About Duncan Kuehn

Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as Who Do You Think You Are? and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. She runs her own research company, “The Family Briar Patch,” and also works for GenealogyBank.com.

Snow & Ice: Winter’s Frosty Fun

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. With the East Coast (especially Boston) digging out from yesterday’s blizzard, this seems like a good time for an article about winter. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to find poems and photos about our ancestors enjoying winter activities.

Some people love winter and the frosty fun that comes with it. They love wrapping up in blankets and sipping hot chocolate after a long day frolicking in the snow or skating on the ice.

photo of some boys making a giant snowball

Photo: making a giant snowball. Credit: Kamyar Adl; Wikimedia Commons.

Children Play

The cold weather keeps some people indoors, where snuggling up with a loved one by the fire is the highest priority. For many children, however, winter is a wonderland to be explored. If this describes you, this poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, presenting a child’s perspective on winter, may bring you joy.

Winter Time

Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,

A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;

Blinks but an hour or two; and then

A blood-red orange, sets again.

Before the stars have left the skies,

At morning in the dark I rise;

And shivering in my nakedness,

By the cold candle, bathe and dress.

Close by the jolly fire I sit,

To warm my frozen bones a bit;

Or, with a reindeer sled, explore

The colder countries round the door.

When to go out, my nurse doth wrap

Me in my comforter and cap;

The cold wind burns my face, and blows

Its frosty pepper up my nose.

Black are my steps on silver sod;

Thick blows my frosty breath abroad;

And tree and house, and hill and lake,

Are frosted like a wedding cake.

“Winter Time” was published in Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) and was reprinted in this 1903 Minnesota newspaper.

the poem "Winter Time" by Robert Louis Stevenson, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 14 January 1903

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 14 January 1903, page 4

Adults Worry

Unlike children, many adults find that the harshness of winter reminds them of some of the difficulties of life. The hassle of slippery roads, buried cars, and treacherous walkways takes its toll.

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This poem brings these sentiments to mind. It was published in a 1917 Pennsylvania newspaper and attributed to “Uncle Walt the Poet Philosopher.”

the poem "Snow," Patriot newspaper article 8 January 1917

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 8 January 1917, page 6

Remember the Joy

It seems that children are naturally drawn to the slippery stuff in nature’s playground. Perhaps Uncle Walt needs to spend more time watching the pure joy of children playing in the snow to perk up his mood. Or watch lovers holding hands as they ice skate, round and round the pond. Or take a moment to really see the snow as it flutters to the ground. We get so focused on what we have to do and how the snow hinders us, we miss out on its wonder. The infuriating white stuff seems to be there just to make life hard. But maybe this is nature’s way of reminding us to slow down and remember what is most important. Perhaps it is time to wrap up in a warm, fuzzy blanket and read the newspaper by the glow of a crackling fire. Or maybe we need to dust off the sled and get some invigorating exercise as we pull the kids around the yard. It is hard to retain our crusty mood as we watch children, wrapped in snow clothes to the point of near immobility, waddle around the uneven surface of a snowy field, laughing as they tumble to the ground in a frosty heap. And taking a moment to laugh with them can heal our soul.

Photos Capture the Fun

Here are pictures from four old newspapers to remind us of winter’s joy.

These photos were published in a 1916 Oregon newspaper, entitled “Portland Children Reveling in the Snow with Christmas Sleds as Agents of Joy.”

photos of children sledding on the snow, Oregonian newspaper article 28 December 1916

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 28 December 1916, page 14

These photos were published in a 1939 Pennsylvania newspaper. They show adults “joining the ‘keep fit’ movement sweeping the nation” – but one look at their faces, and you realize what’s really happening: these adults are remembering how much fun it is to play in the snow.

photos of people playing in the snow, National Labor Tribune newspaper article 14 January 1939

National Labor Tribune (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), 14 January 1939, page 8

This photo, published in a 1912 North Dakota newspaper, shows U.S. Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer skating on the frozen Potomac River with his daughter Alice. The photo caption says “Washington Society” is excited about ice skating; Meyer is identified as “a leader in the movement.”

photo of U.S. Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer skating on the frozen Potomac River with his daughter Alice, Evening Times newspaper article 24 December 1912

Evening Times (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 24 December 1912, page 5

This photo, published in a 1910 Maryland newspaper, shows people enjoying ice skating on the boat lake in Baltimore’s Patterson Park. The caption says:

This is practically the only place for ice skating which is convenient to East Baltimore folk, and it is thronged morning, afternoon and evening when the park officials consider the ice thick enough for the sport.

photo of people ice skating, Baltimore American newspaper article 13 December 1910

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 13 December 1910, page 15

If you live along the East Coast, have you dug out from yesterday’s major blizzard? How much snow did Winter Storm Juno dump in your area? No matter where you live, we hope you have found some time this winter to get out and enjoy the snow and ice – winter’s frosty fun.

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America’s First Newspaper: Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, 1690

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan writes about the short-lived history of the first newspaper published in North America – which was shut down by the authorities after printing its first and only issue.

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick was the first newspaper published in the Americas. Previously a few broadsides had been published in the colonies, but these were single-sided sheets of news or announcements meant to be posted in a public place. Publick Occurrences was the first real newspaper, consisting of three pages of news intended for individual consumption. This newspaper is a fascinating study of early North American life and times.

front page for the newspaper Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 1

The History of the First American Newspaper

The editor, Benjamin Harris, had published a newspaper and other material in London, but ran afoul of the authorities and was twice jailed for his “seditious” pamphlets – so in 1686 he immigrated to the American colonies. He enlisted the help of a local printer, Richard Pierce, and together they produced their four-page newspaper on 25 September 1690 in Boston. It was about six inches by ten inches and the last page was blank.

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Harris and Pierce used the first few column inches of the new paper to explain their reasons and hopes for creating it. They intended to provide “an Account of such considerable things as have arrived unto our Notice” for three reasons:

    • “That Memorable Occurrences of Divine Providence may not be neglected or forgotten, as they too often are.”
    • “That people every where may better understand the Circumstances of Publique Affairs, both abroad and at home; which may not only direct their Thoughts at all times, but at some times also to assist their Businesses and Negotiations.”
    • “That some thing may be done towards the Curing, or at least the Charming of that Spirit of Lying, which prevails amongst us, wherefore nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best fountains for our Information.”
article explaining why the first newspaper in North America was being printed, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick newspaper article 25 September 1690

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 1

A Day of Thanksgiving

The first article was about the “Christianized Indians in some parts of Plimouth” having “newly appointed a day of Thanksgiving to God for his Mercy in supplying their extream and pinching Necessities.” It went on to opine that: “Their Example may be worth Mentioning.”

This was an excellent beginning article for the new paper, a nice human interest story which caused no controversy. It will be remembered that in 1690, there was no independent nation and no national Thanksgiving holiday in North America. However, the colonists and their Christianized Indian allies observed periodic days of thanksgiving.

article about Indians celebrating Thanksgiving, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick newspaper article 25 September 1690

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 1

Suicide after Wife’s Death

For the genealogist, this paper is full of stories of importance. For example, one front page article relates the story of an older resident of Watertown who committed suicide after the death of his wife. This man “had long Enjoyed the reputation of a Sober and a Pious Man; having newly buried his Wife, The Devil took advantage of the Melancholy which he thereupon fell into.” Despite the efforts of his friends to protect him, he slipped away one night and hanged himself. His name was not mentioned, but it might be possible to discover his identity using the clues given in the old newspaper article.

Small Pox Ravages Boston

There are stories about illness, including one about small-pox that had recently ravaged Boston:

The Small-pox which has been raging in Boston, after a manner very Extraordinary, is now very much abated. It is thought that far more have been sick of it than were visited with it, when it raged so much twelve years ago, nevertheless it has not been so Mortal. The number of them that have dyed in Boston by this last Visitation is about three hundred and twenty, which is not perhaps half so many as fell by the former [visitation].

Again, no names are mentioned, but it may provide clues on ancestors affected by this calamity.

Inferno Engulfs Town

Another story tells of a fire that took the life of one boy and destroyed five or six homes and a rare and valuable printing press: “…[one] of those few that we know of in America, was lost; a loss not presently to be repaired.”

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Children Taken as Indian Captives

Another story is about two Chelmsford children, ages 11 and 9, kidnapped by the hostile Indians. While these stories don’t mention the individuals by name, they can provide clues for identifying individuals you may already know something about from other records. In addition, these stories can provide an incredible look into the life and times of the residents of Boston. What were they most concerned with? What was life like? How did they adapt to their circumstances? And so on.

French vs. English

There is another story about an English ship that put in at the wrong port and was attacked by the French and their Indian allies, with one member of the crew escaping. Although the French and Indian War did not officially begin until 1754, we see in these 1690 reports that clashes between the French and English – and their respective Indian allies – were common.

In fact, the majority of this inaugural (and, as it turned out, only) issue of Publick Occurrences’s articles address the ongoing fighting. They graphically describe the various conflicts with a remarkable nonpartisanship, with blame assigned to both the French and English, as well as their Indian allies. As a British citizen, Harris could justify a printed attack on the French and their Indian allies. He reports how the French Canadians even annihilated some loyal Indian allies after a misunderstanding.  He grows bold in reprinting a letter which gave news from the Caribbean and accuses the French king of an incestuous relationship with his daughter-in-law.

Somewhat surprisingly, Harris also uses his newspaper to criticize the English – both for their own actions, and for not better restraining their Indian allies. He reports how some of the British forces’ Indian allies “returned with some Success, having slain several of the French, and brought home several Prisoners, whom they used in a manner too barbarous for any English to approve.” Harris also reports a story about the English Captain Mason, who “cut the faces, and ript the bellies of two Indians, and threw a third Over board in the sight of the French.”

article about a fight between French and British forces, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick newspaper article 25 September 1690

Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 3

Only One Issue Ever Printed

Although Harris and Pierce stated that their intent was to publish their new newspaper once a month “or if any Glut of Occurrences happen, oftener,” the inaugural issue of Publick Occurrences was also the last. The British authorities discovered the paper and moved quickly to suppress it.

And so the very first newspaper in American ran right into issues of press censorship and freedom of speech. Just four days after Publick Occurrences was published, the “Governour & Council” issued an order in which they “do hereby manifest and declare their high Resentment and Disallowance of said Pamphlet [i.e., newspaper], and Order that the same be Suppress’d and called in.” The official reasoning was that Harris had not applied for and obtained the proper licenses. However, the authorities were most likely unhappy with Harris’s opinions and criticisms, as mild as they may seem to the modern reader.

While not mentioning very many names, this first North American newspaper is fascinating to read. It provides a colorful description of what Bostonians and people in the original colonies were experiencing, what they cared about, and what trials they faced. It gives tantalizing clues about the early colonists and their lives, and is a good resource for anyone researching their ancestors during the early colonial period in American history.

Publick Occurrences is just one of the rare early colonial newspapers available in GenealogyBank’s  Historical Newspaper Archives, which houses more than 6,500 newspaper titles online. GenealogyBank can help you learn more about your ancestors in early America; see what’s inside the archives on your ancestors’ stories. Start your 30-day trial now!

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A 1941 News Article Reminds Us of the Real Meaning of Christmas

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan shares an old newspaper article she found recently while doing family history research, which presents one man’s discovery in 1941 about the meaning of Christmas.

While doing some family history research recently in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, I ran across an article written by Channing Pollock in 1941.

photo of a candle on a Christmas tree

Photo: candle on a Christmas tree. Credit: Gerbil; Wikimedia Commons.

His article is so wonderful that I transcribed every word to share with our readers.

I Ran Away from Christmas, by Channing Pollock, Boston Herald newspaper article 21 December 1941

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 21 December 1941, page 16

I Ran Away from Christmas

By Channing Pollock

It was four or five years ago that my wife and I wearied of Christmas and decided to “get away from it all.” We had had a couple of very dull holiday dinners with relatives who didn’t think of us much – or think much of us – the other 364 days, and we had revolted against the janitor and the delivery boys and what-not along the avenue of itching palms.

“I’m tired,” my wife said, “of fighting crowds in shops, and wrapping things in tissue, and addressing hundreds of envelopes. I’d like to go where we could just have each other, and something really resembling ‘peace on earth.’”

“There is an ancient and honorable hymn,” I reminded her, “that runs, ‘Peace, perfect peace, with the loved ones far away.’”

So we spent that Christmas in Taormina – and we shall always remember it as the drabbest, loneliest, most generally wretched 24 hours of our lives.

Not that we didn’t get all we bargained for – and then some. Taormina, near the foot of Mount Aetna, is one of the quaintest, loveliest towns in the world. It has, or had, a palatial hotel that used to be a monastery, and is the coldest, most utterly impersonal of all possible places to spend the Yuletide. My wife and daughter and I rose at the usual hour and wished one another Merry Christmas – but there was no merriment, or anything that even remotely suggested Christmas. When we said Merry Christmas to the waiters and chambermaids, and crossed their palms with silver, they thanked us impersonally. Secretly we longed for our postman, who always rang twice at Christmas, and for the delivery boys, and for the two or three old servants who used to have Christmas dinner in our kitchen.

Nobody phoned, of course. At 10 o’clock we went to church in the biggest, most impersonal church I ever saw, with only strangers about us, and the service in a strange tongue. By then we were fairly aching for contacts with those we loved, whether or not we loved them or they us the other 364 days. So we strolled down the main street and sent yearning cables to all our sisters and cousins and aunts. No one replied; we had told them we wanted a quiet Christmas, and we got our wish. We opened the gifts we had bought (missing all the foolish tissue and tinsel and mess) and it seemed somehow odd and idiotic to be giving things to one another in big, empty, stone-floored rooms.

By night we felt like God’s step-children, and we sat alone at a huge table in a vast dining room, ate antipasto and ravioli and duck with olives, and listened to a string quartet. On the way out, at the other end of the hall, we saw a Christmas tree, trimmed and lighted and surrounded by a gay group of holiday-dressed children and grown-ups. “That’s nice of the hotel,” we thought, and rushed for the tree as though it were an oasis in a desert. We were within a few feet of it when the doors were closed in our faces; this was a private celebration, and no strangers wanted. After that, none of us troubled to hide our depression. We clung to, and were glad – so glad – we had one another.

For the rest of our lives we shall spend the Yule season shopping, and wrapping, and calling Merry Christmas to everyone we see, and being warmed and happy that they call Merry Christmas to us.

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The truth of the matter is that we all need the hurly-burly of Christmas, when the world is open-house, and gay and open-hearted. Those other 364 days we are remote from most of our fellows, thinking of ourselves and our business and humdrum preoccupations. We have been thinking of dreadful things, too, those 364 days – of marching men, and dead and dying men, and desolate and hungry women and children. For one day, it is blessed to retreat into childhood, and simple faith, and kindness and generosity, and all the memories and traditions of a festival born with the gentle Jesus. Scrooge may call it “a shopkeepers’ holiday,” but you and I know that something more precious than money goes into those shops, and something more wanted and needed than socks and slippers and rings and perfume comes out. The things we wrap in tissue and tinsel are not toys and ornaments, but tenderness and love and the wish to bring happiness to others.

All the spirit of Christmas, to me, is in that exquisite story of O. Henry’s, “The Gift of the Magi,” about the man who sold his watch to buy side combs for his wife’s beautiful hair, while his wife was selling her hair to buy a gold fob for his treasured watch.

Since our own cheerless Christmas journey, I’ve found a good many other people who have tried to spend Christmas in Taormina, in some manner of speaking. But I’ve never known one who will ever try it again. A dear, wise woman I know had a letter from a friend who said he’d decided “Christmas is a nuisance” and was asking all his friends to ignore him on that occasion. At Christmas, the woman wrote him: “I’m disregarding your request, so that you may have one message of love and remembrance on what you are going to find the emptiest day you have ever experienced.” Before night, she received an almost tearful telegram saying she was right.

Christmas, when you come to think of it, is an annual miracle: an annual rebirth of Christ. At the sign of clock and calendar, millions of us who give little thought to religion the rest of the year find ourselves remembering the Star and the Wise Men. For a time, the meanest of us become generous, the most relentless become forgiving. Even the men in tanks and bombing planes pause, if only an instant, to remember home – to realize that there are such things as homes.

No, Christmas in Taormina is no good, unless you belong in Taormina and your heart dwells there. That goes for Timbuktu, Tasmania and Tillamook, Oregon, too. For when you really escape Christmas, you escape humankind.

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Amazing Inventors: Thomas Edison & the Electric Light Bulb

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to learn about Thomas Edison and his invention of the electric light bulb that changed the world.

In the late 1870s, Thomas Alva Edison was attempting to create an affordable, sustainable, and practical incandescent light. Previous light bulbs had been created that were capable of emitting light; however, they burned out within minutes or hours making them impractical for regular use. By the time Edison took up the challenge, he was firmly entrenched in his famous Menlo Park laboratory and the world was abuzz with the possibilities.

photo of Thomas Alva Edison, by Louis Bachrach, c. 1922

Photo: Thomas Alva Edison, by Louis Bachrach, c. 1922. Source: U.S. Library of Congress.

It is hard for us to understand the world they lived in back in the 1870s. No bright lights. Ever. Can it be imagined? There was candlelight and firelight, but no synthetic light. Imagine the bump in the night that needs to be investigated, but you can’t just flip the switch to illuminate the scene. No, you must light a candle and attempt to locate the intruder in the deep shadows of a single flame. There were no flashlights. No headlights on the car. No lit numbers on the clock. Most work had to end once the sun when down.

As Edison worked to illuminate the world, he faced several problems. As mentioned, the filament then used in light bulbs burned out too quickly, and it produced a black film on the inside of the bulb—which dimmed the weak light even more. Others had tried to perfect the light bulb. And they had failed. It just wasn’t possible, they said.

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While we all know that Edison succeeded in his quest, it wasn’t a sure thing at the time. Today school children everywhere know and revere Edison.  But it wasn’t always that way. He wasn’t the only scientist of his age—just one of many working on similar projects. Since many of them had failed with their light bulb experiments, other inventors didn’t think that Edison could do it either. Edison’s lack of a regular education was a particular point of scorn—as shown in this 1879 newspaper article:

The truth is that Mr. Edison, although very successful in discovering improvements in subjects in which he was practically engaged, lacks the knowledge and training which have persuaded the greatest chemists in the world of the inadaptability of electricity for general lighting purposes.

article about Thomas Edison inventing the electric light bulb, New Haven Register newspaper article 16 August 1879

New Haven Register (New Haven, Connecticut), 16 August 1879, page 2

Disregarding the naysayers, Edison persevered. At one point, it appeared that a filament made from platinum would last longer. Platinum has a higher resistance to heat than other metals. It also expands and contracts in sync with the glass of the bulb. This promising metal was needed in quantity to run experiments and—if proved successful—to provide enough material for the mass-produced product. However, general consensus maintained that the metal was so rare it was “about to become extinct.”

Edison didn’t give up. He wrote letters to American and British consuls throughout the world and to the scientific community. In his letters, he described the metal, “how and where it was found and might be found, how it could be identified and treated” and so on. He even included a sample of platinum, at his own expense. Encouragingly, he also offered a $20,000 prize.

Edison and Platinum, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 14 August 1901

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 14 August 1901, page 6

And so the race was on. What better way to motivate someone than to offer a cash prize for finding large deposits of platinum, and a steady string of customers for the product once the light bulb was in regular use? And prospectors did find it and mine it in abundance.

Platinum in California, New Haven Register newspaper article 26 July 1879

New Haven Register (New Haven, Connecticut), 26 July 1879, page 1

In life, unlike a light bulb, few things happen in a vacuum. So what were some of the after effects of Edison’s venture into crowdsourcing for platinum? Edison’s ever-curious mind saw another business opportunity when he was learning to separate gold from platinum. Using his new method, he was able to take tailings—the “junk” materials discarded in the mining process—and extract the gold. In one ton of tailings that had cost him just $5, he was able to extract $1400 worth of gold. While the amount of gold that could be extracted varied, this was obviously an astonishing discovery.

As this 1880 newspaper article reported:

At the rate of $1400 to the ton…he computes that at the various mines around Oroville “there are at least $50,000,000 in the tailings.”

Edison's Discovery in Gold Mining, Macon Telegraph newspaper article 2 April 1880

Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 2 April 1880, page 2

This is an astonishing sum! To understand his claim, $50 million in 1880 converts into about $1.2 trillion today.

Edison’s use of platinum in light bulbs greatly increased the metal’s value. In 1885, five years after Edison announced the creation of a practical light bulb, platinum’s market value was just $3 to $5 an ounce. Just five years later, its price nearly matched that of gold at $20 per ounce.

A King of Metals -- The Value of Platinum as Affected by Electric Lights, Daily Inter Ocean newspaper article 19 October 1890

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), 19 October 1890, page 32

Platinum was now being produced in quantity—and other uses were found for it. The ring on your finger may even be made of platinum.

As this 1879 newspaper article reported:

As a result, large quantities of the rare metal were found in various locations. The gravel-heap of a single mine will, it is said, yield more platinum than all the rest of the world does now.

article about Thomas Edison and his use of platinum in electric light bulbs, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 1 October 1879

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 1 October 1879, page 3

Edison proved the naysayers and doubters wrong:

Very few of the many investigators who had studied the subject of electric lighting believed that the experiments [by Edison] would prove important. Edison, it was supposed, had walked into a cul de sac, where others had preceded him and found no thoroughfare. A considerable amount of pity, both here and in England, was wasted on the ingenious man who had gone beyond his depth. Not having been properly educated in early life, he was ignorant, so they said, of the properties of matter.

article about Thomas Edison and his invention of the electric light bulb, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 1 October 1879

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 1 October 1879, page 3

In the end, platinum proved to be essential for the supporting wires to hold the filament, but still burned too quickly to provide a steady light when used as the filament itself. The best material for a filament proved to be carbonized bamboo fiber in a vacuum. Edison made this discovery while examining a bamboo fragment that had peeled off his fishing pole!

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Finding a suitable filament was not the only challenge Edison faced. Along the way, he also had to develop a superior pump to create the vacuum necessary in the bulb, a more powerful generator to produce the electricity, a realistic and safe electric delivery system for electricity, and more. Yet, he met all of these challenges.

Edison wasn’t the only one working on the electric light problem. And he wasn’t the only one to develop a bulb that worked. In England around the same time, Joseph Swan independently created a very similar bulb. In fact, Edison used some of Swan’s ideas as a foundation for his experiments. Swan and Edison later joined forces in the Edison-Swan Company, which then switched from bamboo filaments to cellulose ones.

Edison continued to refine his light bulb throughout the fall of 1879, and by the end of the year he was giving public demonstrations of his marvelous new invention. On 27 January 1880 he was granted U.S. patent 223,898 for his electric light bulb.

photo of the light bulb Thomas Edison used for public demonstrations of his new invention during Christmas week, 1879

Photo: the light bulb Thomas Edison used for public demonstrations of his new invention during Christmas week, 1879. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The genius of Edison comes out in several ways in this story of his perfection of the electric light bulb. He took a project he felt was interesting and worthwhile despite others loudly proclaiming it couldn’t be done—or if it could, it couldn’t be done by him because he lacked the knowledge and training (he was self-educated). He tackled the problem of not having enough of a necessary material by using crowdsourcing and incentives to gather more. While he could have easily worried and worked himself to the bone, he took time to escape from the project and listen to the guru in his head while enjoying the peace of a fishing trip. And it was there that he discovered the solution that was literally a part of his fishing rod. He took a lot of junk and literally turned it into gold. He put in the work and gained the satisfaction of making a lasting contribution to the world.

Historical newspapers (http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/newspapers/) are not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors—they also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Did any of your ancestors make an important invention? Please share your stories with us in the comments.

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Henry Ford & the Model T: History That Changed the World

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to learn about Henry Ford and his assembly line-produced Model T that changed the world.

The Model T Ford, introduced on 1 October 1908, is one of the most influential cars of all time. Henry Ford perfected the assembly line system to create an affordable car for the emerging middle class. In fact, some argue that the Model T created the middle class.

photo of a Model T Ford, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1910

Photo: Model T Ford, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1910. Source: Harry Shipler; Wikimedia Commons.

Assembly Lines Enable Mass Production

The Ford Motor Company’s streamlined assembly line was able to produce the Model T at a record pace and for a reasonable price. Initially the car cost $850, changing the automobile from a luxury item only the rich could afford to a staple of many Americans’ lives.

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Newspaper Ads Fuel Demand

Along with innovations in the factory, Henry Ford was a genius at promotion, using newspapers all across the country to advertise his Model T Ford. As this 1909 newspaper ad proclaims:

If you are looking for a car that combines the desirable qualities of power, speed, quiet running, ease of riding, simplicity of operation and low cost of maintenance, you will find the Model ‘T’ Ford in a class by itself.

ad for a Ford Model T car, Baltimore American newspaper advertisement 21 February 1909

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 21 February 1909, page 37

The new car was so popular that the Ford Motor Company had to work hard to keep up with demand for the Model T.

ad for Ford Model T cars, Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper advertisement 30 October 1908

Colorado Springs Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado), 30 October 1908, page 2

Drive Testing & Road Trips

Henry Ford promoted his newest model by taking it on a road trip to show that the lighter Model T could perform just as well as heavier cars. Personally, I was fascinated by the description of the roads in this article, described as being buried by six inches of dust prior to a rain storm that created a muddy mess.

New Car (Ford Model T) a Success, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 18 October 1908

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 18 October 1908, page 10

The widespread availability of cars made the family trip a national pastime. Road trips became opportunities for families to reconnect and spend time together. Even shorter outings to local sites of interest became more popular since it could all be done in a day. People were more likely to move further from where they grew up since it became more convenient to go home for a visit. Shipping also became possible and local specialties could be sold to a wider audience.

As mentioned before, the roads of the time were inadequate by today’s standards. The roughness of the roads made travel difficult and uncomfortable. In buying a car, purchasers were looking for something sturdy enough to handle a constant beating from the road—and also something that wouldn’t transfer that beating to them. To test the Model T’s abilities they took it on long-distance trips.

article about the Ford Model T car, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 5 September 1909

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 5 September 1909, page 11

They performed grueling driving tests.

article about the Ford Model T car, Rockford Republic newspaper article 4 March 1909

Rockford Republic (Rockford, Illinois), 4 March 1909, page 6

They tried racing in the Model T.

(Note: this newspaper photo of a stripped-down Model T with no roll bars, windshield, airbags, seatbelts, or even much of a passenger cabin to speak of makes every medic cringe, despite the car’s top speed of just 45 miles per hour.)

article about the Ford Model T car, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 14 August 1910

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 14 August 1910, page 7

Despite all the abuse they put the car through, the Model T remained sturdy enough to stay at the top of the sales charts—although the commentator in the following news article is clearly not a Model T fan.

article criticizing Ford cars, Perry Republican newspaper article 21 October 1915

Perry Republican (Perry, Oklahoma), 21 October 1915, page 4

Car Options & Accessories

The Model T had a crank start. It was open to the elements, although it had a roll-top of sorts. Ford sold the car in the most basic state, but then offered all sorts of accessories—including a stethoscope-type attachment to listen to the engine and check for damage, a grill to turn the engine into a barbeque of sorts, and so on. This was a brilliant move by Ford to cash in on his customers’ aftermarket needs, and allowed owners to customize their car to their requirements and desires.

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Keeping Up with the Joneses

Locally, it was a big deal when someone purchased a Model T or took a trip in one. Numerous articles appear talking about Mr. So-and-So’s new purchase or car trip that specifically mention the Model T by name.

article about William Sparks touring in his Ford Model T car, Evening Star newspaper article 29 August 1909

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 29 August 1909, page 16

Here’s another example, listing all the people who have recently bought Fords in the Washington, D.C., area.

(Note: this list has a seemingly high number of doctors purchasing the car. It makes sense when you remember that this was during the time of the traveling doctor. A car would be a wonderful way for him or her to get to the patient quicker.)

article listing local people who bought Ford Model T cars, Evening Star newspaper article 10 October 1909

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 10 October 1909, page 22

The Model T’s design changed over time, but remained the most popular car of its era.

New Style Body on Ford Model T, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 20 October 1912

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 20 October 1912, page 21

Lasting Impact on Modern Life

Car collectors and enthusiasts today are still excited about the Model T. Historians write about its impact on our modern life. If you ever wonder why it was such a big deal, just imagine your life without your car. Modern life depends on it. And the assembly line system which produced the Model T is what makes it possible for most of us to own a car today.

article about car enthusiasts and their Ford Model T automobiles, Register Star newspaper article 22 September 2007

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 22 September 2007, page 12

Do you have any photos of your ancestors driving around in their Model T?

photo of a family in Indiana with their Ford Model T car

Photo: ancestors in Indiana on their farm with their Model T. Source: from the personal photo collection of Amanda Miller.

Share your Model T family pictures and stories in the comments section.

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Houdini: Remembering the Magical Life of Erik Weisz

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to learn about the remarkable life of the great magician and escape artist Harry Houdini.

As this 1915 newspaper article declared: “Everyone who reads the newspapers and magazines is familiar with the name and reputation of Houdini.” The statement was fitting then and is still fitting a hundred years later. Houdini’s power to captivate an audience lives on. Even my 13-year-old daughter, peering over my shoulder as I found images for this blog article, knew who Houdini was.

photo of the magician Harry Houdini, Salt Lake Telegram newspaper article 16 December 1915

Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 16 December 1915, page 4

Houdini’s Beginnings

Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Austria-Hungary. His family immigrated to America and became a success story. Young Weisz was attracted to magic and performing. As early as age 9 he was performing tricks as a trapeze artist as “Erik, Prince of the Air.” He ran away from home to pursue his dreams, but was shortly after reconciled with his family. He continued to perform in seedy beer gardens with his brother Theodore (later known as Dash Houdeen).

article about the magician Harry Houdini, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 10 March 1912

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 10 March 1912, page 25

Houdini’s Wife & Mother

He met Bess Rahner while performing. After their marriage, she replaced his brother Dash as Houdini’s stage assistant. Bess was never able to have children and spent her married life “starving and starring” with Houdini. She was no shrinking violet herself and the two had a lively relationship. Throughout all this, he adored his wife and remained faithful to her.

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His two great loves were his wife and his mother. Houdini had been raised as a poor immigrant so it is not surprising that he wanted to shower his mother with the nice things in life once he had the means. He ostentatiously did this when he reportedly purchased a dress made for Queen Victoria for his mother to wear.

article about the magician Harry Houdini, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 24 June 1928

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 24 June 1928, page 3

Robert-Houdin

Erik Weisz took the name of Harry Houdini after his hero Robert-Houdin. Harry was obsessed with this master magician and he read everything he could get his hands on. Harry was an ardent student of magic and his collection of books on the subject are now a part of the Library of Congress. Robert-Houdin was considered the “Shakespeare of magicians” and was an obvious choice for a childhood hero. However, as Harry studied and learned more about Houdin and magic, he discovered that many of the claims made by Houdin were fraudulent. Many of the tricks that Houdin claimed were his own were actually created by others many years earlier. Harry felt that it was immoral for Houdin to make false claims. Eventually, Harry exposed Houdin as a fraud in a book titled The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin.

Houdin 'Unmasked' by Harry Houdini, Boston Herald newspaper article 5 May 1908

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 5 May 1908, page 5

Because of his disillusionment over his hero Houdin, Harry spent significant time, energy, and money in uniting magicians. He felt that doing so would help regulate the industry, so to speak, and help prevent fraudulent activity and intellectual theft.

Spiritualists Are Frauds

Of particular concern to Harry were spiritualists. The spiritualists claimed they could talk to the dead. Harry felt this was a fraudulent claim, and he spent considerable energy trying to stamp it out. His efforts drew the wrath of many of his contemporaries including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Harry made a plan with his wife to prove that spiritualists were frauds. He announced that he would give a passcode (known only to his wife) to the medium after his death if there was any way for him to communicate it. For 10 years after he died, his wife held an exposition séance to show that the medium could not provide the passcode. Others continued this tradition for many years.

article about the magician Harry Houdini, Salt Lake Telegram newspaper article 19 December 1915

Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 19 December 1915, page 42

Harry Handcuff Houdini

Houdini got his start with a handcuff trick. His stage name at the time reflected this: “Harry Handcuff Houdini.” He would travel around challenging the local police to lock him up and let him try to escape. Involving the local officials was a success and he soon learned to include even more groups. To get the local people involved, he would stage challenges like the two advertised below.

ad challenging the magician Harry Houdini, Grand Rapids Press newspaper article 13 January 1915

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 13 January 1915, page 1

ad challenging the magician Harry Houdini, Boston Journal newspaper advertisement 20 November 1914

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 20 November 1914, page 12

Master Escape Artist

As the master of escape, he continued to stun audiences. He performed the milk can escape, where he was sealed into a large milk can filled with water. This trick was further enhanced by locking the can into a wooden crate, or having it padlocked shut. He also performed the Chinese water torture trick where he was lowered upside down into a tank of water. His feet were bound and sometimes a cage was inserted into the tank that restricted his movement. This led to the straitjacket escape where he was suspended above the crowd hanging from a crane by his feet.

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He even tried being buried alive. This, he discovered, was more challenging than first thought. He was buried six feet under, but the weight of the earth was too heavy. Houdini had to be rescued after clawing out just far enough to expose his hand before passing out.

Houdini even learned to fly and was one of the first people to fly in Australia. He starred in several movies including one called The Grim Game. Two biplanes collided during filming, although no one was killed, and the script was rewritten to incorporate this dramatic crash scene.

photo of the magician Harry Houdini, Anaconda Standard newspaper article 14 December 1919

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 14 December 1919, page 21

article about the magician Harry Houdini in the movie "The Grim Game," Oregonian newspaper article 31 October 1919

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 31 October 1919, page 6

Houdini’s Death by Blows?

The seemingly invincible Houdini was taken down by the smallest of acts. Controversy surrounds the circumstances, but it appears that J. Gordon Whitehead asked to test Houdini’s strength by punching him in the stomach. Houdini was reclining on a couch and may not have been prepared for the punches to the gut. The force may have caused his appendix to burst. Houdini rejected medical attention and continued with his performance. He persisted in feverish pain for two days before he finally relented to receive medical attention for his appendicitis. By then it was too late and he died in Detroit on Halloween, 31 October 1926, at the young age of 52.

article about the death of the magician Harry Houdini, Jewish Chronicle newspaper article 12 November 1926

Jewish Chronicle (Newark, New Jersey), 12 November 1926, page 12

Houdini’s funeral was held in New York City on 4 November 1926, and he was buried in the Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens. The crest of the Society of American Magicians is part of his gravesite memorial.

photo of Harry Houdini’s gravesite

Photo: Houdini’s gravesite. Source: Anthony 22; Wikimedia Commons.

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Edgar Allan Poe’s Death as Mysterious as His Stories

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan describes the puzzling circumstances surrounding the death of writer Edgar Allan Poe, a real-life story as mysterious and macabre as any tale or poem he ever wrote.

Edgar Allan Poe died 7 October 1849 after a mysterious medical condition that lasted several days prior to his demise. Nearly two hundred years later most people have heard of Edgar Allan Poe, and many have experienced the thrill of reading one of his stories of mystery and the macabre. He was the inventor of the detective story, whom even Sherlock Holmes’s author honored. Poe’s literary style was not moralistic or allegorical. He told a story simply for the thrill of the story.

But the story of his final days is also a thriller full of mystery and confusion. Let’s examine some of the documentation and discussion of the mystique around his death.

portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, Evening Star newspaper article 18 January 1931

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 18 January 1931, page 78

What Happened to Poe?

There are multiple accounts of Poe’s last days. Although he had been feeling unwell for some time, he was rekindling a romance with his childhood sweetheart—and things seemed to be going well in his life. However, on 3 October 1849—Election Day—he was found in a Baltimore street gutter in a disheveled and incoherent state. He was in clothes that did not belong to him and was unable to account for his current state. The friend that found him took him to the hospital where, after several days of illness and incoherency, he died on the 7th of October. He was 40 years old.

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Many believed that he was drunk, but there is some dispute on whether or not he smelled of alcohol. Other theories, historical and modern, include: “delirium tremens, heart disease, epilepsy, syphilis, meningeal inflammation, cholera, and rabies.”* Poe was also an acidic literary critic and it has been suggested that something malicious could have happened to him as a result.

There was one person, Dr. John Joseph Moran, who remained with him during the extent of his brief hospital stay. However, this man’s story changed over time—a story he gave in exchange for money—and the last words he claimed Poe uttered (“Lord, help my poor soul”) didn’t seem plausible to his friends and were unlikely in his medical condition. These things lead one to question the reliability of this source.

Missing Records

Tragically, all documentation during Poe’s last days, including hospital records and even his death certificate, are missing. What is still existent are newspaper articles, both contemporary and reflective. In the following article, written 100 years after his death, the reporter tried to trace the last days of Poe. He also tried to incorporate nearly every theory of his death into one.

article about the death of Edgar Allan Poe, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 2 October 1949

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 2 October 1949, page 79

Unfortunately, the statements given are not cited or even attributed, making it impossible to evaluate their accuracy. Without more information it is hard to tell what is first-hand (primary) information and what is second-hand information—or even intentional mythology. But it makes for interesting reading.

Rufus Griswold

Poe appears to have been a polarizing character. He had staunch friends and bitter enemies. Many of these people were prolific writers and had great influence. Some of these enemies, especially Rufus Griswold, took advantage of the inexplicable circumstances surrounding Poe’s death to assassinate his character. Griswold was a contemporary writer with whom Poe had repeated interaction, including possibly a love rivalry. Poe had been critical of Griswold’s work, and “Griswold succeeded Poe as editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe’s.”**

Griswold seems to have undertaken a calculated attack against Poe after his death. His disparaging obituary written under the pseudonym “Ludwig” went viral and left a lasting scar on Poe’s public image (see article below). Many people, even today, have been hoodwinked by Griswold’s depiction of Poe as a wild, depraved drunk who happened to write chilling horror stories. Some feel that this scandalous image helps to make his writings even more thrilling.

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Griswold cruelly began the obituary:

Edgar Allan Poe is dead…This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. He had readers…but he had few or no friends.

obituary for Edgar Allan Poe, Enquirer newspaper article 16 October 1849

Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 16 October 1849, page 4

Farewells from Friends & Fans

Not everyone was of the same mind as Griswold. A more complimentary article announcing his death opined:

Mr Poe was equally remarkable for his genius and his acquirements…He had acquired accomplishments rarely attained by men far more advanced in years.

obituary for Edgar Allan Poe, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 23 October 1849

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 23 October 1849, page 1

Another writer naively stated:

His literary abilities were unquestionable; and had they been properly chastened and exerted under the guidance of a clear heart and head, he might have left a name among the first upon the list of those who have enriched American literature with productions of lasting interest and value.

obituary for Edgar Allan Poe, Boston Evening Transcript newspaper article 9 October 1849

Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts), 9 October 1849, page 2

While it was generally assumed that Poe had drunk himself to death, his friend actively defended his sobriety. He had struggled with excessive drinking in the past, but had been under control for some time and had even signed a sobriety pledge shortly prior to his death. While it is possible he fell off the wagon, there are witnesses who say his breath and person did not smell of alcohol.

article about Edgar Allan Poe, Portland Daily Advertiser newspaper article 20 October 1849

Portland Daily Advertiser (Portland, Maine), 20 October 1849, page 2

Who Was the Real Edgar?

So who was Edgar Allan Poe really? Was he a depraved drunk? Was he a troubled man? From my readings, Poe emerges as a sympathetic character with literary genius and a challenging life surrounded by the untimely deaths of many of those closest to him, including his father, mother, wife, and close friends. He dealt with these challenges and with the artist’s stereotypical mood-swings using escapism: gambling, drinking, and running away when he perceived it necessary. He had strong opinions about his trade and was fearless in their expression. He needed to be loved. His writing remains influential and he was one of the first authors to attempt supporting himself on his pen alone. It is highly unfortunate that more original documentation about his life does not survive to give us a clearer picture of him.

Perhaps a fitting tribute would be to read one of his stories this Halloween, or perhaps print and frame a copy of one of his famous poems from a newspaper article? Make sure you peruse through the Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser which published some of Poe’s earliest poetry.

Here’s an example, this one from a Vermont newspaper.

poem "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe, Vermont Phoenix newspaper article 28 February 1845

Vermont Phoenix (Brattleboro, Vermont), 28 February 1845, page 1

Genealogy Challenge:

Investigate the newspaper archives and sleuth for more clues surrounding Poe’s mysterious death. Please share you finds with us in the comments.

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* Unless otherwise attributed, all information comes from old newspapers and Wikipedia’s article, “Edgar Allan Poe”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Allan_Poe, accessed October 2014.
** Wikipedia’s article, “Rufus Wilmot Griswold”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rufus_Wilmot_Griswold, accessed October 2014.

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History of American Mail: Letters of Our Ancestors & the News

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan explores the history of American mail and shows how the mail system and newspapers have been closely connected—with the postal system delivering newspapers, and newspapers doing the work of the post office by alerting readers to unclaimed mail. These “uncollected mail” lists in old newspapers are a valuable genealogy resource for family history researchers.

The postal system and newspapers—especially lists of uncollected mail—have long been connected in American history, and provide another avenue of research for family history researchers.

Mail in Colonial America

The first organized mail service in colonial America began in 1692, mostly to get mail to and from Europe. The first postmaster was Andrew Hamilton, the governor of New Jersey. Then England purchased the project in 1707 and appointed Andrew’s son John as the Crown’s official postmaster.

England had a long history of interfering in colonial American communications. For example, there was the Stamp Act, the closure of colonial newspapers that seemed to criticize the Crown, and the search and seizure of private papers.

Ever the innovator, Benjamin Franklin instituted the penny post concept. Mail was delivered to the post office and the recipient was to pick it up there. However, for a penny, Franklin would have it delivered to the person’s home or office. However, Franklin was removed from his position as postmaster due to his revolutionary leanings.

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Franklin was also a newspaper man. At that time newspapers were produced as a way for printers to make a little on the side when the press didn’t have any other work. These newspapers were often sent by post to distant locations. Franklin was an advocate of getting the mail (and the news) out on time, and with the best business practices he knew.

Genealogy Tip: Newspapers published lists of people who had letters waiting for them in the post office. Checking these lists can help you pin down your ancestor to a place and time.

Letters in the Post-Office at Newport, Newport Mercury newspaper article 15 July 1765

Newport Mercury (Newport, Rhode Island), 15 July 1765, page 3

History of the American Postal Service

As things heated up between England and the American colonies, mail services became even more challenging. One way to subdue an enemy is to prevent communications between those in charge and the troops on the ground. Since the Crown owned the mail system, they held the advantage in communications.

The Battle of Concord was in April of 1775. The following month the primary business for the Continental Congress was to establish a mail system. Benjamin Franklin was the obvious choice for the first postmaster. Originally, the main purpose of the postal service was to get news and information out for military purposes.

Newspapers of the time, which focused on business and politics, were anxious to get information from other states. Many newspapers lacked much actual news reporting and simply parroted months-old news from other papers. They would subscribe to distant newspapers and would copy the articles word for word into their own paper. The lack of any copyrights allowed this to occur without even an attribution of the original writer or publishing newspaper. In fact, there was rarely an acknowledgement of the author in the original paper. News was published anonymously. (It wasn’t until World War I that the author of each article was regularly listed. This was a military move to ensure that the author was held accountable for the information he or she disseminated that might go against the censorship laws.)

During this time the paper’s printer was also the publisher, editor, and news collector all wrapped into one. Using other newspapers’ articles allowed them to publish more information with limited investment. This early newspaper practice means that you may find information about your ancestor in distant newspapers.

Genealogy Tip: Begin your searches in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives nationwide rather than just selecting one state’s papers to view, since news was published far away in places you wouldn’t expect.

Newspapers not only used the mail service to gather information, but also to disseminate it. Readers could subscribe to a newspaper regardless of where they lived and have it delivered via the postal service. This increased the number of potential readers for a paper, thereby increasing the print load and profits of a newspaper service. This eventually led to the need to hire more staff and to increase the speed of the printing process. The news could become a business in its own right instead of a side job to keep the printing press busy.

This map shows an old trail that was used for “mail and express service” in Missouri.

trail map of Howard County, Missouri, Kansas City Star newspaper article 11 November 1915

Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri), 11 November 1915, page 4

Uncollected Mail

Originally, mail was delivered to the post office and recipients stopped by to collect it. In the city, large companies hired clerks to make the mail run, carting mail to and from the post office multiple times a day. In rural areas, the post office became a place to gather, especially in more isolated areas. Going to get the mail was a big deal. Families dressed up to go to town to collect the mail and spend time socializing with their neighbors. However, not everyone could make it out every month to check for mail. When an item of mail remained uncollected at the post office, an advertisement was run in the local paper to alert the intended recipient. This is a valuable resource for modern-day genealogists.

uncollected mail list, Illinois Weekly State Journal newspaper article 11 March 1842

Illinois Weekly State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), 11 March 1842, page 1

Genealogy Tip: These lists show the names of people (women and men) who lived in the area. This can help a family history researcher establish the location of an ancestor.

This resource is especially beneficial in instances where two or more people who initially appear to be one and the same can now be separated, thanks to these mail lists.  In addition, the appearance of a name over several months can indicate that the person in question may have moved, was ill, was temporarily out of the area, or possibly even dead. This is an alert for the genealogist to do more investigation into their ancestor’s life during the time the name appears. Because women also received mail, their name may be listed. They may even be listed by their own name and not by the more commonly used feminized version of their husband’s name: Mariah Johnson rather than Mrs. Simon Johnson.

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It would be especially helpful to find the name of an ancestor in a list of letters remaining at the post office in the place they had just moved from. For example, if you know Simon Johnson was living in Crawford County, Indiana, after 1845—but you weren’t sure where he moved from—you could search for Simon Johnson’s name in the postal lists. Finding his name in a Randolph County, North Carolina, mail list prior to 1845 would not prove that he came from there. However, it does provide a clue to begin searching for him in the records in that area.

One thing to keep in mind is that the lists were often alphabetized by the last name. This means the name will appear last name first: “Johnson, Mariah.”

Genealogy Tip: Entering a first and last name into GenealogyBank’s search engine will allow for the name to appear in reverse order, so no special search techniques are needed. However, you can narrow the results by entering a keyword such as “letters,” “post office,” or “mail.” Use only one keyword at a time and remember that the word must appear in the article exactly as you typed it.

unclaimed mail list, Salt Lake Daily Telegraph newspaper article 17 May 1866

Salt Lake Daily Telegraph (Salt Lake City, Utah), 17 May 1866, page 3

Unfortunately for us, the actual “unclaimed” letters did not appear in the newspapers. Although many letters were republished in newspapers because of their informative nature, that was done by consent and not because they were unclaimed. The unclaimed letters lists were simply lists of people’s names.

Expanding the American Mail Service

The goal of the postal system has always been to reach every person. As the population spread across the newly created country, the mail system improved roads to reach them. As the postal roads became safer and more passable, more people moved to outlying areas. And so a chicken and egg situation was created. Did migration expand the postal system or did the postal system increase migration? The answer is: “yes.”

Newspapers were certainly not the only pieces of mail that went through the postal system. But to give an idea of how many newspapers were being delivered around the country, Richard R. John in Spreading the News claims that the post office delivered 2.7 newspapers per person in 1840!* Outside of the largest urban areas, the news was still delivered weekly at this point. But that is still a lot of mail!

By 1847, stamps were minted and the sender now paid the postage. Building on Franklin’s penny post delivery system, the postal service delivered the mail for two cents. In 1863, urban mail was delivered for free—if the city had adequate sidewalks and street lighting in addition to named streets and house numbers. Sixty-five percent of the American population lived outside of these metropolises in the 1890s when rural mail delivery finally became free.** Mail boxes began in 1912 and were required by 1923.

Here’s subscription information for the Idaho Statesman in 1898, giving terms for delivery by mail or carrier.

subscription rates for the Idaho Statesman, Idaho Statesman newspaper advertisement 10 August 1898

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 10 August 1898, page 2

Lost Mail a.k.a. Dead Letters

Sometimes, mail was lost or became undeliverable. The “dead letter office” began in 1825 to gather all of these documents. The local post office was required to advertise the existence of the mail in the newspaper before forwarding it on to the dead letter office. Once there, any valuables were removed and the rest of the letter was burned. This office has a long and interesting history that can be found in the newspaper archives.

Genealogy Tip: Enter the phrase “dead letter office” into the “Include Keywords” field in the search box to find articles.

Here is a sampling of dead letter office articles.

In 1925 in just one post office, 200 letters had been sent in “absolutely blank envelopes,” 600 parcels had been mislabeled, and an astonishing 20,000 letters in one year had been forwarded to the dead letter office!

article about the post office's "dead letter office," Repository newspaper article 31 May 1925

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 31 May 1925, page 8

Here is an excellent and informative article from 1846.

article about the post office's "dead letter office," St. Albans Messenger newspaper article 29 April 1846

St. Albans Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont), 29 April 1846, page 1

Here is a picture of a dead letter office from 1985.

article about the post office's "dead letter office," Advocate newspaper article 1 November 1985

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 1 November 1985, page 30

So don’t forget to include mail lists in your searches. These informative lists are another example of how valuable newspapers are to family history research.

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* Richard R John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 4.
** The United States Postal Service, An American History 1775-2006 (Washington DC: Government Relations, 2012), p. 22.

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100th Anniversary of the Panama Canal: History in the News

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to learn more about one of humankind’s greatest engineering feats: the building of the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal recently turned 100 years old. This prompted me to learn more about the history of this important waterway.

photo of the SS Ancon passing through the Panama Canal on 15 August 1914, the first ship to use the canal

Photo: SS Ancon passing through the Panama Canal on 15 August 1914, the first ship to use the canal. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Early Transportation History

The only way for ships in the Atlantic Ocean to access the western coast of the Americas was to go the long way round—either around the southern tip of South America, or an even longer distance around the horn of Africa. Either route was fraught with danger and took an exceptionally long time. The narrow neck of land connecting North and South America was quickly targeted as a possible transportation alternative.

In the 1500s, Spain was particularly interested in reducing the amount of time it took to transport silver mined in Peru to Atlantic fleets. This would give them an economic and militaristic advantage over their enemies and rivals. To accomplish this, they created a trail system across the Isthmus of Panama—Spanish fleets shipped the silver from Peru to the west coast of Panama, and mule trains followed the trails to the east coast, bringing the silver to waiting ships. It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t easy, but it was better than nothing.

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The Darien Disaster

Later, Scotland launched an early attempt to gain economic advantage by creating a shortcut for goods across the Isthmus of Panama. They wagered an absurd amount of money on the project termed the “Darien Scheme” (and later renamed the “Darien Disaster”). They set up an outpost in 1698 in the hopes of creating an overland route to transport goods and shorten the amount of time it took to carry items from Europe to the western coast. Conditions in the area were vastly different from what they were prepared for and horribly inhospitable. They slugged it out for less than two years before abandoning the project.

Meanwhile, the Spanish continued their efforts to make an even better route across Panama to maintain their economic success—and their enemies took notice. This 1762 newspaper article foretold “our” (British) troops’ plans to attack the Isthmus of Darien (Panama) and thwart the Spanish advantage.

article about a planned British attack on the Spanish outpost in Panama, Boston Evening-Post newspaper article 6 December 1762

Boston Evening-Post (Boston, Massachusetts), 6 December 1762, page 2

The Spanish were persistent in their efforts and, as this article reported, they had established a new colony in the Isthmus of Panama by 1777.

article about the Spanish estabishing an outpost in Panama, Virginia Gazette newspaper article 12 December 1777

Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg, Virginia), 12 December 1777, page 1

The Panama Railroad

By the time gold was discovered in California in 1848, the railroad was a significant technological advancement. Naturally, this idea was applied in Panama: build a railroad across this challenging terrain to quickly transport goods and prospectors from the East coast and Europe and deposit them on the Pacific coast, to complete their journey by ship. They used old Spanish trails that had been in use for over three centuries.

Actually, the idea of a railroad across Panama had been in existence for many years before the California Gold Rush. The Columbian and French governments had both shown interest. The U.S. had made some effort under Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, but it wasn’t until 1855 that a cross-Panama railroad came to fruition. It is amazing that they were able to accomplish this feat. The heavens dump around 150 inches of rain each year on the landscape. Laying track in such hot, wet conditions must have been a miserable experience. But the real threat came from disease, especially malaria and yellow fever. Workers dropped like flies. Completing the Panama Railway was certainly a cause for celebration.

article about the completion of the Panama Railway, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 31 January 1855

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 31 January 1855, page 2

However, traversing the troublesome landmass necessitated loading and unloading cargo, a painfully labor- and time-intensive undertaking for the railroad. There were calls for a canal through the isthmus to allow large cargo ships to alleviate this difficulty. The French rose to the occasion and dispatched the famous Ferdinand de Lesseps—designer of the newly completed Suez Canal—to lead their nation to triumph. They rushed to start the project in 1881, without sufficient understanding of the geology or hydrology of the area.

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At first the idea was simply to cut away the land leaving a sea level passageway. Attempts at this seemingly simple idea soon showed that the copious rainfall quickly filled these efforts of the exhausted laborers, with mud and large landslides causing problems. The wedge of land to be removed changed from a narrow slip, just wide enough to allow a ship’s passage, to an impossibly large width to prevent the frequent landslides. This was all being attempted with primitive steam shovels that quickly rusted to uselessness in the persistent rain. If that wasn’t disheartening enough, the swampy conditions were ripe for mosquitoes and therefore deadly malaria and yellow fever. Thousands of workers died and the project went bankrupt. Meanwhile, the American media had a heyday over the “Panama Canal Fiasco” or the “Panama Affair.”

The Panama Canal Fiasco, Springfield Republican newspaper article 13 January 1889

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 13 January 1889, page 2

Despite a later attempt to revive the project, the weary French eventually sold out to America for a bargain basement price.

article about the French selling their Panama Canal project to the U.S., Forth Worth Morning Register newspaper article 8 January 1902

Forth Worth Morning Register (Fort Worth, Texas), 8 January 1902, page 2

After the smoke had cleared from the expected congressional infighting over the viability of the project and the wisdom of purchasing the project from the French, there remained the matter of obtaining Colombian authorization (Panama was Columbian territory at the time).

When Columbia refused to ratify a treaty granting such permission, President Theodore Roosevelt and the U.S. got around this obstacle by promising support to Panamanian rebels seeking independence from Columbia. U.S. warships moved into position off the Panamanian coast on 2 November 1903, and Panama declared independence the next day. Three days later, on 6 November 1903, the newly-recognized nation of Panama signed a treaty granting the U.S. the right to build and administer a canal.

With that, the U.S. got to work. Fortunately, by that time technology had advanced and we were able to complete the project by building a lock system—but not before even more people died of illness and accident. (As a side note, it is good to know that the Panama Affair did contribute to a better understanding of mosquito-borne illnesses and their prevention.)

Panama Canal Opens

After much labor, the Herculean task of building the Panama Canal was completed, and it was officially opened on 15 August 1914.

Great Panama Canal Open for Commerce, State newspaper article 16 August 1914

State (Columbia, South Carolina), 16 August 1914, page 1

Of course, this is a simplified and selective account of the scandal-soaked history of the canal. It doesn’t mention that the treaty we signed with Columbia (which was refused by that country) was actually with a French representative. It doesn’t detail the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that the U.S. was involved in with the rebellion that created the country of Panama—all in order to accomplish our goal of building the canal. It doesn’t mention the Panamanian protests after WWII and international pressure which led—eventually—to the release of the canal to Panama beginning in 2000. Nor does it go in depth into the scandals, illnesses, and accidents that make a study of the canal so interesting.

Hopefully, this article gives a little insight into the history of the Panama Canal and whets your appetite for your own research. The significance of the Panama Canal cannot be overstated. World commerce depends on fast, dependable transportation, which the canal provides.

Also, it is hoped that this article offers insights into what can be found in and learned from the old newspapers contained in GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.

Related Articles about Early Transportation:

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Old Newspapers Tell the History of Two Manhattan Taverns

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to find the history of two taverns in Manhattan that archaeologists recently excavated.

I recently read an article on the website Archaeology about an archaeological dig in Lower Manhattan at 50 Bowery.* They have unearthed the remains of two historic taverns built on the same location.  The older of the two, the “Bull’s Head,” was from the colonial-era. It was “built in the 1740s by a butcher near New York City’s first slaughterhouse.” The second tavern, the “Atlantic Garden” which opened in 1858, was “a tourist destination in its day—it was known for its German food and beer, and as a place for music and parties.”

I wanted to know more about the history of the two taverns, so I turned to GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to learn more.

Genealogy Tip: When searching through the newspaper archives, I entered phrases (enclosed in quotation marks) into the Include Keywords field to find the exact phrase in the newspaper articles. In this case I ran two searches, one with “Bull’s Head” and one with “Atlantic Garden.”

Interesting Tavern Tidbits

I found an article in a German American newspaper that discussed the origins of the area.

article about Manhattan's Bull's Head Tavern, New Yorker Volkszeitung newspaper article 23 November 1919

New Yorker Volkszeitung (New York, New York), 23 November 1919, page 14

I only have an elementary understanding of the language, so I went to Google Translate and typed in the German paragraph that I was interested in. A loose translation told me that the tavern was opened in 1760.

I also learned that:

Most of the guests were cattle drivers because of the proximity to the slaughter houses. However, Washington had rested there after the British troops marched along the Bowery Road to exit the city.

The abundance of cattle drivers explains all the newspaper notices I found announcing cattle and horse auctions taking place at the tavern, such as this ad from a 1780 newspaper.

ad for a livestock auction, Royal American Gazette newspaper advertisement 8 August 1780

Royal American Gazette (New York, New York), 8 August 1780, page 2

I also found an interesting reference to the story about George Washington, in another newspaper. This article explained that Washington had used the tavern as one of his headquarters during the Revolutionary War.

Atlantic Garden Changes Hands, New York Herald newspaper article 3 January 1895

New York Herald (New York, New York), 3 January 1895, page 10

Land History

Note that this article also reports: “It is said that $1,000,000 was offered for the property by the Third Avenue Railroad Company when the company was looking for ground for a new power house.” Assuming that the offer was made about 1880 and adjusting for inflation, the railroad was willing to pay about $17 million for the premium Manhattan location!

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Then I found this well-written newspaper article, telling about the history of this plot of land in New York City.

Famous Old Tavern on Astor House Site, Worcester Daily Spy newspaper article 28 January 1902

Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 28 January 1902, page 3

I learned that originally the land was owned by the Trinity Church. It was covered in trees and was a beautiful spot to build a gathering place for the local drovers (people who drive sheep or cattle to the market) as they came into town.

The old newspaper article provided this description:

The Bull’s Head [Tavern] was built in the old Dutch style, with plenty of solid bricks and gables; and it had a number of trees around it, under the shade of which, in fine weather, the worthy burghers and butchers smoked their pipes and swallowed their schnapps. The land on which the tavern stood belonged to Trinity church, then as now a wealthy corporation, and the tavern itself had for a time been a farm-house on the Trinity farm. But the trustees of the Church accepted Van der Burgh’s proposition to lease the farm-house for tavern purposes, and so the first prominent inn of the city was started—indirectly, at least—under the auspices of a church.

A church would seem to be an odd landlord for such a raucous establishment! The article says this of Adam Van der Burgh:

His voice was loud, but pleasant; his laugh contagious; his appearance emblematic of good cheer, and he knew almost everybody, especially the butchers and politicians—the two most needful classes for him to know.

As Van der Burgh’s tavern thrived, he soon attracted the ire of the local women “who went so far as to hold a meeting, and to protest against the alienating influences” of the place. He weathered that storm, but went too far when he built the first race track in New York immediately in front of his tavern. This drew the wrath of his landlord the Trinity Church. In response, Van der Burgh closed the race track “and, apparently from spite, abandoned the Bull’s Head tavern.”

The Tavern Keepers

This newspaper article explained that during the American Revolution, the tavern was owned by John Jacob Astor’s brother Henry.

The Astor Butcher Trust, Evening News newspaper article 19 October 1900

Evening News (San Jose, California), 19 October 1900, page 7

In addition to owning the Bull’s Head Tavern, Henry Astor was a butcher. A brilliant idea came to him: he beat the competing butchers by “riding far out along the Bowery land, meeting the drovers as they brought their cattle to town and buying their stock, which he sold to the other butchers at his own price.”

I found this illustration, showing what the Bull’s Head Tavern looked like in 1820.

illustration of Manhattan's Bull's Head Tavern, New York Herald-Tribune newspaper article 11 October 1894

New York Herald-Tribune (New York, New York), 11 October 1894, page 2

In 1825, the tavern was moved from the Bowery to Twenty-Fourth Street and Third Avenue. I learned this from the following newspaper article announcing the closing of the Bull’s Head Tavern. After 80 years in its second location, the tavern was closed down completely and the furnishings and fixtures were auctioned off.

Passing of Bull's Head Tavern, Springfield Republican newspaper article 24 May 1905

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 24 May 1905, page 11

In the meantime, back at 50 Bowery, the spot was used as a stove factory before the Atlantic Garden was opened in 1858.

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As the next newspaper article reported, soon after William Kramer opened the Atlantic Garden it became the recruiting station for the German regiments during the Civil War. Next door was the Thalia Theater where German language operas were sung. A passageway was built between the theater and the Garden to facilitate the opera patrons running over “for a bite and a sip between the acts.”

Atlantic Garden to Pass, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 20 June 1909

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 20 June 1909, page 13

According to another newspaper article, Atlantic Garden became the center of German life in the city and was “a resort modeled after the amusement gardens of German cities.”

This old newspaper article also reported that the Atlantic Garden was about to be closed in 1911—slated to be torn down in preparation for a modern theatre and eight-story office building.

article about Manhattan's Atlantic Garden tavern, Grand Forks Daily Herald newspaper article 20 August 1911

Grand Forks Daily Herald (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 20 August 1911, page 7

Historical Professional Parallels

And that brings us back to the archaeology article I read recently, that spurred me to do this research. Just as the archaeologists dug through the earth to find “liquor bottles, plates, and mugs,” we dug through a few hundred years’ worth of newspaper articles to learn more about the people and buildings. Long-dead Van der Burgh, Astor, and Kramer left their mark in more ways than one. Their objects will fascinate those on-site. And a brief glimpse into their lives fascinates us. Well done, men!

Most genealogists know that newspapers help tell the stories of our ancestors’ lives—but, as this article has shown, newspapers also tell us about the times and places our ancestors lived in.

Genealogy Tip: Even though this research was about taverns in New York City, note the variety of states where relevant newspaper articles were found, including: California, Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Dakota. This is a reminder that you should begin your search with a broad geographical scope; you never know where a newspaper article was published that might be about your ancestor or area of interest.

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* “Historic Taverns Unearthed in New York City.” Archaeology.com. May 5, 2014. Accessed June 1, 2014. http://archaeology.org/news/2083-140505-bowery-tavern-beer.

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