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