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.

WWI Christmas Truce: When the Guns Stopped Firing

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena tells a remarkable story: how the power of Christmas – with its hope of “peace on earth, good will to men” – temporarily stopped the fighting during WWI in 1914.

By December 1914, Germany, Britain, France, and other European nations had been fighting since August. Trenches were dug on the Western front in September and those trenches, now home to soldiers, meant a holiday that would be cold, wet, and miserable tinged with the constant threat of death. What was first thought of as a “great adventure” by many young men must have quickly turned into a harsh cold reality as the casualties rose.

Then Christmas time approached, and something wonderful happened.

Illustration: the “Illustrated London News” depiction of the WWI Christmas Truce of 1914: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches.”

Illustration: the “Illustrated London News” depiction of the WWI Christmas Truce of 1914: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches.” The subcaption reads: “Saxons and Anglo-Saxons fraternising on the field of battle at the season of peace and goodwill: Officers and men from the German and British trenches meeting and greeting one another; a German officer photographing a group of foes and friends.” Credit: A. C. Michael; Wikimedia Commons.

Pope Benedict Calls for Christmas Truce

In an attempt to stop the fighting for Christmas that year, Pope Benedict called on the warring nations to declare a Christmas truce. Initially, Germany was reportedly agreeable to a truce – but only if the other countries agreed.

article about the WWI Christmas truce in 1914, Elkhart Daily Review newspaper article 11 December 1914

Elkhart Daily Review (Elkhart, Indiana), 11 December 1914, page 1

Pope’s Plea Denied

But not every country was in agreement about the Christmas truce, so the discussion of a lull in the fighting ended. By mid-December 1914 the American newspapers announced that an official cease fire was not to be.

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The following newspaper article reported:

The thundering roll of heavy guns will be the Christmas chimes of Europe. It’s [sic] carols will be the cries of dying men. Across the sky toward which wise men looked for the star which guided them to a manger will dart the aircraft of hostile powers – the latest man-made engine for aiding the destruction of fellow men.

Thousands may die upon battlefields on this Christmas Day when the message of ‘Peace on earth, good will to men,’ is being again repeated in other parts of the world.

article about the WWI Christmas truce in 1914, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 13 December 1914

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 13 December 1914, page 1

Andrew Carnegie Comments

Interestingly enough, though America was not yet engaged in World War I, there was an American industrialist who was against a Christmas-time truce. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie weighed in with the opinion that a truce where the fighting would end momentarily and then commence after the holidays was “unchristianlike and immoral.” Instead he called for supporting President Woodrow Wilson in promoting and securing a permanent peace: “It is terrible that so many widows and orphans are being made because a few men wanted war.” (An interesting aside is that this newspaper article ends with the comment that Carnegie walked to the White House to see the President, but the President was out golfing.)

article about the WWI Christmas truce, Elkhart Daily Review newspaper article 11 December 1914

Elkhart Daily Review (Elkhart, Indiana), 11 December 1914, page 1

Brief Christmas 1914 Truce

While an official truce did not occur, many WWI soldiers took matters into their own hands, setting aside their weapons and reaching out to their enemies in the spirit of the season. There were in fact mini truces all along the trenches that Christmas. While some mythology surrounds the details, there is no doubt that there was an unofficial cease fire, and soldiers from opposite sides did interact peacefully in “No Man’s Land” for Christmas 1914. Recollections of those involved told of gift giving, singing, kicking balls around, and other friendly interactions.

photo of British and German troops meeting in No-Man’s Land during the WWI Christmas truce of 1914

Photo: British and German troops meeting in No-Man’s Land during the WWI Christmas truce of 1914. Credit: Robson Harold B.; Wikimedia Commons.

This report from a Rhode Island newspaper announces “British and Germans Exchange Gifts During a Christmas Truce on Firing Line.” The article reports:

On Christmas morning two British soldiers, after signalling truce and good-fellowship from the perilous crown of their trench, walked across to the German line with a plate of mince pies and garniture and seasonable messages… and were sent back with packets of Christmas cards – quite sentimental – wreathed with mistletoe and holly, for distribution among their fellows.

article about WWI Christmas truce in 1914, Pawtucket Times newspaper article 31 December 1914

Pawtucket Times (Pawtucket, Rhode Island), 31 December 1914, page 11

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Initially American newspapers reported that an unofficial truce would be declared in the trenches so that the men could eat their Christmas dinners in peace. While those in charge were providing their fighting men with some small luxuries (reportedly the French government sent their soldiers champagne), an unofficial momentary truce was about all that these soldiers could hope for.

article about WWI Christmas truce in 1914, Times-Picayune newspaper article 26 December 1914

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 26 December 1914, page 6

Unfortunately, those fighting in World War I would see not only the Christmas of 1914 come and go with no peaceful solution to the war, but they would see three more Christmases bring fighting and lives lost – for some countries, almost wiping out an entire generation.

But for a brief time, that December 1914, soldiers on both sides laid down their weapons and enjoyed a little “peace on earth,” if only just for a short while.

photo of a cross erected in Belgium in 1999 to commemorate the WWI Christmas truce of 1914

Photo: a cross erected in Belgium in 1999 to commemorate the WWI Christmas truce of 1914. The inscription reads: “1914 – The Khaki Chum’s Christmas Truce – 1999 – 85 Years – Lest We Forget.” Credit: Redvers; Wikimedia Commons.

Various stories of the Christmas truce can be found in historical newspapers and online. A dramatic narration done by Walter Cronkite accompanied by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir tells the story of the World War I Christmas truce and can be found on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRq–pTnlog.

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3 Tips for Sharing the Family History You Gather This Holiday Season

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena provides some helpful tips for how to preserve and share the family stories you gather during this Holiday Season.

With family members gathering for the Holiday Season, now is a great time to ask questions and hear stories about your family history.  Once you’ve collected these stories, what do you do with the information? How do you preserve and share these family stories? And what does it mean to effectively share them?

Painting: “The Christmas Tree” by Albert Chevallier Tayler, 1911

Painting: “The Christmas Tree” by Albert Chevallier Tayler, 1911. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

To effectively share family history, it has to be preserved – and in order to be preserved, it needs to be copied and be of interest to those who are inheriting it. The following tips are some ideas on how to do exactly that.

Tip #1: Make Copies Available

Burning information to a CD, saving it on a flash drive, or uploading it to a cloud storage website or via an app might be the easiest way of sharing your latest family history finds. Depending on your family, how many people you will be sharing the information with, and their grasp on technology, your method for sharing these recent discoveries may differ. Years ago one of my cousins would write a Christmas letter detailing her latest research and findings. Each family received that and any documents that she found. These paper copies were then saved by families, ready to be discovered by future budding family historians. For current discoveries that I want to share, I have done everything from burning CDs for family members, to sharing via digital methods like a private virtual bulletin board on Pinterest showcasing family photos, or creating a shared folder on cloud storage site Dropbox.

Tip #2: Get Family Members Involved

So you’ve shared photographs, video or audio files – and even documents or family histories – with your family. Now what? Ask family members for something in return. Once they have viewed what you have provided, ask them for additional contributions. Do they have previously unshared photos that would illustrate the stories you shared? Do they have memories that can be audio recorded via an app or an audio recorder? Do they want to create a video that tells the “rest of the story” that you have started?

Too often family histories and memories are gathered – only to sit on a bookshelf, photo album, or the computer. Encourage recipients to treat the information you share as a “living document,” and either add to it or ask questions so that more information can be added for the next family gathering.

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Tip #3: Tell an Interesting Story

I’ve noticed in funerals that I’ve attended in the last few years, families are putting together slide shows of photos of the recently deceased, sharing their life from birth to latter years. These slide shows often include music and provide viewers with a look back at that life, and share images that trigger thoughts of happier times.

While slide shows are a great idea for a funeral, why not use them to tell your family story and recent discoveries now? Did you do something special this Holiday Season to capture even more memories? Did you have everyone write out a Thanksgiving or Christmas memory or interview them? People like a good story so why not use what you have discovered to create a visual family history story.

Why not use software on your computer or a free online program to put together a slide show that you can then share at your next family event? Microsoft PowerPoint allows you to add audio and video to a slide show. You can incorporate photos, music and even the voices of family members on a slide show that can be the star of your next gathering, or put the slides on a “loop” that plays automatically as people mingle. Don’t own Microsoft PowerPoint? Free versions of slide show software can be found online including through Google Drive and Prezi.

Once your live performance of the slide show is done, share the slides or use them to create a scrapbook that can be printed out.

Remember that telling an interesting story and preserving the memories you’ve recorded can be done in many different ways. “Playing cards” printed with ancestor facts and images can be created and gifted to younger family members. Matching games can be played using these cards. Copies (don’t use originals) of documents and images can be laminated and used as table place mats. These place mats can help facilitate sharing stories and memories.*

How will you share your family history finds? However you decide to share memories you’ve recorded this Holiday Season, work on sharing them with everyone so that those memories are passed on.

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* Never laminate original documents or photos. Lamination is not a preservation method and will cause irreversible damage.

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Family History Interviewing Tips for the Holiday Season

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena provides some helpful tips for conducting oral interviews with your family members this holiday season so that you can record those family stories.

It’s that time of the year when families gather, break bread, and take part in age-old holiday traditions. There’s no better time than the holidays to pursue family history! Think about it: everyone is together and they are having conversations that begin with “remember when…” It’s the perfect time to take advantage of those memories and conduct some interviews.

This article will give you some helpful tips for conducting oral interviews with your family members this holiday season so that you can record those family stories.

painting: “Happy Christmas” by Johansen Viggo, 1891

Painting: “Happy Christmas” by Johansen Viggo, 1891. Source: Den Hirschsprungske Samling; Wikimedia Commons.

“Interview” seems like such an official name for what you really want to do: capture the stories and memories of family young and old. Young family members?! Of course! Ask them questions about their lives and memories now so that they can benefit when they are older.

You say you’re convinced that it’s a good genealogy idea to take advantage of an upcoming family gathering – but how do you actually conduct interviews with your relatives? The following steps will help you take action and preserve those family memories for the future.

Get Your Interview Plan Ready

Decide from the start what you want to know about your family history. Will your family interviews be strictly with the older generation and involve them recalling their lives thus far? Will the interviews center on a theme and everyone in the family will be involved (for example: tell us your favorite holiday memory)? Maybe you’ll put together index cards of prompts and then invite family members to spend some time in an “interview booth” (maybe a spare room) and answer questions while speaking into a video camera. First, decide what you want to know and whom you want to participate.

Now that you have a plan, make sure you let everyone know ahead of time. Not everyone likes to be photographed or recorded. Your family history interview questions, even seemingly benign ones, may bring up bad memories. Remember that answering endless questions can be tiring, so decide what will be asked, of whom, and how long it will take. Let everyone you are interviewing know so that they can be prepared and not feel put on the spot. This might also allow them time to find and bring heirloom items, photographs, or other family memorabilia to share. (Make sure to bring a camera or a scanner as well as recording equipment.)

You will need to prepare what questions you will ask about your family history ahead of time. Not sure what to ask? Various family interview prompts can be found online, such as the article Fifty Questions for Family History Interviews by genealogist Kimberly Powell. Don’t be afraid to ask general questions of everyone that focus on the holidays, memories of specific people, or even what they are thankful for.

Now decide how you’ll record the information gathered from your family interviews. Smart phones and mobile devices make audio and video recording your interviewees easy. You can even download a specialized mobile app that will help you record and share information. Once recorded, make sure to upload the file to a cloud sharing website and provide access to family members, or save the file on a portable storage device like a flash drive and hand them out. Even if you don’t have a smart phone or mobile device, a video recorder or a digital audio recorder might be just what you need.

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Interview Preparation & Considerations

It’s the day of the big event. Set the stage for your family history interviews. Find a quiet, comfortable spot. Prepare the interviewing area for your equipment. If you are using anything that requires big bulky extension cords, be sure to make the area safe for everyone to walk through.

Most importantly, as you talk with each family member, make sure you are clear about what you will be doing with the information they provide during the interview. Will it be transcribed and used in a family history? Posted to a social media or family website? It’s important that the relatives participating know what will be done with the material and how they can access it so that they can make informed decisions about participating. You definitely don’t want any hard feelings later when your aunt realizes her true feelings about her sister-in-law are going to be part of the next family reunion slide show.

Go!

Start interviewing your relatives. Let people talk and don’t interrupt. After they answer your interview questions allow a delay before you speak. Ask for clarifications of terms, places, or information they mentioned that won’t be easily understood by others.

Limit your time with each family member and if they look like they need a break, give it to them. Several small family history interviews may be preferable to one large interview. Remember, even though we LOVE family history, some family members may not be as enamored with it and may even feel like it’s intrusive. The whole point is to get those stories down and learn more about your collective family history.

Interviewing family members doesn’t have to be a large project. It can be as big or as small as you want. Use the opportunity of a family dinner, reunion, or holiday gathering to ask questions and record those answers. Then, don’t let that information languish in your electronic device: transcribe it, upload it and share it so that all family members can benefit from those interviews.

Happy memory making!

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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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