Finding Ancestors’ Names Can Be Child’s Play: Paper Doll Comics

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena addresses the problem that it’s often hard to find information about our ancestors when they were children. One solution? Look for their participation in fashion and coloring paper doll contests run by newspapers.

Previously in my article “What about the Kids? Researching Your Family Tree’s Children” I wrote about places to find children’s names in newspapers. I commented on how as researchers we genealogists often ignore the childhood of our ancestors because children did not generate the quantity of records that adults left behind.

The wonderful thing about newspapers is that they are the great equalizer: they record the stories of everyone whether rich or poor, young or old. While there can be no doubt that some people get more articles written about them than others, you can find ancestors’ names in all sorts of places in the newspaper—even in something as unexpected as a paper doll contest.

"Tillie the Toiler" paper doll

Credit: Windows Live Photo Gallery

It seems that today very few children read newspapers—or for that matter very few adults. But it wasn’t too long ago that children read the newspaper often, at the very least to check out the comics page, enter contests, and even acquire new toys to play with. One toy that could be found in the Sunday newspaper was paper dolls. According to the OPDAG (The Original Paper Doll Artists Guild) article “History of Paper Dolls” by Judy M. Johnson, the Boston Herald was printing newspaper paper dolls as early as the 1890s. Additional wardrobes for those paper dolls could be found in subsequent issues of the newspaper, adding to the child’s paper doll collection. During the Depression years, children could find many different newspaper paper dolls, most based on their favorite comics including “Boots and Millie” and “Jane Arden.”

Not only would the comic strip authors themselves provide dolls and wardrobes in the Sunday papers, they would solicit contributions from readers. One comic strip that encouraged readers to design outfits was “Tillie the Toiler.” Tillie, drawn by Russ Westover, ran in newspapers from 1921 to 1959. Tillie toiled at her jobs as a stenographer, secretary and model. Her life as a single working girl was the focus of the strip and the character of Tillie was also featured in a couple of movies.

Here’s a call to the young readers of “Tillie the Toiler” to submit designs for the Fashion Parade.

Dresses for Tillie! Plain Dealer newspaper article 29 January 1933

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 29 January 1933, page 1

I’m always on the lookout for unusual places to find ancestors’ names. Searching through those newspaper paper doll fashion contests can yield the names of the winners; those people chosen to have their doll and/or wardrobe published. Not only are the contest winners’ names and cities printed but sometimes even street addresses and, occasionally, the winners’ relationships to other budding fashionistas—such as in this example, where friends Zelene Des Champs and Ann Wolff from South Carolina submitted entries together.

"Tillie the Toiler" paper doll

Credit: from the author’s collection

Girls were not the only ones who submitted entries; boys and even married women from the United States and Canada submitted their doll and fashion drawings.

Aside from designing an outfit and having their name printed in the newspaper, children could also enter coloring contests featuring their favorite comic characters. In this 1933 newspaper article, Shirley Jean French is congratulated on her winning entry by “Tillie the Toiler” cartoonist Russ Westover. According to the 1930 U.S. census Shirley was 12 years old when she won the first-prize award. Of Shirley’s entry, Westover wrote that “Tillie has never been better dressed.”

winner of "Tillie the Toiler" coloring contest, San Diego Union newspaper article 27 August 1933

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 27 August 1933, page 11

While today’s American children may not be as engaged with newspapers as previous generations, for their grandparents and great-grandparents the Sunday comics page was not just a place to get a few laughs—it may have been a place to leave their mark on the world.

Genealogy Tip: Examine every part of a newspaper when doing your family history searches. You never know where a long-sought ancestor’s name might turn up—an obscure ad, a paper doll contest, a family recipe—providing a little more detail to help bring that name on your family tree to life.

How the 5 Ws & FAV(orites) in Newspapers Can Help Genealogists

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott explains how he adds his own personal touch to the “5 Ws” (Who, What, When, Where & Why) of newspaper journalism to enliven his family history research.

Recently I wrote here on the GenealogyBank.com blog about how much I love the 5 Ws (Who, What, When, Where & Why) of good, high-quality newspaper reporting for my genealogy and family history work. There is little better than finding an interesting article in one of the thousands of GenealogyBank.com newspapers that contains your ancestor’s name, and then topping that off by finding that the reporter adhered to the newspaperwoman/man’s mantra of the 5 Ws. Most decidedly, to me, it just doesn’t get much better than this! However, since none of us genealogy-crazy folks ever leave something well enough alone, I like to add my own FAVs to the 5 Ws. Now, while I know this won’t win me a Pulitzer or anything, my FAVs do help my family search efforts.

My FAV(orites) are this: Fun, Adventure, and Value.

First, FUN: One of my key precepts as a genealogist is that we must always keep the fun in our work. If we hope to attract the interest of others to genealogy and family history, one of the easiest ways to do this is by making it fun! Whenever I am doing genealogy research in newspapers I am reminded that my father always began his day, every day, with the funny pages of the newspaper. Although a businessman through-and-through, he said the news and business of the day could wait while he started his day with a smile and a chuckle. I have wonderful memories of my dad in his crisp white shirt and tie, coffee mug in hand, and seeing his eyes sparkling as he laughed at the funnies. So it is from these vivid memories that I keep the fun in my genealogy in a variety of ways. One of which is that whenever I am searching old newspapers I make sure to check the funnies.

If nothing else I enjoy seeing how some of my favorites have changed over the years, like good old Dagwood Bumstead of the “Blondie” comic; I found this example in a 1938 newspaper. That day’s comic featured a coal-fired furnace (like my grandparents’ home had), old-fashioned telephone switchboard (which I recall from my old hometown), and much more all in one comic. Times like this give me what I call “a minute vacation” and the fun refreshes me for the work ahead.

"Blondie" comic strip, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper 11 December 1938

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 11 December 1938, page 115

Second, ADVENTURE: I also love discovering in old newspaper articles the adventures that our ancestors had. As a matter of fact, just two days ago I was beginning my genealogy research on the Fortelka family branch in our family tree when I discovered Frank Fortelka aka “The Bohemian Cyclone”!

Pugilism: The Cyclone Will Fight, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 April 1895

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 April 1895, page 3

Not only did I get to follow The Cyclone’s career as a boxer, but also his career after that when he became a member of the “thin blue line” as a police officer for the city of Cleveland, Ohio. I also learned that The Cyclone was known to use his fisticuffs abilities against ne’re-do-wells in that city, often being reported to take on groups of twenty or more, successfully subdue them, and bring them to justice—with only his fists! Wow, talk about a real-life adventure and superhero! Then I got treated to his photograph, along with his wife’s picture for good measure, in a 1947 newspaper article about the golden wedding anniversary of The Bohemian Cyclone and his wife.

Ex-Boxer and Wife Married 50 Years, Plain Dealer  newspaper article 26 October 1947

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 26 October 1947, page 16

Third, VALUE: Another of my mantras in my genealogy work is to capture the persona, not just the data, of my ancestors. I believe that nothing adds more value to my family tree quite like the insight into the real persona of my ancestors that I gain from newspaper articles. I find great value in newspapers’ photographs, in-depth information, stories, and articles on the times my ancestors lived, and much, much more. The last time I looked at my family tree I found that I have more than 320 newspaper articles attached to the profiles of my family members and ancestors! Now that is what I call adding value. Of course, while I love the value these impart to me, I am even more thrilled when their value is realized by others.

For instance, whenever I get to share a newly discovered newspaper account about one of our ancestors with my 93-year-old Mother I get to see the happiness in her eyes and hear the excitement in her voice. Now that, my friends, is adding real value!

photo of Scott Phillips' mother

From the author’s collection

So tell me—what do you add to the 5 Ws in newspaper journalism as you work on your family tree?