Help Wanted-Female Classified Ads: Working Women Ancestors

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena shows how “Help Wanted-Female” ads in historical newspapers can help you learn more about the employment opportunities that were available to your women ancestors—and learn about the places and eras they lived in.

What type of work did your female ancestor do? We often assume that our women ancestors were just “housewives” and didn’t work outside of the home. But for many women and girls, some sort of outside work was not an option—it was a financial necessity.

photo of a secretary at her typewriter, 1912

Photo: secretary at typewriter, 1912. Source: Miami University Libraries.

Early Newspaper Classifieds

So how did your female ancestor find employment? One option would have been the local newspaper’s Help Wanted advertisements. Prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, those classified advertisements were very specific. They didn’t just provide qualifications the employer was looking for; they sometimes specified race, gender, and even age. Classified ads often included the headings “Help Wanted-Female” and “Help Wanted-Male.” In the 1970s this segregation of ads was deemed illegal, and Help-Wanted ads evolved to the advertisements we are accustomed to reading today.

photo of women weavers at work, c. 1910

Photo: weavers at work, c. 1910. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Help Wanted-Female Ads

Help Wanted-Female advertisements were not just employers looking for any qualified woman to apply for their job offerings. These ads were in some cases very specific about what type of female employee they wanted.

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For example, while these 1885 Help Wanted ads from New York include jobs like cooking and cleaning—they also contain ads that request women of a certain religion or ethnic background. While an obvious sign of discrimination to us, these employment requirements were a common practice in the nineteenth century. In cases of families looking for household help, they may have added such requirements to their ads in hopes of finding someone that mirrored their own familial background, or spoke their language. No doubt, such requirements were sometimes added to Help Wanted ads due to stereotypical beliefs that a certain ethnic or racial group produced better housekeepers and cooks, or were less likely to steal.

help wanted-female ads, New York Herald newspaper advertisements 1 October 1885

New York Herald (New York, New York), 1 October 1885, page 12

photo of women typists and accountants, c. 1920

Photo: typists and accountants, c. 1920. Source: George Eastman House Collection.

Help Wanted advertisements were not just segregated according to gender but also, in some cases, age or race. All of these advertisements from 1921specifically request a female: one wants an “Italian, Spanish or French” woman, one wants a “middle-aged” woman, one wants a “young” woman, and two want “white” women.

help wanted-female ads, Trenton Evening Times newspaper advertisements 13 July 1921

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 13 July 1921, page 18

photo of a maid doing laundry, San Diego, California, 1941

Photo: maid doing laundry, San Diego, California, 1941. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Social History in the Classifieds

One of the reasons I love classified advertisements is that they provide some social history information that can assist in learning more about the place and era of your ancestor. The 1885 ad above reflects how American jobs have changed over time, and provides a look at what types of employment women and girls could expect to engage in. In this particular Help Wanted column, one advertisement is searching for a “Girl who can mount hat birds…”

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To understand this advertisement you need to know a little bit about late nineteenth century fashion history. Women during this time period were sporting hats decorated with bird feathers and entire stuffed birds. These practices resulted in the killing of large numbers of birds in the name of fashion. Later, the production of these hats fell out of favor after concentrated bird conservation efforts targeted women’s demand for the style.

help wanted-female ad, New York Herald newspaper advertisement 1 October 1885

New York Herald (New York, New York), 1 October 1885, page 12

In another Help Wanted example, from 1915, we find an advertisement looking for girls to work in a cigar factory. While today we associate cigar making with Cuba and the Caribbean, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, cigar making thrived in the United States and was seen as “women’s work” in cities such as Harrisburg, where this Help Wanted advertisement for the Harrisburg Cigar Company is from. This ad starts with announcing that they are looking for girls over 16 years of age to “strip” tobacco (remove the center stem in the tobacco leaf). Other jobs found in making cigars are also listed, including rollers, bunchmakers and packers.

help wanted-female ads, Patriot newspaper advertisements 26 November 1915

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 26 November 1915, page 11

Situations Wanted

Women didn’t just find work through the Help Wanted ads; they may have also placed an ad in the Situations Wanted column to find a particular employment opportunity. This was a good tactic especially if the woman had a child and needed a live-in situation, was older, or did not speak English.

situation wanted-female ads, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper advertisements 1 June 1906

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 1 June 1906, page 9

Did your female ancestor have a job? She just might have—and by reading the classifieds in the local newspaper of her hometown and era, you may get a sense for what types of employment were available to her.

Do you know what your early female ancestors did for a living? Please share the positions the women in your family occupied with us in the comments.

More Articles Related to Female Ancestors’ Occupations:

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Our Ancestors’ Stories Live in Old Newspaper Ads Too

I like to look at every mention of each ancestor that I am researching—and that includes newspaper classified ads.

While looking through the Newark Daily Advertiser for 1835 I was surprised to see this unusual paid advertisement.

ad from E. Allen in support of Julia Moore, Newark Daily Advertiser newspaper advertisement 3 July 1835

Newark Daily Advertiser (Newark, New Jersey), 3 July 1835, page 3

What is with this odd newspaper advertisement?

This is to certify, that the bearer, Julia Moore…[is] perfectly honest, never having had the slightest cause for suspicion.

Something must have been wrong if E. Allen felt compelled to take out an ad attesting to Julia Moore’s honesty.

Wait—here’s another one.

ad from M. Seguine in support of Julia Moore, Newark Daily Advertiser newspaper advertisement 3 July 1835

Newark Daily Advertiser (Newark, New Jersey), 3 July 1835, page 3

This old newspaper ad tells us that Julia lived with the Seguine household “for two months during the fall of 1834.” The subscriber went on to state:

I found her perfectly honest, and industrious: she had every opportunity of being dishonest, if she had been so inclined, but I never have had the least cause for suspicion.

OK. There must be more to this story if both subscribers took out ads testifying to the honesty of Julia Moore.

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Digging deeper into the newspaper archives I found the answer—in the classified ads.

ad about Julia Moore offering reward for stolen cap, Newark Daily Advertiser newspaper advertisement 27 June 1835

Newark Daily Advertiser (Newark, New Jersey), 27 June 1835, page 3

Julia Moore, a young Irish girl of about 13 years old, was accused of stealing an elaborate woman’s hat from her employer when she left for a different job. The former employer bluntly attacks the honesty of the young girl, and also tries to push that suspicion onto her friends that “refuse to tell where she is.”

Now the situation is clearer. Not only was Julia’s reputation insulted in the June 27th ad, but so was the good name of “her friends”—the Allen and Seguine households—causing them both to take out ads six days later attesting to her honesty.

This discord gives us a lot of genealogical information:

  • Her name, Julia Moore
  • She had a sister
  • She was born in Ireland, and in 1835 was about age 13
  • She had lived in Newark at the Seguine home for two months in 1834
  • In 1835 she lived with the Allen household where her sister also lived
  • Her former employer wanted a missing cap back, or information about the cap and about the girl

Life in America was difficult for this young 13-year-old immigrant. There is no mention of her parents, only her sister. This must have been a terrifying time for her in the face of her former employer’s accusations, and hopefully her concerns were tempered by the kindness of these other two families.

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Was Julia’s story passed down in the family?

Do her descendants understand the hard life their immigrant ancestor lived at age 13?

Imagine her fear, her lost childhood, and the realities of having to deal with an unjust employer. This is a gritty story that a 13-year-old would quickly understand today. I hope that Julia’s story was passed down, and that the family today tells and retells her story, honoring her grit in the face of this painful episode—and that they know about the great kindness shown her in her youth.

Genealogy Tip: Don’t let your family’s stories be lost. Track down every lead in the newspapers, looking through every page right down to the classified ads.

GenealogyBank’s deep newspaper archive is your best source to find and preserve your family’s stories.

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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.

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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.

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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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Missing Men: Lost Husband Ads in Newspapers for Genealogy

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena explores a family history resource in old newspapers that may surprise you: missing husband ads.

The Internet, text messaging, email, cell phones, social media and instant messaging…today we take for granted the convenience and peace of mind that having access to a person at the drop of a hat—24 hours a day, 7 days a week—brings. When I was a teenager my parents knew that if I drove somewhere they would not hear from me again until I returned home. If I was going to be late I would find a telephone booth and call but there was no way to be in touch constantly. In today’s world, parents panic if they don’t get an immediate response from their cell phone-attached youngsters.

Imagine a time when, if someone left the house and didn’t return, there were few ways to track them down.

Immigrant Disappearances

I was confronted with this reality years ago when I researched a client’s grandfather who had come to the United States in the early 20th century to seek out a better life for his family. The idea, like for many immigrants, was that he would emigrate first to find work and then make enough money to bring his wife and children over to their new home.

Instead they never heard from him again. No one knew what happened to him. The family wasn’t sure if he had died en route or years after arriving in America. Back at the time he disappeared, there was little that could be done to find a person who simply vanished into thin air. In some cases leaving without a trace was seen as a preferable option to a difficult or expensive divorce proceeding. In other tragic cases, an unfortunate mishap or act of violence was the reason for an unintended disappearance.

Missing Husband Newspaper Ads

So what did 19th and 20th century wives do when their husbands left and never returned? They used the newspaper. Specific newspaper articles targeting missing husbands existed, as in the case of the Jewish Daily Forward, which for a time included a column entitled the “Gallery of Missing Men” that provided descriptions and photos of husbands who had deserted their wives.

Newspapers also provided women the option of taking out a personal advertisement in the classifieds asking for the public’s help in finding their missing husbands.

These missing husband newspaper ads might be a surprising source of family history information, helping you fill in some details about your ancestors that you can’t find elsewhere.

Consider these two advertisements found in a 1907 Texas newspaper from GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, both placed by women pleading for the public’s help in finding their husbands.

missing husband ads, Dallas Morning News newspaper advertisements 12 September 1907

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 12 September 1907, page 8

In the case of the second advertisement placed by Mrs. H. L. Hooyer, her husband Henry was a harness maker who one day disappeared. In a previous advertisement more details of H. L. Hooyer were given, including a physical description and what he was wearing when he disappeared.

missing husband ad for Henry Hooyer, Dallas Morning News newspaper advertisement 28 August 1907

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 28 August 1907, page 8

Mrs. H. L. Hooyer placed multiple advertisements in the Dallas Morning News looking for her husband. His union magazine also carried notices of his disappearance. An article in the October 1907 The Leather Worker’s Journal (available from Google Books) from the Dallas Chief of Police provided information as well as a $50 reward. (See: http://bit.ly/1gfsW1C)

missing husband ad for Henry Hooyer, The Leather Workers’ Journal, October 1907

The Leather Workers’ Journal, October 1907. Credit: Google Books.

Another personal notice in The Leather Workers’ Journal stated that the family feared Hooyer had been a victim of foul play, with an unconfirmed report of his drowning in Nebraska. Conducting a quick search for H. L. Hooyer in GenealogyBank confirms that he had been involved in at least one past criminal court case, as well as a civil case, months prior to his disappearance. Whether Henry did meet with an untimely death or not, his wife is listed in subsequent city directories and in the 1910 U.S. Census as a widow.

Find Lost Ancestors in Missing Person Ads

In an era when social media meant a daily or weekly newspaper, personal advertisements alerted the community to those who went missing. For wives who found themselves suddenly alone, the classifieds were one of their only options for seeking help locating their missing husbands.

Genealogy Search Tip: Remember, newspapers are full of family history information—which sometimes turns up in the most unexpected places. Don’t rule out the classified ads when searching newspapers; your distressed ancestor may have placed an ad for her missing husband, providing personal details to help fill out your family tree.

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.

Genealogy Search Tip: Are Your Queries Returning Too Many Records?

GenealogyBank has grown from 160 million records since its inception to over 1.3 billion records today. That is a lot of articles to search through to find information about your family history. Genealogists often approach GenealogyBank with a direct search—using a surname—searching across the entire database to make sure we don’t miss any genealogy records about the family.

Sometimes, though, the simplest search query returns too many records for you to reasonably examine them all. When that happens, GenealogyBank has created over a dozen targeted search pages to help you narrow down the number of results you get back. Here’s a quick list of these helpful targeted search pages to get you started:

You can also perform targeted ethnic family searches with our African American, Hispanic and Irish American search pages.

Use these special search pages to narrow down your search to a particular type of newspaper article, as the following example shows.

Let’s say you’re searching for all the arrivals and departures of the ship Hector. If you search GenealogyBank just using the word “Hector,” you’ll get 400,000 hits. But, if you search the word “Hector” using the handy Passenger Lists link on our home page or in the left navigation pane of the Newspaper Archives category, you can narrow those search results to 14,000 passenger and ship records that specifically mention the ship Hector.

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for "Hector"

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for “Hector”

Even 14,000 records are a lot to examine. Limit the search again by a range of years when your relatives likely arrived on the ship Hector and you’ll have a manageable number of articles to sift through. Let’s say you are reasonably sure your ancestors arrived in America on the ship Hector sometime between 1820 and 1825—go ahead and use that date range in your search query.

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on "Hector" from 1820-1825

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on “Hector” from 1820-1825

Save time and zero in on the articles you need. GenealogyBank has more than a dozen targeted search pages: use them to focus your searches for the type of newspaper article you are looking for.

GenealogyBank targeted search pages

GenealogyBank targeted search pages