price was a significant consideration when it came to purchases.
12. Property for sale or rent
The property section is another great way to get a feel for the cost of living for your ancestor. Find out the cost of renting vs. buying in the area they lived.
- What type of property was affordable?
- Was it a good area?
- Did your ancestors rent or buy their place?
What is in this section will vary greatly depending on the Era that you’re researching for your story. It may include a
- musical recital
- another social activity.
These events create a picture of local society, and what your ancestor did for fun. Would they have attended local dances? Or perhaps they were a participant in local theatre?
14. Jobs wanted / vacancies
My favourite newspaper sections are jobs vacancies and wanted. Both of these sections that provide a lot of useful information about:
- typical high turnover jobs
- wages for different jobs
- an indication or high or low unemployment
If you know your ancestor’s occupation, then this section will help you understand
- what their salaries would have been
- whether or not it was easy to find another job
- the type of businesses or individuals who might have been their employer.
Online newspaper resources
Not sure where to start? Try your local library or one of these websites:
- Google Newspaper Archive
- National Library of Australia – Trove
- National Library of New Zealand – Papers Past
- Library of Congress – Chronicling America
- British Newspaper Archives
What can you find in a newspaper?
These are fourteen common sections that I’ve seen from years of reading vintage newspapers, but there are many others. Some are region or country-specific so check your ancestor’s local newspaper and look at what you can find.
Start with one year and see what you can learn. For that specific year, start skimming through the newspaper. Be sure to make notes about the:
- Cost of rent or property
- Big retail advertisers (your ancestor probably shopped there)
- Local entertainment
- Significant events (crimes, missing people, natural disasters, royal visits, etc.)
- Work available
As well as anything else that catches your eye. Then use this new data to add colour and depth to your writing. And you never know, you may find your ancestor lurking in other places in the paper as well.
How do you use historical newspapers to find out more about your ancestor?