How to Research Old Newspaper Headlines for Family History

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary shows how searching for headlines in old newspapers turns up articles that provide a glimpse into our ancestors’ world and their daily lives.

From iconic happenings of the past to lesser-known events, reading old newspaper headlines helps us share the day-to-day experiences of our ancestors. Reading the news that they read is one way to walk in their footsteps.

For example, imagine being in Vermont on 8 November 1860, picking up your local paper, and seeing this newspaper headline announcing Abraham Lincoln as the new president.

Glorious News! Abraham Lincoln Elected President!! St. Albans Messenger newspaper article 8 November 1860

St. Albans Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont), 8 November 1860, page 2

So why not become a newspaper headline hunter and query GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to see what was happening in your ancestors’ lives? Knowing the events that were happening that affected their lives, and the news that they were talking about with their family and friends, helps provide a glimpse into their world and into the past.

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Abolishing Slavery

Headline hunters weave fascinating circumstances into life stories. They’re constantly on the search for a bold or unusual newspaper headline that leads to something interesting.

In their search for headlines, they select major historical events, along with what was happening in the outside world during particular time periods. Sometimes they’ll stumble on a major event they never heard of, leaving one to wonder why it is not included more in history books.

For example, manumission (the freeing of slaves) occurred in many parts of the world long before the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution (adopted 6 December 1865) abolished slavery in the U.S.—and the movement continued long after.

For example, a search on the terms “slavery abolished” pulled up this 1794 newspaper article about the French Colonies.

article about slavery being abolished in the French Colonies, Farmers’ Library newspaper article 13 May 1794

Farmers’ Library (Rutland, Vermont), 13 May 1794, page 3

That search also found this 1879 article about African King Mtesa (or Mutesa) of the Kingdom of Buganda abolishing slavery throughout his dominions.

Slavery Abolished in Africa, Cincinnati Commercial Tribune newspaper article 13 September 1879

Cincinnati Commercial Tribune (Cincinnati, Ohio), 13 September 1879, page 2

Women’s Suffrage

Another movement not fully addressed in history books is women’s suffrage, underscoring the importance of newspaper research to clarify historical events.

A search on the term “suffragettes” found this old newspaper headline.

article about suffragettes being arrested in Great Britain, Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper article 1 March 1908

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), 1 March 1908, page 5

This headline reports that women were humiliated, harassed and often treated as criminal offenders. Imagine how a young girl of today would feel if she learned that her great grandmother was jailed, merely for wanting to vote!

These two headlines introduce articles reporting that California granted females the right to vote in 1911, but the quest for national equality took until 26 August 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted.

Suffrage Wins in California, Boston Journal newspaper article 13 October 1911

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 October 1911, page 12

Tennessee Approves Suffrage Amendment, Bellingham Herald newspaper article 18 August 1920

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington), 18 August 1920, page 3

For an interesting timeline of how the women’s suffrage movement progressed, see the National Women’s History Museum’s Woman Suffrage Timeline (1840-1920).

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Timely Timelines

You can locate many interesting timelines in newspapers, either as feature articles or related to historical events. Search for them using the keywords “timeline,” “this day in history” or “famous headlines.”

article about historical newspaper headlines, Boston Record American newspaper article 29 October 1961

Boston Record American (Boston, Massachusetts), 29 October 1961, page 39

You may wish to construct your own timeline with historical newspaper headlines. Pick a subject and locate pertinent newspaper headlines and their corresponding articles. Categories are only limited by your imagination.

  • Art & Artists
  • Civil Rights
  • Disasters (Hindenburg, Titanic, volcanoes, etc.)
  • Famous People (explorers, presidents & first ladies, the rich & famous, etc.)
  • Laws (age of majority, child labor, education, immigration, manumission & slavery, suffrage, etc.)
  • Entertainment (movies, music, plays, etc.)
  • Eras (Roaring Twenties, Victorian Age, etc.)
  • Genealogy Research (Alex Haley’s Roots, lineage societies, technological advances, etc.)
  • Great Discoveries (gold, medical advances, vaccines, etc.)
  • Migrations (immigration, westward expansion)
  • Sports & Events (competitions, Olympics, World Series, world fairs, etc.)
  • States, Territories & County Formations
  • Wars & Military Events

Here’s a timeline of important events that the Charlotte Observer published in 1907.

timeline of important historical events, Charlotte Observer newspaper article 30 May 1907

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), 30 May 1907, page 8

Your genealogy software may have overlays or add-ons to create a timeline, or you can make one in a spreadsheet or with one of the free tools found on the Web. Many timeline “how-to” articles are written for teachers, but the concept applies equally to family historians.

Here are two helpful timeline articles:

Before & After Headlines

An effective tool for teaching family history is to compare before and after newspaper headlines.

For example, here is a newspaper ad from the steamer company White Star Line, advertising cross-Atlantic voyages on its huge new ship Titanic (misspelled as “Titantic”), just two months before the steamer’s ill-fated maiden voyage.

cruise ad from the White Star Line for their new steamer "Titanic," Evening Star newspaper advertisement 13 February 1912

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 13 February 1912, page 17

By contrast, here is one of the many shocking headlines the world saw after the “unsinkable” Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in the early morning hours of 15 April 1912.

Ship's Band Plays "Nearer My God to Thee" as Titanic Sinks, Winston-Salem Journal newspaper article 19 April 1912

Winston-Salem Journal (Winston-Salem, North Carolina), 19 April 1912, page 1

Here is another jarring example of contrasting old newspaper headlines. The first is a straightforward headline about the “famous dirigible navigator” Dr. Hugo Eckener arriving in America for a series of conferences on expanding dirigible service between Europe and the U.S. Eckener announced that the Hindenburg dirigible would soon resume its transatlantic flights, and declared:

By the end of the summer, I am certain we will have convinced anyone who has any doubts about the safety of Zeppelin flights across the Atlantic.

Eckener Arrives on Air Mission; Will Visit Akron, Repository newspaper article 10 January 1937

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 10 January 1937, page 3

Less than four months after Eckener made his remark, the world saw headlines such as this in its newspapers.

Fire Wrecks Hindenburg, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 6 May 1937

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 6 May 1937, page 1

Please share with us any of your favorite or surprising historical newspaper headlines found at GenealogyBank!

Related Articles about Newspaper Research for Family History:

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Written by Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak, MBA, brings to the GenealogyBank Blog a blend of technical and genealogical research skills. In addition to having been a columnist with RootsWeb Review, she was president of a computer training/consulting firm for 15+ years, worked as an editor and has authored several genealogy books. You’ll find her an active contributor to a variety of online forums, RootsWeb’s WorldConnect, Findagrave.com and indexing projects.

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