Old-School Social Networking: Social Brief Columns in Newspapers

Newspapers have been the chief “social networking” tool for over 300 years—and that’s a good thing for genealogists.

Newspapers’ social columns reported on the comings and goings of members of the local community, providing personal details that give a glimpse into the daily lives of our ancestors.

For example, here we have word that Dorothy Easton was visiting her sister Mrs. K. Summers in San Francisco.

article about Dorothy Easton, Western Outlook newspaper article 3 July 1915

Western Outlook (Oakland, California), 3 July 1915, page 3

This mention is just a one-liner buried in a social briefs column—just one line—but it is loaded with great genealogical clues:

  • the year is 1915
  • one sister is Dorothy
  • she’s not married
  • her surname is Easton
  • she lives in Los Angeles
  • the other sister is called “K”
  • she’s married
  • her surname is Summers
  • she lives in San Francisco

This social brief notice could be the critical clue to learn the maiden name, hometown and more about the family of K. Summers.

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Notice that the Western Outlook groups these briefs by town, with headings such as “San Francisco Items” and “Oakland Jottings.” Newspapers were written to sell. Editors made them personal by including these local social briefs to excite the local readers. Picture the impact of seeing your name or your neighbor’s name written up in the paper. That was big news.

You would take the newspaper over to give to them, talk about it with them, and mention it to your wider circle of friends. It is exactly like social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) today. It holds your attention; you comment on it and share it.

Here is another example of newspaper social networking, from 1879.

article about Carrie Carpenter, Daily Gazette newspaper article 18 November 1879

Daily Gazette (Rockport, Illinois), 18 November 1879, page 4

This notice provides great clues to more family information:

  • the year is 1879
  • Carrie Carpenter is single
  • she opened her own school in Stephenson County
  • her mother is Mrs. Mary L. Carpenter
  • her mother is County Superintendent of Public Schools
  • she has a sister

This article appeared on page 4, under the masthead of the newspaper just like the previous example from the Western Outlook, but in this case the social brief notices are not grouped and labeled by the town the persons mentioned lived in, or by an organization or topic.

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While the format varies from newspaper to newspaper, it has been very common for the past three centuries to include these local social briefs of such high interest to the public.

Genealogy Tip: Be sure to perform a broad search for your target ancestor, including all of GenealogyBank’s deep newspaper archive. By limiting a search to only the newspapers in your town or state, you might miss key articles (like these social briefs) about your ancestor that appeared in a newspaper from across the country.

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Written by Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp is the Director of Genealogy Products at GenealogyBank. Tom Kemp is an internationally known librarian and archivist – he is the author of over 35 genealogy books and hundreds of articles about genealogy and family history.

He previously served as the Chair of the National Council of Library & Information Associations (Washington, DC) and as Library Director of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

An active genealogist, he has been working on his own family history for 47 years. With the rapidly growing online archives at GenealogyBank – it is a great day for genealogy!

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