About Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega holds a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Master’s degree in Religion. Presenting on various subjects involving genealogy, women’s studies and social history, Gena has spoken to groups throughout the United States and virtually to audiences worldwide. Gena is the author of hundreds of articles published in genealogy newsletters and magazines including Internet Genealogy, Family Chronicle, GenWeekly, FGS Forum, APG Quarterly and the WorldVitalRecords newsletter. She is the author of the books, Putting the Pieces Together, Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra (Arcadia Publishing, 2007) and From the Family Kitchen (F + W Media, 2012). Gena is the editor of the Utah Genealogical Association’s journal Crossroads. An instructor for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies, Gena has written courses about social media and Google. She serves as Vice-President for the So. California Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists, board member of the Utah Genealogical Association and is a Director for the California State Genealogical Alliance. Her current research interests include social history, community, social history, community cookbooks, signature quilts and researching women’s lives.

A 1930s Secret Santa: the Christmas Story of Mr. B. Virdot

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to learn more about a wonderful Christmas story from the midst of the Great Depression: one man in Canton, Ohio, decided to do something to help his struggling neighbors that Christmas. And he did it anonymously.

There’s no doubt the sting of the Great Depression years was felt by families of all socio-economic levels in the United States. The severe economic downturn was a great equalizer and affected everyone – from the formerly well-off, country club member business man to the common laborer. That pain of crushing poverty would have felt even harsher during the holidays.

In 1933 one man in Canton, Ohio, decided to do something to help his neighbors at Christmas. Secretly under an assumed name, this man placed a newspaper ad, opened a bank account with $750, and proceeded to give away this money to those in need. While many families after the fact wrote letters thanking him, it wasn’t until 70 years later that the identity of this mysterious “Secret Santa” and the full impact of his generosity were uncovered through family history research.

The Christmas Gift

A week prior to Christmas, on 18 December 1933 in the Canton Ohio Repository, an advertisement was published titled “In Consideration of the White Collar Man” that invites those having financial difficulties to receive a check by sending a letter to B. Virdot, General Delivery, providing information about their circumstances.

an ad to help people financially struggling at Christmas during the Great Depression, Repository newspaper advertisement 18 December 1933

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 18 December 1933, page 3

That newspaper advertisement was not the only mention of this holiday gift in the paper that day. On the front page, a story about B. Virdot provides more information about the advertisement which ran only that one day. It begins:

A Canton man who was toppled from a large fortune to practically nothing but whom returning prosperity has helped fight back to wealth and comfort, has a Christmas present waiting for 75 deserving fellow townsmen.

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The old news article continues on to say that this Christmas gift is one with no “strings, no embarrassment,” $10 to 75 families in need.* The holiday gift is meant for “men, like the giver, have once held responsible positions, have been deprived of their income through general economic conditions, but who hesitate to knock at charity’s door for aid.” The historical news article explains that the name “B. Virdot” is fictitious but the donor is a local businessman who has known financial difficulties and, with the help of others, has recovered and now wants to share that gift with others.

Man Who Felt Depression's Sting to Help 75 Unfortunate Families, Repository newspaper article 18 December 1933

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 18 December 1933, page 1

News of this Christmas gift was carried in other newspapers, with coverage continuing well after the fact. For example, in the early part of 1934 notice of B. Virdot’s generosity was printed in this Pennsylvania newspaper.

Once Hit by Hard Times, He Now Opens His Purse, National Labor Tribune newspaper article 24 February 1934

National Labor Tribune (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), 24 February 1934, page 5

The Family History

Normally, the touching Christmas story would end there: impoverished families receive generous gift from anonymous donor. What more could be said, in a case like that with no real name to track down? Letters written requesting assistance are ephemeral, and easily thrown away once read.

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Fast forward 70 years when Ted Gup, a writer and newspaper reporter, was given a suitcase by his mother. The suitcase, belonging to his maternal grandfather, held family history documents that were of interest to Gup. But once opened, he also found letters from 1933, written by 150 people whose surnames he recognized as coming from his hometown  of Canton, Ohio, and all addressed to B. Virdot – a name unknown to him.** Why did his grandfather have these letters?

Through research and talking with his mother, Gup learned the magnitude of those letters. The true identity and miraculous secret kept all those years was that “B. Virdot” was his grandfather, Sam Stone, a Jewish Romanian immigrant who knew all too well about hardship. Amazingly, his selfless act not only helped people he didn’t know but also helped once-wealthy businessmen who were his acquaintances – but they never knew the identity of their benefactor.

Gup’s book, A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness – and a Trove of Letters – Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression (2011), tells the story of not only his own family but also the present-day families of those helped by the B. Virdot checks. The research used to piece together these stories includes methods familiar to family historians: oral interviews, vital records, land records, and of course newspapers.

Another Lasting Legacy

Often when we research family history its impact is felt by us and those family members that we share it with. One of the big lessons of the story of B. Virdot/Sam Stone and the research done by his grandson is that it’s a mistake to not take into consideration our ancestor’s community. Friends, neighbors and acquaintances all had an impact on their lives. Ted Gup, by following up with the descendants of those check recipients, many of whom knew nothing about that aspect of their ancestor’s life, also gave back something important to those families, as his grandfather had done 70 years ago. He gave them the story of an event in the family’s life. By providing them the information from the letter, written in their ancestor’s own words, and the research of what happened after the gift, those families received something much more valuable.

You can read more about Ted Gup’s book at his website A Secret Gift. Copies of some of the letters can be found on the website. The letters and Gup’s research were donated to the Stark County Historical Society at the William McKinley Presidential Library in Canton. A list of the letter writers can be found on their Curator’s Corner blog.

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* Originally the checks were to be $10 to 75 families, but because of the demonstrated need, 150 families received a $5 check which still was generous for the time.
** Gup’s book explains that the letters in the suitcase represent everyone who received a check. It is not known if there were other letters from people who were not chosen to receive a check.

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Christmas Toys & Gifts from Yesteryear in Old Newspaper Ads

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to find advertisements for the toys our ancestors wanted for Christmas.

There’s no doubt that Christmas is more exciting when you are young. There’s the anticipation of getting that special toy or two from your Christmas list. The thrill of running from your room to the Christmas tree that morning to see what Santa brought you. My guess is that December was one of the months you looked forward to growing up.

What was your favorite gift as a child? I’m amazed when I look through old newspapers – like those in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives – to see how similar the toys are to ones sold now.

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1930 Toy Store Has Everything

In the vintage holiday newspaper advertisement for the Cullum & Boren Co. below, toys including footballs, magic sets, and dolls are all items you would see on modern-day kids’ lists. Sure, not everything is the same; there are a few items that are specific to that time period, like big bang tractors and keystone toys. What’s interesting is that while today’s retailers appeal to parents’ pocketbooks by claiming low prices, in this advertisement the store boasts of having everything from 25-cent toys to the most “elaborate and expensive on the market.” I guess that’s a 1930s way of saying they have something for everyone.

Christmas toys ad, Dallas Morning News newspaper advertisement 7 December 1930

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 7 December 1930, section: Society, Art, Music, Amusements, Radio, page 3

Toys for “Real Boys”

For those who like their children’s toys educational, this 1919 Christmas advertisement for the A. C. Gilbert Company asserts that “real boys want real toys – not mere playthings…” These toys mimic occupations that would help a boy grow to “useful manhood.” While some of the toys mentioned lean toward the fanciful, like the magic set, others – like the chemistry, soldering and wireless sets – would have had more latter-day applications for young boys. Notice that one of the toys mentioned is a machine gun:

A real machine gun, shooting wooden bullets in clips from an air cooled chamber. Modeled after the famous Browning gun. Swivels around to fire in any direction and at different elevations. Fires ten shots a second but is not dangerous… it will delight any red-blooded boy.

Christmas toys ad, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper advertisement 14 December 1919

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 14 December 1919, page 25

Toy Makers: Disabled British Soldiers

There are always surprises to be found in old newspapers that educate us about the social history of the time. In this Christmas toy advertisement imploring parents to shop now to get toys that will “gladden the hearts of children,” there is also a mention at the bottom of the ad about new toys from England. These children’s toys are made by British soldiers “disabled at the front.” This 1918 advertisement from the Halle Bros. Co. would have served as a poignant reminder to readers that the pain and suffering caused by World War I meant that not everyone was having a merry Christmas. The war ended three days after this newspaper ad was published.

Christmas toys ad, Plain Dealer newspaper advertisement 8 November 1918

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 8 November 1918, page 2

Christmas Shopping Countdown

Are you a last-minute Christmas shopper? Christmas falls on December 25 each year but inevitably the stores are saturated with shoppers picking up those last-minute holiday gifts in the days and hours before the big day. Seems this was true for our ancestors as well. This old advertisement from Herpolsheimer’s, published just two days before Christmas, urges Michigan shoppers to hurry (“shop in the morning if possible”) for their toy trains, doll chests, pop guns, and ice skates.

Christmas toys ad, Grand Rapids Press newspaper advertisement 23 December 1910

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 23 December 1910, page 14

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The Toy Department

One of the common themes of Christmas advertising from generations past is the opening of the toy department. These announcements, including a list of featured toys, can be found in many old newspaper advertisements. This 1914 example encourages adults to bring their children – or even other people’s children – to see the new and complete toy department. Wolf, Wile & Co. were opening their re-stocked toy department on November 30 to give shoppers a start on their Christmas shopping, promising that their “largest and finest assortments of toys we have ever had” make their toy department:

The Land of Toys—the Land of Joys—
The Land of Delight for girls and boys.

Christmas toys ad, Lexington Herald newspaper advertisement 29 November 1914

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 29 November 1914, section 3, page 6

Christmas No Longer as Exciting?

And of course Christmas wish lists aren’t just for the kids. But it would seem that once you become an adult your wish list becomes more “practical.” In this 1906 holiday advertisement from The Emporium, we are provided with ideas for gifts for the “older folks” like dishes, pots & pans, glasses and silverware. This vintage newspaper ad reminds you that you should “Get mother something that she will appreciate and that may be enjoyed by the whole family.”

Christmas gifts ad, Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper advertisement 1 December 1906

Colorado Springs Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado), 1 December 1906, page 6

Yep, that’s just what we mothers like: pots, pans or something the whole family will enjoy (sarcasm fully intended). What’s on your Christmas wish list this year?

Merry Christmas!

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Olive Oatman’s Rescue: A True Indian Captive Story

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to learn more about the Oatman family massacre and the subsequent Indian captivity of Olive Oatman.

As the United States grew in the second half of the 19th century and pioneers answered the call to “go west,” stories of the successes and dangers of that journey were printed in newspapers across the country. People have always been either excited or afraid, or a combination of both, of the unknown—and the great unknown was what greeted those early pioneers. One of their fears was the possible danger that awaited them at the hands of the Native American peoples.

Some whites were taken prisoner during American Indian attacks on wagon trains, and the retelling and publishing of Indian captive stories was very popular with the public at that time. Stories like that of the Oatman family massacre—and, ultimately, the rescue of Indian captive Olive Oatman—helped feed the hatred and fear of the Native American population.

photo of Olive Oatman, 1857

Photo: Olive Oatman, 1857. Source: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University; Wikimedia Commons.

The Oatman Family Massacre

The Oatman family (parents Royse and Mary Ann Oatman, and their seven children) were part of a wagon train bound for the west in 1850. Eventually due to differences in opinion, they split from their group and were traveling on their own when some Apache (or perhaps Yavapai) Indians attacked them along the Gila River in present-day Arizona in February 1851. In this attack the entire family was killed except for sisters Olive (age 14) and Mary Ann (age 7), as well as their brother Lorenzo who was clubbed and left for dead, but recovered. Olive and Mary Ann were taken to live with their Indian captors. Just before the attack, Royse Oatman had sent a letter to Fort Yuma asking for assistance because he was sure that, without any help, he and his family would die.*

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The Captivity of Olive and Mary Ann Oatman

One year later the two sisters were traded to a group of Mohave Indians, who seemingly welcomed the girls into their tribe by giving them traditional blue chin tattoos. During their time with the Mohave, younger sister Mary Ann Oatman died of starvation during a drought. Finally, after a total of five years of Indian captivity, the army rescued Olive Oatman by exchanging some material goods for her in February 1856.** She was 19 years old.

This 1856 newspaper account summarizing her capture by the Native Americans and subsequent release is representative of news articles that appeared throughout the United States. Such newspaper articles must have served as fodder for people’s belief in the savage nature of the native peoples, and what may befall pioneers who crossed the trails heading west.

article about Olive Oatman's rescue from Indian captivity, Plain Dealer newspaper article 21 April 1856

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 21 April 1856, page 2

As time went on the story of Olive’s Indian captivity was immortalized in books and numerous newspaper articles. In some cases, men claiming to have been part of the rescue efforts also told their story. One such man, W. F. Drannon, is now known to have fabricated the tales he published in books and newspapers. His story of “rescuing” Olive included him single handedly saving her. Even in our ancestors’ days there were those who wanted their 15 minutes of fame!

article about W. F. Drannan's claim that he rescued Olive Oatman from Indian captivity, Denver Post newspaper article 15 April 1899

Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), 15 April 1899, page 5

Like any story, some embellishments are bound to occur over time which can make for a murky recounting of historical events.

article about Olive Oatman's Indian captivity, Alexandria Gazette newspaper article 10 May 1858

Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), 10 May 1858, page 2

Interestingly enough, this old 1800s newspaper article—while telling about the Oatman massacre and captivity—also provides a nice genealogy that includes the name of Olive’s parents, where they were married, and their westward migration route. While the story of the killings and subsequent kidnapping of the girls is described, it is also reported that after the attack, Lorenzo happened upon a group of “friendly” Indians and they “humanely took him in their protection.”

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Telling the Oatman’s Story

Like a modern-day expose snatched from the headlines, Olive’s story was quickly packaged into an 1857 book by Royal B. Stratton entitled Captivity of the Oatman Girls: Being an Interesting Narrative of Life among the Apache and Mohave Indians.

article about Olive Oatman's Indian captivity, San Francisco Bulletin newspaper article 3 April 1857

San Francisco Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 3 April 1857, page 3

An 1857 newspaper article printed prior to the publication of the book seems to promise that it is a must-read: “…there is an abundance of material to render it a thrilling and interesting narrative.”

article about Olive Oatman's Indian captivity, Weekly Oregonian newspaper article 21 February 1857

Weekly Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 21 February 1857, page 2

Olive took to the lecture circuit after the book’s release so that she could tell her story. This provided interested audiences the opportunity to hear her version of the events and gaze upon her tattooed chin, a curiosity among white Victorians. It also provided Olive with a way to secure funds for her education and living expenses. Her lecturing concluded once she married and settled in Texas, where she eventually died in 1903.

article about Olive Oatman lecturing about her Indian captivity, Boston Evening Transcript newspaper article 18 February 1859

Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts), 18 February 1859, page 1

What parts of Olive’s story were fact melded into fiction or at the very least embellishment, may never all be sorted out. Many rumors and falsehoods were told about Olive, satisfying the public thirst for “celebrity” gossip much as is done today. While not the first woman to share her true story of being held captive by the Indians, Olive became well-known for her prominent facial tattoo which served as a constant reminder of the dangers of the western frontier.

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. Are there any Indian captive stories in your family history? Please share your stories with us in the comments.

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* Letter signed by Oatman to Brevet Major S.P. Heintzelman, February 15, 1851.
Transcript of letter. BANC MSS C-E 64:18. Images of Native American. http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/39.html. Accessed 28 September 2014.
** Sherrie S. McLeRoy, “Fairchild, Olive Ann Oatman,” Handbook of Texas Online. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ffagr. Accessed 28 September 2014. Uploaded on 12 June 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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How to Create a Family Cookbook to Save Holiday Recipes

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article—just in time for all the Thanksgiving cooking—Gena discusses how to create a family cookbook to showcase all your favorite holiday recipes.

What is your favorite food served during the winter holidays? If you’re like me, you probably have many holiday foods you enjoy and you’ve added to that list over the years. Each December my sister-in-law and her sisters bake dozens and dozens of cookies, some native to the Azores where her family is from. It’s nice to have those baked gifts to look forward to each year. I also have treasured memories of Thanksgivings past when my great-grandmother would make pies and the dinner table would be laden with appetizers. Some of those appetizers we only ate at Thanksgiving. (I must admit I love appetizers almost more than the main meal.)

What are your family holiday food traditions? What recipes have been shared by your family for generations? What new traditions have you started? Do you have photos of holiday family gatherings? The holidays are the perfect time to start compiling and documenting those family recipes and good memories.

1) Define Family Cookbook Format

One great way to preserve that family history is with a family cookbook. You might be thinking that a cookbook is a huge endeavor requiring hundreds of recipes and time to format and compile the information. But a family cookbook can be organized in a variety of ways. At its simplest, each recipe can be printed on a sheet of paper and then all of the pages combined into a 3-ring notebook or provided as a digital file for each family member to print in the manner they see fit. This project can be as large or as small as you wish. Remember that it’s more important that you preserve those family memories than “publishing” the perfect family cookbook.

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2) Gather Family Recipes

How should you gather recipes? Consider emailing family members and requesting their recipes you enjoy, and ask them to include an additional recipe or two that they frequently make. You could also wait until the next family dinner and bring a laptop, tablet, or recipe cards and have each person write out their recipes and memories.

Afraid you won’t have enough recipes to fill up a whole cookbook? What about using old holiday recipes from the newspaper? Choose a time period and a place, or even specific newspapers from the community your family has lived in. The Advanced Search feature for GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives lets you narrow your results by a date, or a date range, and a place. If you are interested in a certain type of recipe, say one for the holiday favorite pumpkin pie, you can also search by the name of the recipe or ingredients.

pumpkin pie recipe, Evening News newspaper article 20 December 1922

Evening News (San Jose, California), 20 December 1922, page 7

Don’t forget to search on your female ancestor’s name or family surnames just in case a family member contributed a recipe to a newspaper food column or won a recipe-related prize.

Tasty Almond Torta, Boston Record American newspaper article 12 July 1964

Boston Record American (Boston, Massachusetts), 12 July 1964, page 13

3) Add a Pinch of Genealogy, a Dash of Photos

Once you have your all your family recipes, enhance your cookbook project. Include genealogical information or photographs. In a family cookbook I own, the compiler made sure to annotate each recipe and include how the recipe provider was related to a common ancestor—a great idea for learning more about distant cousins. Photos of cooking heirlooms could also be added. Consider making a few of the recipes yourself and taking photos of the process. This can be especially meaningful when documenting recipes that the older generation in your family cooks or bakes.

Once you have all of the content for your cookbook, decide how you will finish it. Local office supply stores offer printing and binding services. You can also use an online cookbook publishing company that specializes in printing family and fundraising cookbooks. Printing can get expensive so make sure to look at all your options, and perhaps ask family members to contribute to the cost. Feel free to get creative by doing things like making a scrapbook or just gathering everything and distributing your document on a flash drive or CD. A family blog or website could also be used that would allow family members to access and download just the recipes they are interested in.

Share Your Food Memories

What’s on your family table this holiday season? What are some of the recipes you are looking forward to? Take some time now to record and share those fond food memories so that they are not lost with each generation.

Share some of your holiday food memories with us. Join us on Pinterest and pin your recipe to our board, Old Fashioned Family Recipes. Simply request an invite to post to our shared group board. Not on Pinterest? No problem, share your recipes in the comments below.

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Old Fashioned Thanksgiving Recipes in the Newspaper

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to find some of our ancestors’ Thanksgiving dishes, and shares those old fashioned recipes.

I’ve purchased some new pots and pans and started shopping for the food for our Thanksgiving meal. Are you ready? The bigger question is: what recipes will you be serving at your Thanksgiving feast? While your dinner recipes may be old hat by now, home cooks have always looked for recipe ideas even for this most traditional meal. Luckily for previous generations, the newspaper helped with the planning by providing plenty of Thanksgiving recipes—and by searching GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, I’ve retrieved some of these old fashioned Thanksgiving recipes to share with you.

Lettuce Soup and Cranberry Water Ice?

This 1922 newspaper article from Olympia, Washington, remarks: “Below will be found a menu for the Thanksgiving Day dinner, which is published as an aid in arranging the greatest typical American feast of the year.” While some of the recipes are familiar, the recipe for Lettuce Soup might be a new one to you.

Thanksgiving Recipes, Morning Olympian newspaper article 19 November 1922

Morning Olympian (Olympia, Washington), 19 November 1922, page 7

Let’s face it, for many of us the Thanksgiving meal is pretty standard fare year after year. According to this 1912 article from Trenton, New Jersey, “The usual dishes present no difficulties to the good cook.” So the article, true to its title, provides “new” recipes to try on that annual feast day. Do you like cranberries? Tired of the same old cranberry sauce? This article offers a Cranberry Water Ice recipe that involves pouring a teacupful of hot, but not boiling, water over a quart of plump cranberries. Then cook the mixture until soft and reduced. Once cool, add the juice of a “good sized lemon, a sirup (sic) made of a quart of boiling water and two capfuls of granulated sugar cooked until it thickens. Stir well and freeze to the consistency of water ice.” Other recipes are included in this article that features a rather interesting photo of a child holding a dead upside-down turkey.

Thanksgiving Recipes That Every Woman Doesn't Know, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 17 November 1912

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 17 November 1912, page 21

Dressing or Stuffing?

You say dressing, I say stuffing… So do you serve dressing or stuffing with your turkey? Most likely your use of the terms “dressing” or “stuffing” depends on where you live. Typically if you live in the South, you refer to that particular popular Thanksgiving side dish as “dressing.” No matter if you say dressing or stuffing, it most likely includes a variety of ingredients such as meats (like sausage or oysters), nuts, breads (cornbread or stale sourdough), and assorted vegetables (celery, onions and even mashed potatoes), spices, and liquid. For some, no Thanksgiving turkey is complete without it being “stuffed,” a practice that is losing popularity with today’s food-safety conscious cooks.

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I must admit, much to most readers’ chagrin, my stuffing typically comes out of a box. This cooking convenience started with a U.S. patent (US 3870803) filed in 1971 by Ruth Siems and others from General Foods, when she invented a convenient way to prepare a quick stuffing based on the size of the bread crumbs. However, for those who opt for the homemade variety, the stuffing recipe is typically a source of pride. Want to try something different this year? In this Oyster Dressing recipe the directions are fairly simple. If you don’t like oysters, try the accompanying Chestnut Dressing.

Thanksgiving Recipes, Northern Christian Advocate newspaper article 14 November 1907

Northern Christian Advocate (Syracuse, New York), 14 November 1907, page 14

Thanksgiving Memories

One of my favorite Thanksgiving articles has to be this one from a 1935 edition of the Times-Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper, in which people submit a recipe and an accompanying Thanksgiving memory. A recipe for Baked Rabbit submitted by Mrs. O. Le R. Gofrrth includes a Civil War memory of having to improvise when there was no turkey to be had. “Ever since a cold and dreary Thanksgiving Day during the War Between the States, when the turkeys had been given to the Southern forces, and there were no wild ones to be had in Tidewater, Va. …No turkeys or other fowls, but there were rabbits in the woods.”

In the same article, Mrs. E. M. Williams shares an old recipe for Popcorn Custard and Squash Pie that she introduces by writing: “This is a delicious dessert for Thanksgiving, because it dates back to the ancient days when one branch of our family lived in Maine. The recipe came from there and has been handed down for several generations, so that it is a real traditional recipe.”

Traditional Thanksgiving Recipes Given by Winners, Times-Picayune newspaper article 23 November 1935

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 23 November 1935, page 22

Another reason why I love this historical newspaper article is the grocery store advertisement found on the same page. Picone’s Complete Food Store sells turkeys for 28 cents a pound, 2 dozen oysters for 15 cents and “freshly killed” rabbits for “20 cents up.” These food prices give us a sense of what Thanksgiving dinner cost a family in 1935. To convert historic prices to today’s values, see the website Measuring Worth.

ad for Picone’s Complete Food Store, Times-Picayune newspaper advertisement 23 November 1935

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 23 November 1935, page 22

Another article found in the same newspaper 11 years later demonstrates that, depending on where you live and the time period, the idea of a “traditional” Thanksgiving differs. Consider this Thanksgiving menu shared by Mrs. W. A. Dees from when she was at a “camp” at La Branch near Lake Pontchartrain that includes uniquely Louisiana cuisine.

Thanksgiving in Camp with Louisiana Game, Times-Picayune newspaper article 23 November 1946

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 23 November 1946, page 17

Thanksgiving is about celebrating with family and friends, and whether that is with a turkey or fried frog legs and squirrel pie, the food served helps everyone enjoy the day and the company.

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What Are Your Favorite Thanksgiving Recipes?

Share your Thanksgiving recipes with us. Whether they are old traditional recipes or new ones you’ve incorporated into your annual dinner, we’d love to hear about them. Join us on Pinterest and pin your recipe to our board, Old Fashioned Family Recipes. Simply request an invite to post to our group recipe board. Not on Pinterest? No problem; share your recipes in the comments below.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

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Helga Estby’s Sad, Forgotten Walk across America

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to uncover the remarkable story of Helga Estby’s walk across America with her daughter in 1896—a story that was almost forgotten.

Do you ever read a book that quickly becomes a favorite because of the incredible story it tells? When this happens for me, it goes beyond just being an enjoyable read to something I want to do more research about to learn the events behind the story. I’ve had a few books affect me that way, and one of them is the story of Helga Estby as told in the book Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt.

photo of Helga Estby (seated) and her daughter Clara

Photo: Helga Estby (seated) and her daughter Clara. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Helga Estby, a Norwegian immigrant residing in the state of Washington, lived during a time when women were doing all kinds of things that pushed the prevailing gender stereotypes. Women were climbing Pikes Peak (Victorian Women Hike to the Summit of Pikes Peak!), biking across the world, and taking on the challenge of traveling around the world in fewer than 80 days.

In many cases, women were doing these things to simply prove they could. In other cases there was a financial reward for meeting the challenge. In 1896, when Helga read in the newspaper about a challenge that would award $10,000 to any woman who walked across the United States, she decided this was the answer to her family’s financial problems.

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Walking the Walk

In an effort to save her family’s home and gain the money they needed to pay their mortgage and taxes, Helga and her teenage daughter Clara set off from Spokane County, Washington, to walk across the United States. They hoped to arrive in New York City safe—and leave much richer. They commenced their adventure on 5 May 1896 with little to help them except a revolver (for protection) and a plan. As part of the deal they were required to walk the entire way across the U.S. (3,500 miles) and they were to earn money for their expenses along the route. As the women traveled they took on various jobs, including selling photos of themselves, in order to earn money. Their story and progress was printed in newspapers across the country.

This update from the Denver Post reports that the mother-daughter team expected to reach New York City in a little over two months’ time. At that point in September 1896 they had been walking almost four months.

Walking to New York (Helga and Clara Estby), Denver Post newspaper article 4 September 1896

Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), 4 September 1896, page 2

They Did It!

The two women faced all kinds of problems as they walked across America, including injury. Today, most of us would consider a drive across the United States to be quite an undertaking—but just imagine walking the whole way, with no instant communications! Despite the hardships, the women completed the entire walk, arriving in New York City in December 1896.

Newspapers heralded the women’s completion of their 3,500 mile (in some newspaper reports it’s erroneously listed as 4,600 mile) pedestrian journey. This front page article from the Cleveland Leader proclaims that the women arrived in New York at 1:30 p.m. on 23 December 1896.

A Successful Feat on Foot (Helga and Clara Estby), Cleveland Leader newspaper article 24 December 1896

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 24 December 1896, page 1

No Prize at the End of the Road

Their remarkable feat should have been celebrated and rewarded—but just the opposite happened. The challenge had been to walk across America in less than seven months. By leaving on May 5 and arriving on December 23, Helga and her daughter missed the deadline by 19 days. The sponsor of the challenge refused to pay the promised award for the remarkable journey.

Despite their determination and persistence, and all the privations the two women had suffered, the long journey was all done for nothing. Not only had the women walked all that way for no reward, they also did not have the money to travel back home. To make matters worse, Helga learned that diphtheria had struck her family during her absence; her son Olaf was sick with it, and her daughter Bertha had died.

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This article from the Omaha World Herald reports the women’s efforts to get help from the office of charities commissioners in New York. It also includes a recounting by Helga about the unfortunate family’s years of misfortune:

For eight years we have had misfortunes. It was eight years ago that I fell one night over an obstacle in the streets of Spokane and was so badly injured that it made me sick for two years. Then I had an operation which laid me up a while and then cured me. About seven years ago my husband fell and fractured his knee cap. Afterward a horse fell on him and completely laid him up. Five years ago my daughter Ida went blind. She was treated in a hospital and is about well. Then my eldest boy got inflammatory rheumatism. Two years ago our house burned down, and as we had no insurance on it we only built up the kitchen part of it. Six weeks ago my eldest son, Olaf, had diphtheria. He was in a hospital near Spokane. He got out and went to our house. Now my daughter Bertha is dead.

They Were Brave Women (Helga and Clara Estby), Omaha World Herald newspaper article 7 May 1897

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 7 May 1897, page 7

By the time the pair finally made it back home they had been gone 13 months. Once home, there was no jubilant homecoming celebration to welcome the downtrodden travelers back. Two of Helga’s children were dead from diphtheria and the family was still in financial ruin. Prevailing attitudes about women leaving their children to pursue such a dream were not favorable from the community—or from her husband and children.

While Helga’s intention was to write her story and publish it, thus making some money for her family, family pressure stood in her way. The family was so angry about her leaving them and the tragedies that happened in her absence that after Helga died her daughters saw to it that her writings were destroyed. If it were not for a defiant daughter-in-law who saved a few scrapbooks, the story of Helga’s trek across America would be lost to the family today.

Helga died in 1942 having never collected the $10,000 promised for her feat. Her notoriety continued after her long, fruitless walk. This 1905 Tacoma Daily News article summarized her journey.

Walks to Gotham -- (Helga Estby) Gets No Money, Tacoma Daily News newspaper article 25 November 1905

Tacoma Daily News (Tacoma, Washington), 25 November 1905, page 21

Helga’s Story Is Finally Told

Fast forward to 1984 when a young descendent of Helga’s enters his story “Grandma Walks from Coast to Coast” in a history writing contest, in which he tells the incredible tale of his great-great-grandmother who walked across the United States in 1896. This essay gets the attention of author Linda Lawrence Hunt, who then sets about trying to find the historical facts, largely through newspaper research, of this remarkable journey.*

Helga’s incredible story is one that is the perfect example of family history research. Without documentation, fantastic family stories can be lost within a few generations. And it’s through research—and, very importantly, newspaper research—that we can recreate our ancestors’ lives. I highly recommend reading Hunt’s book about Helga, and taking to heart something about your own family history that was said by that daughter-in-law who saved the story of Helga for her family: “take care of this story.”**

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* Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk across Victorian America. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 2003. p. xi.
** Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk across Victorian America. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 2003. p. 240.

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Household Cleaning Tips from Our Ancestors in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to learn about how our ancestors cleaned their homes.

How did your great-grandmother know how to cook dinner, clean her house, or launder the family clothes? You may instantly reply that she learned from her mother. While that might be partially true, over time the technology of housework and what tools where available changed. Doing things the way your mother or grandmother did didn’t always work.

So aside from learning from family or perhaps while working as a domestic, women took to cookbooks and the newspaper to learn how best to clean, launder, cook, and tend to their families. Newspapers weren’t just the recorder of the day’s news—they were also the compiler of information that women used on a day-to-day basis.

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Polishing the Stove and Getting Rid of Bugs

Old newspapers provide a great look at what our female ancestors had to think about and what might be expected of them in their household chores. For example, in this 1905 Household Affairs column, one of the tips has to do with cleaning in tight corners using a paint brush. It goes on to point out that the paint brush can also be used to polish the ornamental work on a stove.

household cleaning tips, Savannah Tribune newspaper article 19 August 1905

Savannah Tribune (Savannah, Georgia), 19 August 1905, page 6

This housekeeping column also addresses what to do with bugs and their eggs. The tip recommends soaking your furniture in kerosene which would eliminate the pests. Obviously, in some cases, these household tips could be dangerous to put into practice. While kerosene or gasoline would rid your home of unwanted pests they could also kill the human inhabitants, as documented in this 1885 incident in Buffalo, New York, that killed a man and injured his wife when gasoline was spread throughout the home to kill moths.

Blown Up by Gasoline, Plain Dealer newspaper article 20 May 1885

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 20 May 1885, page 7

Ammonia and Stale Bread

One interesting aspect of reading household cleaning tips from vintage newspapers is the type of cleaning products they recommend. In this column, Household Talks, a mixture of ammonia and water is mentioned as a cleaning agent—but more interestingly, the advice for cleaning wall paper is to take “stale German Rye bread” and rub it in downward strokes along the wall paper. It is further advised to change or turn the bread often. According to the column, this stale bread is also used by artists to clean charcoal drawings.

household cleaning tips, New York Tribune newspaper article 21 April 1897

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 21 April 1897, page 5

Most modern people think of bread crumbs when thinking of what to do with stale bread. Who knew it was good for cleaning your house?

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Use the Power of the Rain and the Sun

Today, we have the convenience of washing machines to clean linens, sheets, bedspreads, rugs, and pillows. But what did your ancestress do to freshen up beds stuffed with feathers? Well, according to Mrs. S. O. Johnson, one answer would be to let the rain clean the pillows and mattress. She writes in 1869:

…old feather beds and pillows are greatly improved by putting them on a clean grass plat during a heavy shower; let the beds become thoroughly wetted, turning them on both sides. Let them lie out till thoroughly dry, then beat them with rods; this will lighten up the feathers and make them much more healthful to sleep upon. It removes dust and rejuvenates the feathers.

Hints on House Cleaning, Washington Reporter newspaper article 28 April 1869

Washington Reporter (Washington, Pennsylvania), 28 April 1869, page 7

It makes sense that our ancestors were accustomed to hanging clothes out to dry at a time before the advent of gas or electric dryers. But aside from the drying effect that hanging clothes and bedding would have, it was believed that the sunshine had some sort of “chemical effect.” Shirley Dare writes in 1893 that:

…the direct rays of the sun have a strong chemical effect on the particles of decaying matter. Its powerful chemical action is seen in bleaching stains from linen in a few hours which sharp acids would fail to remove. It is a similar potency which as we say, ‘sweetens’ clothes and bedding hung out in the sun.

She recommends that twice yearly all clothing, bedding and carpets should be placed out in the sun.

Just Skip the Housework

While not all household tips found in old newspapers are applicable today, this one found in a 1915 Texas newspaper is advice that is important for all modern families to remember. The aptly titled “Don’t Worry over Household Duties” suggests having other activities to do aside from household chores, and proclaims:

…don’t allow yourself to become nervous and upset over your household affairs. Nothing disastrous will occur even if you don’t get all the work finished that you expected to do.

Don't Worry over Household Duties, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 30 June 1915

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 30 June 1915, page 4

This advice is one of the best household tips I’ve ever heard!

What old fashioned cleaning methods did your ancestors pass down in your family? Share your household tips with us in the comments.

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Halloween Treat: Stories about Ghosts & Haunted Houses

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article—posted last year for Halloween and, due to its popularity, reposted now—Gena writes about some of the ghost stories she found in old newspapers, stories spooky enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck!

It’s that time of the year when ghost stories abound. Do you have any favorites? Better yet, do you have any familial ghost stories? What ghosts linger on your family tree? Did your family live in a haunted house? Did a dead family member return from the grave to issue a warning? Did your ancestor come in contact with a ghost?

illustration of a ghost

Illustration: engraving from “Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, volume II,” published in 1804. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Wonder What Happened to That Old Cemetery?

There’s no doubt that in previous generations, death was an everyday part of life. Children frequently died from diseases and accidents, loved ones’ bodies may have been prepared for burial in their own home, and in some cases the local cemetery was adjacent to a family property. Maybe this close proximity with death made some people lackadaisical or even indifferent, as perhaps happened to this Indiana man.

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The following 1902 newspaper article features a story about George Flowers, who purchased land that included a cemetery. After he bought the land he removed the 300 tombstones, throwing some into the river and using the rest to build a foundation for his house. Flowers built his home and farm on top of the cemetery—over the objections of his neighbors. Although still disturbing, you might be less shocked by this behavior from someone who was not familiar with those buried there— but this particular cemetery included the graves of his brother, sister, and two of his own children! Apparently, his thoughtless deeds resulted in his farm being haunted.

Spirits, Elements and Neighbors Turn on Man Who Farms a Cemetery, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 24 August 1902

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 24 August 1902, page 5

Some of the details of this haunted farm story are downright spooky. After desecrating the graveyard, Flowers plowed the cemetery and planted it with melons and potatoes, as he did with the rest of his land. Well, the other melons and potatoes “grew in abundance,” but the ones planted in the cemetery were “eaten up by a strange bug.” Then the house started shaking violently, terrifying Flowers’s wife and two children into deserting the home. Finally, lightning struck the barn and burned the stock and building.

One sentence in this old newspaper article is especially striking:

The father seems to be impelled by some irresistible force to visit the haunted farm daily, only to flee again with increased fear.

The Ghost in the Family

Whether just an old creepy abandoned house, one where an unfortunate death occurred, or a previous owner now deceased who won’t leave, most towns have a tale of a haunted house or a haunting. While many stories involve ghosts who are unknown to the current residents, in this 1913 newspaper article the family is haunted by one of their own.

This historical news article refers to the story of Jane Adams, a teenager who was murdered in her hometown of Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1910. Three years after her death (the newspaper erroneously says five years), her family lived in fear because she seemingly came back from the dead to haunt their home.

Say Home Is Haunted by Ghost of Murdered Girl (Jane Adams), Columbus Daily Enquirer newspaper article 11 May 1913

Columbus Daily Enquirer (Columbus, Georgia), 11 May 1913, page 1

According to the article:

Mary, a sister of Jane, declares she has frequently seen a hand protrude from closet doors, has heard queer noises at night, and has even observed the ghost’s flight from a closet through the house. The whole neighborhood is having an attack of fidgets.

Further research into this ghost story reveals that on the night of her death, the murdered girl had gone out with her sister and a young man. After a walk to the pier she and the young man’s brother, who had joined them, were left alone. The prosecution at the time introduced evidence that Jane Adams was fighting for her honor when she was allegedly killed by William Seyler. William, after police questioning, admitted he was there when she died but denied any culpability. He claimed that they were arguing when she fell off the pier.

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Ghosts Trying to Make Contact

While the previous newspaper article makes it sound as though the family was less than thrilled to be reunited with their dead loved one, in many cases Victorians wanted to have a chance to speak to and receive messages from beyond the grave. Spiritualism, a belief popular from about 1840 to 1920, provided hope to those who wanted to believe that the dead were not truly gone and could be summoned. Those desperate to hear from their deceased loved ones attended séances in hopes of making that contact. In this 1913 newspaper article about a mother who lost a child, not only does her deceased daughter provide information from the great beyond but she also makes a promise.

Reincarnation in (Samona) Family, Times-Picayune newspaper article 25 August 1913

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 25 August 1913, page 3

This is truly an eerie family ghost story. Their dead five-year-old daughter promised during a séance that in 14 months, on Christmas Day, she would be reborn along with a twin sister. According to the old newspaper article, 14 months later—exactly on Christmas Day—the mother did indeed give birth to twin girls:

…one of whom bore on the face three marks identical with marks on the face of the dead child, and after a year began to manifest exactly the same moral and physical tendencies.

There’s One in Every Family

And while there will always be true believers in ghosts as evidenced from numerous present-day television shows and ghost tours, there’s always that one person in the family who wants to take advantage of that belief and pull a joke—sometimes with unintended consequences. Consider this tale of two brothers from a 1908 newspaper article.

Boy Wounds the "Ghost," Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 8 January 1908

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 8 January 1908, page 6

I bet that’s one prank Henry Tomlinson regrets pulling on his brother!

Is there a story involving the great beyond in your family history? Record those ghost stories now to add interest to your family history—and please tell them to us in the comments section.

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Old Halloween Recipes from Our Ancestors’ Kitchens

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to find recipes used by our ancestors to celebrate Halloween.

Getting ready to entertain some ghosts and goblins? How about trying an old Halloween recipe for your party? I know it can be difficult to come up with Halloween-themed foods (after all, you can only eat so much candy). In my many years of celebrating Halloween I can only think of two recipes that I’ve enjoyed that were specific to the occasion. One involves a punch that includes lemon-lime soda, sherbet, and dry ice (great for that spooky fog affect). The other is a brownie that is cooked in the shape of a pumpkin, with the aid of a pizza pan, and then decorated to look like a jack-o’-lantern with orange frosting and candies.

But what types of Halloween recipes did previous generations enjoy? Looking through old newspapers gives us a sense of what yesteryear’s Halloween hostess may have served at Halloween parties.

Witch Cake, Goblin Pie & Gnome Salad

For example, in 1912 Halloween meant Witch Cake, Goblin Pie and Gnome Salad all washed down with some Caldron Punch. If sugar truly makes children hyper than this punch with its one pound of sugar and ginger ale might just do the trick!

Halloween Recipes, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 20 October 1912

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 20 October 1912, section 2, page 11

Hot Drinks, Doughnuts & Pumpkin Pie

Helen Robertson’s 1930 article “Games to Play and Things to Eat on Eery Halloween” in the “Women’s Magazine and Amusements” section of the Plain Dealer asserts that for Halloween:

Not that we would ever want to serve real party dishes—they have no place in the Halloween’s feasting, for custom has long banished them in favor of pumpkin pie, cider, doughnuts and coffee.

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In multiple Halloween food columns I read, there was confirmation that it’s a night for hot drinks, doughnuts and pumpkin pie. Surprisingly, while Robertson does suggest adding some decorations to pumpkin pie, there are no recipes for the traditional feast. Instead she has everything from Witch’s Salad to Halloween Sandwiches (made with gingerbread, butter, and American cheese and then decorated to look like faces) to Sardine Rarebit that is made from sardines on toast.

Halloween recipes, Plain Dealer newspaper article 26 October 1930

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 26 October 1930, page 52

But in case you would like some pumpkin pie and doughnuts (and quite frankly I don’t know why you wouldn’t), the following recipes from 1919 include a pumpkin pie without eggs. I was surprised that this recipe called for canned pumpkin. I had assumed that that was a more modern shortcut used by today’s busy pie makers.

Halloween recipes, Patriot newspaper article 17 October 1919

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 17 October 1919, page 17

Pimento Cheese Halloween Sandwiches

I love how newspaper recipes give us a glimpse of how life has changed. In this food column from 1931, Halloween sandwich recipes include one for Harlequin Sandwiches—which is basically buttered bread using alternating white and wheat slices—and a Pumpkin Salad which isn’t really made from pumpkin but instead is largely made out of pimento cheese shaped and decorated like a pumpkin.

Halloween recipes, Boston Herald newspaper article 28 October 1931

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 28 October 1931, page 13

Sliced Bread!

Interestingly enough, the Harlequin Sandwiches call for slicing the bread in ½-inch slices. But at the bottom of the page a large advertisement for bread announces “Good News for the Bread Lovers of New England. SLICED!” Considering the time it would take to slice an entire loaf of bread to the correct thickness, sliced bread seems like the way to go. The old news advertisement also announces that you can still purchase unsliced bread if you prefer.

ad for sliced bread, Boston Herald newspaper advertisement 28 October 1931

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 28 October 1931, page 13

Must-Haves for Halloween Parties

It would appear that two things the newspaper Halloween recipe articles agreed on was that the color scheme should be orange and black, and that super sugary sweets to drink and eat are the rule of the day. But when they start suggesting other foods for the party, it becomes more interesting. Adding a Halloween word to a recipe like “pumpkin” “ghost” or “deviled,” as in the case of this Deviled Tuna Salad, is all one needs to transform humdrum into a Halloween feast.

Halloween Recipes May Be Helpful, Oregonian newspaper article 26 October 1935

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 26 October 1935, page 4

On the same page as the Deviled Tuna Salad recipe is a photograph of a child and a cake with a caption that reads:

Halloween is a children’s holiday and the refreshments served should not only be appropriate color but they should be flavors and foods which the young people will like.

I couldn’t agree more.

photo of a girl and a Halloween cake, Oregonian newspaper article 26 October 1935

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 26 October 1935, page 4

What’s on your table this Halloween? Is it all treats or are there some types of healthful foods as well?

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Newspaper Crossword Puzzles & More Games Our Ancestors Played

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena shows some crossword puzzles and other games from old newspapers, giving a glimpse into the times our ancestors lived in—and, potentially, providing genealogy help because some of the names and addresses of contest winners were published in the newspaper.

Newspapers provide so much more than the news. Sure, there are the obituaries, legal notices, and vital record announcements that are so valuable to family historians. And as genealogists we all know the value of newspaper advertisements, social pages, and shipping news.

But there are also the bits that we don’t normally consider having historical or genealogical value. It’s important to remember that all parts of the newspaper contain not only a snapshot of our ancestor’s time—but even the possibility of names and information appearing in places in the newspaper you wouldn’t expect. One section that may not seem important is that containing games and puzzles.

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Today, everyone is glued to their smartphones playing online games individually or with friends. Most likely you know someone who passes time playing Angry Birds, Candy Crush or Words with Friends. For our nineteenth and twentieth century ancestor, participating in a newspaper game or puzzle might have resulted in their name, and perhaps even address, being published.

Lone Ranger’s Nephew’s Horse: the Crossword

Although not the only type of puzzle found in the newspaper, crossword puzzles are probably the one we are most familiar with. The first crossword puzzle, which looks slightly different than the crosswords of today, appeared in the New York World in 1913. By the end of the 1920s, crosswords were found in newspapers nationwide.* While we might most associate the New York Times with newspaper crosswords, they actually didn’t print their first puzzle until 1942.**

Here’s an early crossword puzzle, from a 1915 Cleveland newspaper.

crossword puzzle, Plain Dealer newspaper article 10 January 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 10 January 1915, page 5

Crosswords were strategically placed in the newspaper, often next to advertisements. This placement forced readers to see advertisements, and potentially generate revenue for advertisers and the newspaper, as they searched for their beloved puzzle.***

It’s probably no surprise to learn that puzzles, and clues to those puzzles, change over time and reflect current events. According to the book Curious History of the Crossword: 100 Puzzles from Then and Now by Ben Tausig, puzzle clues from the World War II era included geography questions and foreign currencies. In some cases, puzzles found in the newspaper focused on current events, as in this 1945 Military Maze which includes military titles held by men who would be marching in World War I Armistice Day parades.

word puzzle, San Diego Union newspaper article 11 November 1945

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 11 November 1945, page 3

Puzzle Contests

Working a puzzle isn’t just a solitary pursuit. In some cases the puzzle was also a contest. Newspaper contests provided cash prizes to children and adults.

puzzle contest, Boston Journal newspaper article 25 October 1910

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 October 1910, page 8

In some cases prize award announcements might include names and addresses of winners, as does this 1924 Dallas newspaper article announcing that Miss Hazel Cobb, living at 5201 Live Oak Street in Dallas, had won first prize due to her correct answers.

Dallas Woman (Hazel Cobb) Wins Crossword Puzzle Prize, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 12 October 1924

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 12 October 1924, page 1

Children and Their Puzzles

Puzzle pages could also be found on newspaper pages dedicated to children. Marketing to kids has always been a successful advertising tactic, and with a page dedicated to kids that includes their names, social activities, games and jokes, the paper guaranteed itself revenue. This Massachusetts Boys and Girls Page from 1944 is a great example of what newspapers offered their child readers, including puzzles, riddles, stories, quizzes and scientific facts. One of the most interesting pieces on the page is the Defense Blunder which shows a cartoon of two women talking in the forest. Children are asked to name the mistake the women are making—keeping in mind that World War II was going on at the time. The answer reminds the children that forest saboteurs might be hiding listening for information, and they may be trying to set fire to precious timber/lumber supplies.

The Boys and Girls Page, Springfield Republican newspaper article 19 March 1944

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 19 March 1944, page 42

What newspaper games did your ancestors play? Better yet, what prize did they win by participating in newspaper games and contests?

Do you love solving crossword puzzles like your ancestors? Search the newspaper archives to find thousands of printable crosswords to have fun sharpening your wordsmith skills.

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* American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Brief History of Crossword Puzzles, http://www.crosswordtournament.com/more/wynne.html. Accessed 26 August 2014.
** About.com 20th century History. The first Crossword Puzzle. http://history1900s.about.com/od/1910s/qt/firstcrossword.htm. Accessed 26 August 2014.
*** Curious History of the Crossword: 100 Puzzles from Then and Now by Ben Tausig. p. 13.

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