Vintage Ads & Our Ancestors’ Shopping

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary finds vintage advertisements and articles in old newspapers and historical books to gain insights into a part of our ancestors’ lives: shopping.

Take a walk down the “past lane” of our ancestors’ shopping lives by delving into historical newspapers.

You’ll find marvelous articles and vintage advertisements to gain insight into purchases that surrounded them in their daily lives.

Vintage Advertisements

Iconic imagery, such as this 1900 advertisement, puts a face to historical eras and displays important visuals of clothing, hairstyles and accessories. They’re marvelous pieces of history—and as such, are highly sought-after collectibles.

Doesn’t this ad inspire you to slurp a Coca-Cola while dolled up in frilly plumes and pearls?

a vintage ad for Coca-Cola

Source: Wikipedia’s article “Advertising” displaying a vintage Coca-Cola advertisement

Advertisements in Historical Books

Advertisements abound across every historical newspaper, and are also located within GenealogyBank’s impressive collection of advertising ephemera. Use the Historical Books search page to search the books collection for vintage advertisements.

search page for GenealogyBank's Historical Books collection

Try entering a business name if you know where your family worked—and if you don’t, query the search engine for a type of trade. You’ll be amused at what you find.

vintage ad for the Excelsior Hat Store

Popular Shopping Items

The popular items of yesterday have certainly changed, so explore newspaper feature pages for intriguing reports. Don’t forget newspaper shipping reports. As so many goods arrived by ships, you’ll soon discover what were the interests of the day.

Enter Last Name










Most people would assume that tea was the popular drink of the 18th Century. It was, but another beverage was highly sought after: cocoa.

Doesn’t this report confirm what chocaholics already suspect—that our forefathers and mothers loved chocolate as much as we do? I imagine the shortage of cocoa might have been alarming news for some.

article about a cocoa shortage, American Weekly Mercury newspaper article 16 March 1727

American Weekly Mercury (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 16 March 1727, page 2

Types of Genealogy Discoveries from Vintage Ads

There is much more to advertisements than you can imagine—they can provide all sorts of family history information and clues.

You might identify information about:

  • where a family worked
  • their coworkers
  • wages
  • working conditions

And who knows, you might even make a startling discovery, such as this one about my Dutch ancestor, Andrew Vos.

His classified advertisement not only confirmed that he was an early and important importer of fine art, but also named the artwork in his inventory. What a thrill to consider that many grandmaster paintings, now only seen in museums, may have passed through his hands.

Original Paintings for Sale, Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser newspaper advertisement 27 April 1805

Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 27 April 1805, page 2

This 1805 newspaper ad also identified his place of business as 107 North Front Street in Philadelphia. Last year my husband and I were able to walk to the location, not far from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia. What a thrill to walk in the footsteps of an ancestor!

So take a chance. Explore early advertisements and news reports—and don’t forget to be creative when adding keywords. Look for business names, along with specific goods and services. Almost anything that our predecessors owned was advertised for sale—even houses from the Sears Catalog.

photo of twin houses bought from the Sears Catalog

Photo: twin houses bought from the Sears Catalog. Source: Library of Congress.

See: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010640757/resource/

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Keywords to Include

Depending upon the target timeframe, consider using these keywords in your shopping searches:

  • Antiques
  • Bookmobile
  • Bring and Buy Sale
  • Business Names
  • Catalog or Catalogue (such as Sears)
  • Factory
  • Flea Market
  • Food (you could discover the price of milk)
  • Jumble Sale
  • Marché aux Puces
  • Market or Market House
  • Mercantile
  • Provisions
  • Sale
  • Salesmen
  • Sheriff Sales (useful to discover names of neighbors)
  • Trade Days
  • Trading Post
  • Trash and Treasure
  • Trunk Sale
Sheriff's Sales, New Brunswick Fredonian newspaper advertisement 5 February 1824

New Brunswick Fredonian (New Brunswick, New Jersey), 5 February 1824, page 1

We’d love for you to share your GenealogyBank “shopping” discoveries with us in the comment section!

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How to Use Newspaper Lost & Found Ads for Genealogy Research

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena shows how lost and found ads in old newspapers can turn up a surprising amount of information about your ancestors—and provide a glimpse into their lives that you won’t find in government records and vital statistics.

Lost anything lately? While in today’s world we have multiple options for asking strangers for help in recovering or returning property, our ancestors used newspaper lost and found ads.

These old newspaper advertisements can be a surprisingly rich resource for your family history searches—sometimes providing an ancestor’s full name, current address, and some details about their life. Some of the more unusual lost and found ads also add interest to your genealogy research.

What Went Missing? People, Pets, Possessions…

What can be discovered about your ancestry in a lost and found ad? Depending on the time period, these newspaper advertisements may notify a community about missing people such as a runaway slave—or even a missing husband, as I wrote about previously (see Missing Men: Lost Husband Ads in Newspapers for Genealogy). One would expect to see pleas for the return of jewelry or wallets, but classified ads can run the gamut from the valuable to the ordinary, from cash to umbrellas.

Enter Last Name










The topic of what can be discovered in lost and found ads was addressed in this 1855 Virginia newspaper article. It remarks that:

Lost dogs and runaway apprentices, however, are the most frequent subjects of advertisements.

Curiosities of Advertising, Alexandria Gazette newspaper article 15 October 1855

Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), 15 October 1855, page 4

Newspaper Ads for Lost Pets

Lost dogs are a popular subject of lost and found ads. What is listed in a lost and found column can change depending on the time period and the type of community the newspaper serves. Rural area advertisements may differ from that of more populated, urban places.

Take for instance this “Lost, Found, Strayed” column from a 1927 Virginia newspaper, where you can see a typical lost dog advertisement—but there is also one for a stray cow! Look for these advertisements to have all kinds of animals including lost dogs, cats, birds, horses, cows, pigs—basically all manner of livestock and pets.

Have You Seen My Glasses?

I also like that one of these lost and found ads proves that people don’t really change; as long as there have been reading glasses, people have been losing them.

newspaper lost and found ads, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper advertisements 18 October 1927

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 18 October 1927, page 16

Remember that a “lost” item might actually be a stolen item. If you know that an ancestor had an animal or valuable object taken, you may want to see if they placed an advertisement seeking its return.

Found It!

Found ads can be interesting as well. Consider these two similarly worded, deliberately vague ads from a 1919 Washington newspaper. In order to claim their property, the owner of the missing item was required to pay the cost of the advertisement.

newspaper lost and found ads, Morning Olympian newspaper advertisements 12 February 1919

Morning Olympian (Olympia, Washington), 12 February 1919, page 4

Unfortunate Losses

Some of the lost and found notices in newspapers are heartbreaking. You can sympathize with the despair of a loss such as the one reported in this ad, placed by a widow. Imagine the heartbreak of losing a great amount of much-needed money and realizing that it was unlikely to ever be returned! The address and phone number of this woman is listed, making it easier for descendants to identify her.

newspaper lost and found ads, San Diego Union newspaper advertisements 22 September 1930

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 22 September 1930, page 14

Lost Item Lists from Railway Cars

While we assume a single individual is responsible for placing a lost or found newspaper ad, it makes sense that occasionally a public transportation company placed an advertisement listing items found. This advertisement lists everything found on the cars of the United Railways and Electric Company.

Enter Last Name










Reading this lost and found ad, one gets a sense of the diversity of items brought onto these railway cars. This type of ad serves a social history function, giving us a glimpse at life in a different time. This particular advertisement lists a wide range of items—from what you would expect someone losing on public transportation (like an umbrella or a rain coat) to items you wouldn’t expect (a hatchet and a saucepan).

newspaper lost and found ad, Baltimore American newspaper advertisement 5 August 1911

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 5 August 1911, page 1

Lost and Found Ads Are a Valuable Genealogy Resource

Searching newspaper lost and found ads can provide important information for your family history. Like some of the other resources that we rely on for our genealogy research today, these ads won’t be a resource for future genealogists since they’re no longer in use. When I recently searched my local newspapers for the lost and found column, they were nonexistent. Luckily for us, they are abundant in old newspapers like the online collection of GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives—and lost and found ads are just one example of the many types of newspaper classifieds that can aid our search for our family’s story.

Newspaper Search Tip: Initials matter! In my searches through lost and found ads I saw names, addresses, and phone numbers. However, because an ancestor may have had to be brief when placing an ad, depending on what they had to pay per word or letter, it’s likely they may have abbreviated as much as possible—including their name. That’s why searching for your ancestor by different name variations is so important, including their initials.

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Family History Saturates American Pop Culture & Advertising

You can find references to genealogy everywhere in America these days.

In a current Capital One TV commercial, Alec Baldwin and “the boys” use their double miles to fly home for their family reunion.

Family Reunion Capital One Venture Card Commercial

So opens the familiar Capital One ad—this works because of the underpinning of family reunions in our lives. With quick one-liners and unexpected zingers, this is one of the funniest “genealogy”-based ads created by DDB.com.

Genealogy research was the key to solving a recent case on NCIS-Los Angeles and constantly comes up in TV sitcoms & mysteries, and in novels. From Harry Potter to Despicable Me—it’s everywhere.

harry potter family tree

Credit: Wikipedia and Warner Brothers.

Family history is critical to the plot in the Harry Potter series. In every page we see that key events happen because of the intertwined branches of the family tree of the charters in this popular wizard’s family saga.

The 2004 BBDO (New York, New York) ads for Cingular/AT&T capture the pull that family and family trees have in American culture.

AT&T / Cingular Family Tree Commerical – BBDO

What references to family history are you seeing in popular culture? Tell us about them in the comments section.

The Marketing Finesse of Mrs. Lydia E. Pinkham

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena researches old newspaper articles and advertisements to show how, more than a century ago, Lydia Estes Pinkham used marketing techniques to promote her medicinal “vegetable compound” that may inspire today’s businesses.

Looking for marketing ideas for your business? You may want to take a look at old newspapers for inspiration.

Consider the work of Lydia Estes Pinkham.

Mrs Lydia E. Pinkham of Lynn Mass. Medical Vegtable Compound - Watertown Daily Times

Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, New York), 12 August 1880, page 4.

Who Is Lydia Pinkham?

Who is Lydia Pinkham you ask? She was a wife and mother living in Lynn, Massachusetts, when the Depression of 1873 threatened to ruin her family financially. Lydia had a recipe for a medicinal elixir that she had previously shared with family and friends. She started manufacturing and bottling this “medicine” in an effort to better her family’s financial position.

Faces Sell

Lydia Pinkham was a master marketer. Her marketing plan included placing an image of herself on her product’s bottles. By putting her face on the label she established a credibility with her target audience, women. She had several medicines; her vegetable compound was likely the most popular and had an alcohol content that was as high as 20%.[ii] At a time where visiting a physician was expensive and women suffered in silence through a variety of ailments—or ingested medicines that had deadly ingredients—Pinkham’s medicine provided some hope.

Customer Testimonials

Lydia also produced pamphlets, which were really thinly disguised recipe books, which not only gave suggestions of what products a woman should use but provided women’s own stories of being cured. In the pamphlet titled Food and Health, there are numerous testimonials that include women’s names and addresses. The pamphlet says of these testimonials: “…you will find letters from many classes of women, young and old, mother and daughter. They are genuine expressions of gratitude from one woman to another.”[iii]

Lydia Pinkham Obituary - Western Recorder Newspaper

Western Recorder (Lawrence, Kansas), 24 May 1883, page 4.

Establish Expertise

Pinkham encouraged her customers to write to her with their health questions. This service became so popular that these letters were being answered years after Pinkham’s death and signed by “Mrs. Pinkham.” When a photo of the gravestone of Lydia Pinkham was published in a 1905 issue of the magazine Ladies’ Home Journal it caused some to question the validity of these letters. Even though Lydia’s 1883 obituary had run in newspapers all around the country, it seems some people believed that Lydia was still answering these letters long after her death. At the end of this 1907 California newspaper article “Mrs. Pinkham” clarifies that she is actually the daughter-in-law of the real Mrs. Lydia Pinkham.

Tumors Conquered - Lydia Pinkham's Vegtable Compound Newspaper Article

Evening News (San Jose, California), 1 May 1907, page 6.

Advertise!

Newspapers ran all kinds of advertisements for Pinkham’s products including those with images and names of women customers singing the product’s praises. Were these women real or just figments of the company’s marketing machine? It appears that they were real women and although they may seem quite personal to us today, these testimonies are really not that different from postings online on medical support group boards, mailing lists, or review websites.

For Older Women - Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 27 June 1930, section 2 page 22.

Enjoy Enduring Business Success

Did Lydia’s marketing work? The evidence of her company’s success is that you can still purchase her reformulated products, manufactured by a different company, today. Marketing techniques that Lydia used in the 19th century, including customer testimonials, are still an effective way to spread the news about products in today’s market.


[i] From Food and Health, page 2. Testimonial by Mrs. Mary Dipietro of Canton, Ohio. < http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4089243?n=4&imagesize=1200&jp2Res=.25&printThumbnails=no> Available online in the Lydia Estes Pinkham Collection http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4089243 on the Harvard University Library’s Open Collections Program Women Working, 1800-1930 at http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/ww/pinkham.html.

[ii] The Name that Launched a Million Bottles. The Annette & Irwin Eskind Biomedical Library, http://www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/biolib/hc/nostrums/pinkham.html.

[iii] From Food and Health. Available online in the Lydia Estes Pinkham Collection http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4089243 on the Harvard University Library’s Open Collections Program Women Working, 1800-1930 at http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/ww/pinkham.html.

The Importance of Old Newspaper Advertisements to Genealogy

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about the value of a resource in newspapers that is often overlooked by genealogists: the classified ads.

“Be sure to drink your Ovaltine. Ovaltine? A crummy commercial.”—Ralphie Parker from the movie A Christmas Story.

Advertisements: they often seem the bane of our existence. On television, advertisements scream at us every few minutes, interrupting our favorite shows. When you pick up a magazine it seems that more than half the pages are filled with ads for everything from food and household cleaners to prescription medications. Now in the world of Web 2.0, advertisements invade every aspect of our Internet experience, even as a necessary evil when using free apps.

In today’s world advertisements are impersonal and contain little family information—but this was not always the case. Ads from an earlier era were different, more personally connected to their audience, and can provide helpful information for family historians. This is especially true of advertisements from old newspapers.

When you think of the “important” sections of the newspaper for family history research, what do you think of? Vital record announcements, obituaries, and human interest stories may come to mind as sources of genealogical information. But what about those parts of the newspaper that aren’t considered “content rich”? What about advertisements?

As a genealogist researching your family history, why should you care about newspaper advertisements? Well, advertisements in newspapers from yesteryear can help researchers in two ways. The obvious way is that they can provide the name of an ancestor’s business—but they also provide us with social history background that can be crucial in reconstructing an ancestor’s time and place.

Consider this strip of ads from an old Kansas newspaper.

classified ads, Coffeyville Herald newspaper 25 April 1908

Coffeyville Herald (Coffeyville, Kansas), 25 April 1908, page 4

From these old advertisements we learn the name of proprietors of goods ranging from clothes and hats to fish, and even ice cream. An additional benefit of historical newspaper advertisements is that they provide a peek into activities long since extinct. Consider the millinery and phyrography store. Phyrography is when someone decorates a wood or leather surface by burning the design into the surface with a type of heated metallic “pen.”

Here are some old classified ads from an 1851 Georgia newspaper.

classified ads, Savannah Republican newspaper 18 June 1851

Savannah Republican (Savannah, Georgia), 18 June 1851, page 1

Here we see not only classified ads but a listing of merchant names. Must-have information for our ancestors including fares and stops for the Central Rail-Road and some ship lines are also found on this page. Further down, readers can see that there are notices of public land sales in Arkansas. Do you have an ancestor who started out in Georgia and ended up in Arkansas? Maybe they saw this notice for the land sale and headed west.

In some cases, historical advertisements can be found with other types of notices, as illustrated in this Civil War-era newspaper from Texas.

classified ads, Standard newspaper 9 May 1863

Standard (Clarksville, Texas), 9 May 1863, page 1

The advertisements and announcements on this page include notices from administrators of wills, a physician who will begin his practice, and information from the War Department. There are old ads for medicinal drugs that are for sale, presumably at a local pharmacy: opium, morphine, Blue Mass (a remedy that “cured” all sorts of problems including pains from childbirth, tuberculosis, constipation, and syphilis—one of its ingredients was mercury), ipicac, and Dovers Powders (a remedy for colds and fevers that contained opium) are just some of the “medicines” you could pick up.

One of the great things about this series of advertisements is that it is a reflection of the times. Note the short notice asking families to save rags because they are needed to make paper. Five cents a pound is offered for rags. During the Civil War, the South experienced all types of shortages including paper. This notice gives insight into these wartime shortages.

Can advertisements provide genealogists with answers about their ancestors? Yes! Not only can they provide proof of an ancestor’s occupation but they can also provide a sense of their era. These advertisements provide a much-needed history lesson for our genealogy. While it can be tempting to skip over some sections of a newspaper, don’t skip the old advertisements. They provide insight into your ancestor’s life.