A 1941 News Article Reminds Us of the Real Meaning of Christmas

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan shares an old newspaper article she found recently while doing family history research, which presents one man’s discovery in 1941 about the meaning of Christmas.

While doing some family history research recently in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, I ran across an article written by Channing Pollock in 1941.

photo of a candle on a Christmas tree

Photo: candle on a Christmas tree. Credit: Gerbil; Wikimedia Commons.

His article is so wonderful that I transcribed every word to share with our readers.

I Ran Away from Christmas, by Channing Pollock, Boston Herald newspaper article 21 December 1941

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 21 December 1941, page 16

I Ran Away from Christmas

By Channing Pollock

It was four or five years ago that my wife and I wearied of Christmas and decided to “get away from it all.” We had had a couple of very dull holiday dinners with relatives who didn’t think of us much – or think much of us – the other 364 days, and we had revolted against the janitor and the delivery boys and what-not along the avenue of itching palms.

“I’m tired,” my wife said, “of fighting crowds in shops, and wrapping things in tissue, and addressing hundreds of envelopes. I’d like to go where we could just have each other, and something really resembling ‘peace on earth.’”

“There is an ancient and honorable hymn,” I reminded her, “that runs, ‘Peace, perfect peace, with the loved ones far away.’”

So we spent that Christmas in Taormina – and we shall always remember it as the drabbest, loneliest, most generally wretched 24 hours of our lives.

Not that we didn’t get all we bargained for – and then some. Taormina, near the foot of Mount Aetna, is one of the quaintest, loveliest towns in the world. It has, or had, a palatial hotel that used to be a monastery, and is the coldest, most utterly impersonal of all possible places to spend the Yuletide. My wife and daughter and I rose at the usual hour and wished one another Merry Christmas – but there was no merriment, or anything that even remotely suggested Christmas. When we said Merry Christmas to the waiters and chambermaids, and crossed their palms with silver, they thanked us impersonally. Secretly we longed for our postman, who always rang twice at Christmas, and for the delivery boys, and for the two or three old servants who used to have Christmas dinner in our kitchen.

Nobody phoned, of course. At 10 o’clock we went to church in the biggest, most impersonal church I ever saw, with only strangers about us, and the service in a strange tongue. By then we were fairly aching for contacts with those we loved, whether or not we loved them or they us the other 364 days. So we strolled down the main street and sent yearning cables to all our sisters and cousins and aunts. No one replied; we had told them we wanted a quiet Christmas, and we got our wish. We opened the gifts we had bought (missing all the foolish tissue and tinsel and mess) and it seemed somehow odd and idiotic to be giving things to one another in big, empty, stone-floored rooms.

By night we felt like God’s step-children, and we sat alone at a huge table in a vast dining room, ate antipasto and ravioli and duck with olives, and listened to a string quartet. On the way out, at the other end of the hall, we saw a Christmas tree, trimmed and lighted and surrounded by a gay group of holiday-dressed children and grown-ups. “That’s nice of the hotel,” we thought, and rushed for the tree as though it were an oasis in a desert. We were within a few feet of it when the doors were closed in our faces; this was a private celebration, and no strangers wanted. After that, none of us troubled to hide our depression. We clung to, and were glad – so glad – we had one another.

For the rest of our lives we shall spend the Yule season shopping, and wrapping, and calling Merry Christmas to everyone we see, and being warmed and happy that they call Merry Christmas to us.

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The truth of the matter is that we all need the hurly-burly of Christmas, when the world is open-house, and gay and open-hearted. Those other 364 days we are remote from most of our fellows, thinking of ourselves and our business and humdrum preoccupations. We have been thinking of dreadful things, too, those 364 days – of marching men, and dead and dying men, and desolate and hungry women and children. For one day, it is blessed to retreat into childhood, and simple faith, and kindness and generosity, and all the memories and traditions of a festival born with the gentle Jesus. Scrooge may call it “a shopkeepers’ holiday,” but you and I know that something more precious than money goes into those shops, and something more wanted and needed than socks and slippers and rings and perfume comes out. The things we wrap in tissue and tinsel are not toys and ornaments, but tenderness and love and the wish to bring happiness to others.

All the spirit of Christmas, to me, is in that exquisite story of O. Henry’s, “The Gift of the Magi,” about the man who sold his watch to buy side combs for his wife’s beautiful hair, while his wife was selling her hair to buy a gold fob for his treasured watch.

Since our own cheerless Christmas journey, I’ve found a good many other people who have tried to spend Christmas in Taormina, in some manner of speaking. But I’ve never known one who will ever try it again. A dear, wise woman I know had a letter from a friend who said he’d decided “Christmas is a nuisance” and was asking all his friends to ignore him on that occasion. At Christmas, the woman wrote him: “I’m disregarding your request, so that you may have one message of love and remembrance on what you are going to find the emptiest day you have ever experienced.” Before night, she received an almost tearful telegram saying she was right.

Christmas, when you come to think of it, is an annual miracle: an annual rebirth of Christ. At the sign of clock and calendar, millions of us who give little thought to religion the rest of the year find ourselves remembering the Star and the Wise Men. For a time, the meanest of us become generous, the most relentless become forgiving. Even the men in tanks and bombing planes pause, if only an instant, to remember home – to realize that there are such things as homes.

No, Christmas in Taormina is no good, unless you belong in Taormina and your heart dwells there. That goes for Timbuktu, Tasmania and Tillamook, Oregon, too. For when you really escape Christmas, you escape humankind.

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A 1930s Secret Santa: the Christmas Story of Mr. B. Virdot

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to learn more about a wonderful Christmas story from the midst of the Great Depression: one man in Canton, Ohio, decided to do something to help his struggling neighbors that Christmas. And he did it anonymously.

There’s no doubt the sting of the Great Depression years was felt by families of all socio-economic levels in the United States. The severe economic downturn was a great equalizer and affected everyone – from the formerly well-off, country club member business man to the common laborer. That pain of crushing poverty would have felt even harsher during the holidays.

In 1933 one man in Canton, Ohio, decided to do something to help his neighbors at Christmas. Secretly under an assumed name, this man placed a newspaper ad, opened a bank account with $750, and proceeded to give away this money to those in need. While many families after the fact wrote letters thanking him, it wasn’t until 70 years later that the identity of this mysterious “Secret Santa” and the full impact of his generosity were uncovered through family history research.

The Christmas Gift

A week prior to Christmas, on 18 December 1933 in the Canton Ohio Repository, an advertisement was published titled “In Consideration of the White Collar Man” that invites those having financial difficulties to receive a check by sending a letter to B. Virdot, General Delivery, providing information about their circumstances.

an ad to help people financially struggling at Christmas during the Great Depression, Repository newspaper advertisement 18 December 1933

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 18 December 1933, page 3

That newspaper advertisement was not the only mention of this holiday gift in the paper that day. On the front page, a story about B. Virdot provides more information about the advertisement which ran only that one day. It begins:

A Canton man who was toppled from a large fortune to practically nothing but whom returning prosperity has helped fight back to wealth and comfort, has a Christmas present waiting for 75 deserving fellow townsmen.

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The old news article continues on to say that this Christmas gift is one with no “strings, no embarrassment,” $10 to 75 families in need.* The holiday gift is meant for “men, like the giver, have once held responsible positions, have been deprived of their income through general economic conditions, but who hesitate to knock at charity’s door for aid.” The historical news article explains that the name “B. Virdot” is fictitious but the donor is a local businessman who has known financial difficulties and, with the help of others, has recovered and now wants to share that gift with others.

Man Who Felt Depression's Sting to Help 75 Unfortunate Families, Repository newspaper article 18 December 1933

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 18 December 1933, page 1

News of this Christmas gift was carried in other newspapers, with coverage continuing well after the fact. For example, in the early part of 1934 notice of B. Virdot’s generosity was printed in this Pennsylvania newspaper.

Once Hit by Hard Times, He Now Opens His Purse, National Labor Tribune newspaper article 24 February 1934

National Labor Tribune (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), 24 February 1934, page 5

The Family History

Normally, the touching Christmas story would end there: impoverished families receive generous gift from anonymous donor. What more could be said, in a case like that with no real name to track down? Letters written requesting assistance are ephemeral, and easily thrown away once read.

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Fast forward 70 years when Ted Gup, a writer and newspaper reporter, was given a suitcase by his mother. The suitcase, belonging to his maternal grandfather, held family history documents that were of interest to Gup. But once opened, he also found letters from 1933, written by 150 people whose surnames he recognized as coming from his hometown  of Canton, Ohio, and all addressed to B. Virdot – a name unknown to him.** Why did his grandfather have these letters?

Through research and talking with his mother, Gup learned the magnitude of those letters. The true identity and miraculous secret kept all those years was that “B. Virdot” was his grandfather, Sam Stone, a Jewish Romanian immigrant who knew all too well about hardship. Amazingly, his selfless act not only helped people he didn’t know but also helped once-wealthy businessmen who were his acquaintances – but they never knew the identity of their benefactor.

Gup’s book, A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness – and a Trove of Letters – Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression (2011), tells the story of not only his own family but also the present-day families of those helped by the B. Virdot checks. The research used to piece together these stories includes methods familiar to family historians: oral interviews, vital records, land records, and of course newspapers.

Another Lasting Legacy

Often when we research family history its impact is felt by us and those family members that we share it with. One of the big lessons of the story of B. Virdot/Sam Stone and the research done by his grandson is that it’s a mistake to not take into consideration our ancestor’s community. Friends, neighbors and acquaintances all had an impact on their lives. Ted Gup, by following up with the descendants of those check recipients, many of whom knew nothing about that aspect of their ancestor’s life, also gave back something important to those families, as his grandfather had done 70 years ago. He gave them the story of an event in the family’s life. By providing them the information from the letter, written in their ancestor’s own words, and the research of what happened after the gift, those families received something much more valuable.

You can read more about Ted Gup’s book at his website A Secret Gift. Copies of some of the letters can be found on the website. The letters and Gup’s research were donated to the Stark County Historical Society at the William McKinley Presidential Library in Canton. A list of the letter writers can be found on their Curator’s Corner blog.

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* Originally the checks were to be $10 to 75 families, but because of the demonstrated need, 150 families received a $5 check which still was generous for the time.
** Gup’s book explains that the letters in the suitcase represent everyone who received a check. It is not known if there were other letters from people who were not chosen to receive a check.

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Christmas Toys & Gifts from Yesteryear in Old Newspaper Ads

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to find advertisements for the toys our ancestors wanted for Christmas.

There’s no doubt that Christmas is more exciting when you are young. There’s the anticipation of getting that special toy or two from your Christmas list. The thrill of running from your room to the Christmas tree that morning to see what Santa brought you. My guess is that December was one of the months you looked forward to growing up.

What was your favorite gift as a child? I’m amazed when I look through old newspapers – like those in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives – to see how similar the toys are to ones sold now.

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1930 Toy Store Has Everything

In the vintage holiday newspaper advertisement for the Cullum & Boren Co. below, toys including footballs, magic sets, and dolls are all items you would see on modern-day kids’ lists. Sure, not everything is the same; there are a few items that are specific to that time period, like big bang tractors and keystone toys. What’s interesting is that while today’s retailers appeal to parents’ pocketbooks by claiming low prices, in this advertisement the store boasts of having everything from 25-cent toys to the most “elaborate and expensive on the market.” I guess that’s a 1930s way of saying they have something for everyone.

Christmas toys ad, Dallas Morning News newspaper advertisement 7 December 1930

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 7 December 1930, section: Society, Art, Music, Amusements, Radio, page 3

Toys for “Real Boys”

For those who like their children’s toys educational, this 1919 Christmas advertisement for the A. C. Gilbert Company asserts that “real boys want real toys – not mere playthings…” These toys mimic occupations that would help a boy grow to “useful manhood.” While some of the toys mentioned lean toward the fanciful, like the magic set, others – like the chemistry, soldering and wireless sets – would have had more latter-day applications for young boys. Notice that one of the toys mentioned is a machine gun:

A real machine gun, shooting wooden bullets in clips from an air cooled chamber. Modeled after the famous Browning gun. Swivels around to fire in any direction and at different elevations. Fires ten shots a second but is not dangerous… it will delight any red-blooded boy.

Christmas toys ad, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper advertisement 14 December 1919

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 14 December 1919, page 25

Toy Makers: Disabled British Soldiers

There are always surprises to be found in old newspapers that educate us about the social history of the time. In this Christmas toy advertisement imploring parents to shop now to get toys that will “gladden the hearts of children,” there is also a mention at the bottom of the ad about new toys from England. These children’s toys are made by British soldiers “disabled at the front.” This 1918 advertisement from the Halle Bros. Co. would have served as a poignant reminder to readers that the pain and suffering caused by World War I meant that not everyone was having a merry Christmas. The war ended three days after this newspaper ad was published.

Christmas toys ad, Plain Dealer newspaper advertisement 8 November 1918

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 8 November 1918, page 2

Christmas Shopping Countdown

Are you a last-minute Christmas shopper? Christmas falls on December 25 each year but inevitably the stores are saturated with shoppers picking up those last-minute holiday gifts in the days and hours before the big day. Seems this was true for our ancestors as well. This old advertisement from Herpolsheimer’s, published just two days before Christmas, urges Michigan shoppers to hurry (“shop in the morning if possible”) for their toy trains, doll chests, pop guns, and ice skates.

Christmas toys ad, Grand Rapids Press newspaper advertisement 23 December 1910

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 23 December 1910, page 14

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The Toy Department

One of the common themes of Christmas advertising from generations past is the opening of the toy department. These announcements, including a list of featured toys, can be found in many old newspaper advertisements. This 1914 example encourages adults to bring their children – or even other people’s children – to see the new and complete toy department. Wolf, Wile & Co. were opening their re-stocked toy department on November 30 to give shoppers a start on their Christmas shopping, promising that their “largest and finest assortments of toys we have ever had” make their toy department:

The Land of Toys—the Land of Joys—
The Land of Delight for girls and boys.

Christmas toys ad, Lexington Herald newspaper advertisement 29 November 1914

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 29 November 1914, section 3, page 6

Christmas No Longer as Exciting?

And of course Christmas wish lists aren’t just for the kids. But it would seem that once you become an adult your wish list becomes more “practical.” In this 1906 holiday advertisement from The Emporium, we are provided with ideas for gifts for the “older folks” like dishes, pots & pans, glasses and silverware. This vintage newspaper ad reminds you that you should “Get mother something that she will appreciate and that may be enjoyed by the whole family.”

Christmas gifts ad, Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper advertisement 1 December 1906

Colorado Springs Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado), 1 December 1906, page 6

Yep, that’s just what we mothers like: pots, pans or something the whole family will enjoy (sarcasm fully intended). What’s on your Christmas wish list this year?

Merry Christmas!

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December Update: GenealogyBank Added 3 Million More Records!

Every day, GenealogyBank is working hard to digitize more newspapers and obituaries, expanding our collection to give you the largest newspaper archives for family history research available online. We just completed adding 3 million more U.S. genealogy records, vastly increasing our content coverage from coast to coast!

screenshot of GenealogyBank's home page showing the accouncement of 3 million more genealogy records being added in December

Here are some of the details about our most recent U.S. newspaper additions:

  • A total of 39 newspaper titles from 20 U.S. states
  • 13 of these titles are newspapers added to GenealogyBank for the first time
  • Newspaper titles marked with an asterisk (*) are new to our online archives
  • We’ve shown the newspaper issue date ranges so that you can determine if the newly added content is relevant to your personal genealogy research

To see our newspaper archives’ complete title lists, click here.

State City Title Date Range Collection
Alabama Dadeville Dadeville Record, The* 09/08/2010–Current Recent Obituaries
Alabama Eclectic Eclectic Observer, The* 04/04/2013–Current Recent Obituaries
Alabama Luverne Luverne Journal, The* 06/03/2010–Current Recent Obituaries
Arizona Poston Poston Chronicle 02/26/1943–05/16/1945 Newspaper Archives
Arkansas McGehee Rohwer Outpost 10/24/1942–07/21/1945 Newspaper Archives
Arkansas McGehee Rohwer Relocator* 08/01/1945–11/09/1945 Newspaper Archives
California Altedena AltadenaPoint* 01/10/2008–Current Recent Obituaries
California Manzanar Manzanar Free Press 04/21/1945–05/26/1945 Newspaper Archives
California Newell Tulean Dispatch* 05/30/1942–10/30/1943 Newspaper Archives
California Sacramento Sacramento Bee 1/16/1959–1/17/1959 Newspaper Archives
California San Francisco Corriere del Popolo 03/13/1917–03/13/1917 Newspaper Archives
California San Luis Obispo San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram 1/2/1947–12/30/1950 Newspaper Archives
Colorado Amache Granada Bulletin* 10/14/1942–10/24/1942 Newspaper Archives
Colorado Amache Granada Pioneer 11/01/1941–09/08/1945 Newspaper Archives
Colorado Denver Rocky Shimpo 06/02/1944–12/31/1945 Newspaper Archives
Florida Miami Miami Herald 5/5/1926–11/30/1926 Newspaper Archives
Georgia Augusta Augusta Chronicle 6/4/1983–10/7/2003 Newspaper Archives
Georgia Columbus Columbus Daily Enquirer 4/1/1935–12/29/1940 Newspaper Archives
Georgia Macon Macon Telegraph 11/1/1938–8/28/1942 Newspaper Archives
Kansas Wichita Wichita Eagle 6/30/1971–11/30/1972 Newspaper Archives
Kentucky Lexington Lexington Herald 1/1/1935–1/31/1938 Newspaper Archives
Louisiana New Orleans Times-Picayune 1/22/1936–12/2/1936 Newspaper Archives
Michigan Cassopolis Cassopolis Vigilant* 07/23/2009–Current Recent Obituaries
Michigan Edwardsburg Edwardsburg Argus* 07/20/2009–Current Recent Obituaries
New Jersey Trenton Trenton Evening Times 2/15/1946–11/11/1973 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Arbeiter Zeitung 09/23/1892–12/23/1892 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Vorwarts 11/25/1922–11/25/1922 Newspaper Archives
North Carolina Charlotte Charlotte Observer 1/1/1931–10/26/1933 Newspaper Archives
Ohio Bellville Bellville Star, The* 11/21/2013–Current Recent Obituaries
Ohio Mechanicsburg Telegram, The* 02/24/2014–Current Recent Obituaries
Pennsylvania Erie Erie Tageblatt 02/24/1914–02/24/1914 Newspaper Archives
Pennsylvania State College Centre Daily Times 1/2/1981–10/31/1984 Newspaper Archives
Utah Topaz Topaz Times 09/26/1942–08/31/1945 Newspaper Archives
Virginia Chase City News-Progress, The* 02/23/2012–Current Recent Obituaries
Washington Bellingham Bellingham Herald 11/28/1941–8/30/1945 Newspaper Archives
Washington Bremerton Kitsap Sun: Web Edition Articles* 08/27/2014–Current Recent Obituaries
Washington Olympia Morning Olympian 4/1/1945–11/27/1950 Newspaper Archives
Wisconsin Appleton Appleton Volksfreund 06/23/1921–06/29/1922 Newspaper Archives
Wisconsin Milwaukee Wahrheit 01/05/1901–12/26/1903 Newspaper Archives

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Kids Holiday Gift Ideas: Craft Projects from Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to find craft projects our ancestors might have made, such as cut-out patterns, paper dolls, soap box coasters, and paper airplanes.

Want a fun craft project for a child’s Christmas or holiday gift that can be completed in a weekend?

Search old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, for ideas about gifts our ancestors might have made. Newspapers’ Feature pages of the past often included patterns and craft projects that our grandparents made, and the projects have the added benefit of inspiring the young to pursue genealogy.

Coloring books, cut-out patterns, paper dolls or even paper airplanes are easily found in old newspapers. Assemble the patterns into a booklet or place the projects into a special Christmas stocking along with the required materials. You might even consider embellishing the stocking by adding some of the patterns to the fabric of the stocking.

If you don’t wish this to be a surprise, help your children make these crafts as gifts for others. Either way, the fun will last for hours!

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Search Tips:

  • Search the newspapers’ Photos & Illustrations category with keywords such as:  “contest,” “cut out,” “paper dolls” or “paper planes.”
  • Some of the projects, including those for toy airplanes, were patented in their day. Search Google’s Patent Search for corresponding projects.

Here are some examples of fun children’s craft projects and activities from yesteryear.

Christmas Fireplace to Be Cut Out

Here’s a pattern from 1903 for your child to create a fireplace decorated for Christmas.

fireplace cut-out pattern for children, Baltimore American newspaper article 13 December 1903

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 13 December 1903, page 47

Prize Painting Contest

Use this kid’s craft pattern from 1904 to create your own mini contest. Add crayons or watercolors and fun prizes so that friends or siblings can play along. The caption reads:

For the four best paintings of the above picture two prize packages and two gold-plated Outlook Flag Pins are offered. Boys and girls who love painting should try what they can do with this picture, which has been made in outline especially for them.

outline scene for a children's painting contest, Boston Journal newspaper article 13 March 1904

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 March 1904, page 11

Paper Dolls to Paint and Cut Out

What child doesn’t love a paper doll?

paper doll cut-outs, Boston Journal newspaper article 29 December 1901

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 29 December 1901, page 2

Novelty Paper Dolls

Here’s a dapper-looking gentleman cut-out from 1902.

paper doll cut-outs, Boston Journal newspaper article 2 February 1902

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 2 February 1902, section: Fiction and Children’s, page 7

Soap Box Coaster

In this 1915 newspaper article, 11-year-old Albert Weld explained how he made a coaster for the soap box derby for only 30 cents—and for his prize-winning entry, the paper paid him $1.

Albert Weld's Coaster Cost 30 Cents; He Tells Each Step to Make It, Plain Dealer newspaper article 21 November 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 21 November 1915, page 69

This contest article also shows how every part of a newspaper can provide genealogical information about your ancestors. Imagine if Albert Weld was your ancestor, and you found this article. From it you learn:

  • Albert was 11 in 1915
  • He lived in Cleveland
  • His address: 1840 W. 52nd St.
  • He was in seventh grade at the Detroit school
  • His teacher was Miss Ward

Perhaps most wonderful of all, you get to read the short essay Albert wrote describing how he built his coaster for only 30 cents, including his plaintive final words: “I did this all myself, as I have no father or brother to help me.”

To top it all off, you get a picture of Albert, showing how he looked as an 11-year-old, even if the photo caption misspelled his first name as “Alfred.”

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Here’s one from the Patent Office.

“Arrowplane” for Boys and Girls

Description:

Reg. U.S. Pat. Office. In the accompanying drawings, four airplanes are shown. Cut out carefully all parts, following black lines being sure not to tear the paper. From a piece of cardboard, about the thickness of a writing tablet back, cut out four long and four short strings same size as patterns shown. These are used to reinforce the front edges of the airplane and to give them proper balance for flight…

model airplane instructions

Model airplane instructions

If you tried any of these kids’ craft projects, please let us know how they went! Or share with us some of your own homemade toy projects.

After all, as the introduction to Albert Weld’s article above stated:

Home made toys are just as much fun to play with as those that are bought readymade, and they are such fun to make.

Happy holidays to you and yours!

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Olive Oatman’s Rescue: A True Indian Captive Story

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to learn more about the Oatman family massacre and the subsequent Indian captivity of Olive Oatman.

As the United States grew in the second half of the 19th century and pioneers answered the call to “go west,” stories of the successes and dangers of that journey were printed in newspapers across the country. People have always been either excited or afraid, or a combination of both, of the unknown—and the great unknown was what greeted those early pioneers. One of their fears was the possible danger that awaited them at the hands of the Native American peoples.

Some whites were taken prisoner during American Indian attacks on wagon trains, and the retelling and publishing of Indian captive stories was very popular with the public at that time. Stories like that of the Oatman family massacre—and, ultimately, the rescue of Indian captive Olive Oatman—helped feed the hatred and fear of the Native American population.

photo of Olive Oatman, 1857

Photo: Olive Oatman, 1857. Source: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University; Wikimedia Commons.

The Oatman Family Massacre

The Oatman family (parents Royse and Mary Ann Oatman, and their seven children) were part of a wagon train bound for the west in 1850. Eventually due to differences in opinion, they split from their group and were traveling on their own when some Apache (or perhaps Yavapai) Indians attacked them along the Gila River in present-day Arizona in February 1851. In this attack the entire family was killed except for sisters Olive (age 14) and Mary Ann (age 7), as well as their brother Lorenzo who was clubbed and left for dead, but recovered. Olive and Mary Ann were taken to live with their Indian captors. Just before the attack, Royse Oatman had sent a letter to Fort Yuma asking for assistance because he was sure that, without any help, he and his family would die.*

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The Captivity of Olive and Mary Ann Oatman

One year later the two sisters were traded to a group of Mohave Indians, who seemingly welcomed the girls into their tribe by giving them traditional blue chin tattoos. During their time with the Mohave, younger sister Mary Ann Oatman died of starvation during a drought. Finally, after a total of five years of Indian captivity, the army rescued Olive Oatman by exchanging some material goods for her in February 1856.** She was 19 years old.

This 1856 newspaper account summarizing her capture by the Native Americans and subsequent release is representative of news articles that appeared throughout the United States. Such newspaper articles must have served as fodder for people’s belief in the savage nature of the native peoples, and what may befall pioneers who crossed the trails heading west.

article about Olive Oatman's rescue from Indian captivity, Plain Dealer newspaper article 21 April 1856

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 21 April 1856, page 2

As time went on the story of Olive’s Indian captivity was immortalized in books and numerous newspaper articles. In some cases, men claiming to have been part of the rescue efforts also told their story. One such man, W. F. Drannon, is now known to have fabricated the tales he published in books and newspapers. His story of “rescuing” Olive included him single handedly saving her. Even in our ancestors’ days there were those who wanted their 15 minutes of fame!

article about W. F. Drannan's claim that he rescued Olive Oatman from Indian captivity, Denver Post newspaper article 15 April 1899

Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), 15 April 1899, page 5

Like any story, some embellishments are bound to occur over time which can make for a murky recounting of historical events.

article about Olive Oatman's Indian captivity, Alexandria Gazette newspaper article 10 May 1858

Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), 10 May 1858, page 2

Interestingly enough, this old 1800s newspaper article—while telling about the Oatman massacre and captivity—also provides a nice genealogy that includes the name of Olive’s parents, where they were married, and their westward migration route. While the story of the killings and subsequent kidnapping of the girls is described, it is also reported that after the attack, Lorenzo happened upon a group of “friendly” Indians and they “humanely took him in their protection.”

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Telling the Oatman’s Story

Like a modern-day expose snatched from the headlines, Olive’s story was quickly packaged into an 1857 book by Royal B. Stratton entitled Captivity of the Oatman Girls: Being an Interesting Narrative of Life among the Apache and Mohave Indians.

article about Olive Oatman's Indian captivity, San Francisco Bulletin newspaper article 3 April 1857

San Francisco Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 3 April 1857, page 3

An 1857 newspaper article printed prior to the publication of the book seems to promise that it is a must-read: “…there is an abundance of material to render it a thrilling and interesting narrative.”

article about Olive Oatman's Indian captivity, Weekly Oregonian newspaper article 21 February 1857

Weekly Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 21 February 1857, page 2

Olive took to the lecture circuit after the book’s release so that she could tell her story. This provided interested audiences the opportunity to hear her version of the events and gaze upon her tattooed chin, a curiosity among white Victorians. It also provided Olive with a way to secure funds for her education and living expenses. Her lecturing concluded once she married and settled in Texas, where she eventually died in 1903.

article about Olive Oatman lecturing about her Indian captivity, Boston Evening Transcript newspaper article 18 February 1859

Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts), 18 February 1859, page 1

What parts of Olive’s story were fact melded into fiction or at the very least embellishment, may never all be sorted out. Many rumors and falsehoods were told about Olive, satisfying the public thirst for “celebrity” gossip much as is done today. While not the first woman to share her true story of being held captive by the Indians, Olive became well-known for her prominent facial tattoo which served as a constant reminder of the dangers of the western frontier.

Historical newspapers (http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/newspapers/) are not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors—they also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Are there any Indian captive stories in your family history? Please share your stories with us in the comments.

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* Letter signed by Oatman to Brevet Major S.P. Heintzelman, February 15, 1851.
Transcript of letter. BANC MSS C-E 64:18. Images of Native American. http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/39.html. Accessed 28 September 2014.
** Sherrie S. McLeRoy, “Fairchild, Olive Ann Oatman,” Handbook of Texas Online. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ffagr. Accessed 28 September 2014. Uploaded on 12 June 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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34th Anniversary of Ex-Beatle John Lennon’s Death

For one generation, the tragedy of 22 November 1963 is an indelible memory—they will always remember exactly where they were when they first heard the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated. For many people in the following generation, the date of 8 December 1980 has the same lasting impact—that awful moment when they first heard that John Lennon had been shot to death. Today is the 34th anniversary of his murder.

photo: ofJohn Lennon performing with the Beatles in 1964

Photo: John Lennon performing with the Beatles in 1964. Credit: VARA; Wikimedia Commons.

As shocking as the loss of President Kennedy was, the mind can at least grasp that, as a powerful political figure, it is not surprising that he had enemies. Whether Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman or his death was part of a complicated conspiracy—as many believe—history teaches us that influential world leaders always have opponents.

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What makes the death of John Lennon so hard to comprehend and accept—even 34 years later—is that his murder was so senseless. The craziness of Beatlemania, and the fury provoked by his remark that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, was long behind him. In fact, for the five years before his murder, Lennon had basically dropped out of sight, retiring from the frantic pace of the music business in 1975 to enjoy ordinary daily pleasures most of us take for granted: taking care of the house, raising his son, baking bread, chatting with his wife Yoko Ono over dinner…for five years John Lennon was a contented househusband.

Beatle John Lennon Slain, Boston Herald newspaper article 9 December 1980

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 9 December 1980, page 1

Then in 1980, he went back into the recording studio to make music again. He and Ono’s album Double Fantasy was released on November 17, and its first single, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” was on the airwaves. The album’s tone and Lennon’s outlook in recent interviews were optimistic and upbeat. Just three weeks later he was murdered.

'Screwball' Kills John Lennon, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 9 December 1980

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 9 December 1980, page 1

When Lennon and Ono left their New York City apartment building “the Dakota” to go to the music recording studio around 5:00 p.m. on 8 December 1980, a fan named Mark David Chapman shook Lennon’s hand and asked his idol to sign his copy of Double Fantasy. Lennon obliged him. Chapman then hung around the entrance to the Dakota and waited.

Thousands Mourn Loss of Legendary Beatle (John Lennon), Centre Daily Times newspaper article 9 December 1980

Centre Daily Times (State College, Pennsylvania), 9 December 1980, page 1

Lennon and Ono returned at 10:49 that night. After they got out of the car, Chapman fired four bullets into Lennon’s back. Although police rushed the mortally wounded singer to a nearby hospital, John Lennon was pronounced dead at 11:07 p.m. Killed by a deranged fan… just as he was making his comeback…just as he was about to step into the security of his own home…it was, and is, too much to comprehend.

Gunman Charged with Ex-Beatle's (John Lennon) Death, Daily Advocate newspaper article 9 December 1980

Daily Advocate (Stamford, Connecticut), 9 December 1980, page 1

Historical newspapers (http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/newspapers/) are not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors—they also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers—or, as in the case of this story, perhaps events that you yourself lived through. If you were alive in 1980, where were you when you first heard the news that John Lennon had been killed? Please share your stories with us in the comments.

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Amazing Inventors: Thomas Edison & the Electric Light Bulb

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to learn about Thomas Edison and his invention of the electric light bulb that changed the world.

In the late 1870s, Thomas Alva Edison was attempting to create an affordable, sustainable, and practical incandescent light. Previous light bulbs had been created that were capable of emitting light; however, they burned out within minutes or hours making them impractical for regular use. By the time Edison took up the challenge, he was firmly entrenched in his famous Menlo Park laboratory and the world was abuzz with the possibilities.

photo of Thomas Alva Edison, by Louis Bachrach, c. 1922

Photo: Thomas Alva Edison, by Louis Bachrach, c. 1922. Source: U.S. Library of Congress.

It is hard for us to understand the world they lived in back in the 1870s. No bright lights. Ever. Can it be imagined? There was candlelight and firelight, but no synthetic light. Imagine the bump in the night that needs to be investigated, but you can’t just flip the switch to illuminate the scene. No, you must light a candle and attempt to locate the intruder in the deep shadows of a single flame. There were no flashlights. No headlights on the car. No lit numbers on the clock. Most work had to end once the sun when down.

As Edison worked to illuminate the world, he faced several problems. As mentioned, the filament then used in light bulbs burned out too quickly, and it produced a black film on the inside of the bulb—which dimmed the weak light even more. Others had tried to perfect the light bulb. And they had failed. It just wasn’t possible, they said.

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While we all know that Edison succeeded in his quest, it wasn’t a sure thing at the time. Today school children everywhere know and revere Edison.  But it wasn’t always that way. He wasn’t the only scientist of his age—just one of many working on similar projects. Since many of them had failed with their light bulb experiments, other inventors didn’t think that Edison could do it either. Edison’s lack of a regular education was a particular point of scorn—as shown in this 1879 newspaper article:

The truth is that Mr. Edison, although very successful in discovering improvements in subjects in which he was practically engaged, lacks the knowledge and training which have persuaded the greatest chemists in the world of the inadaptability of electricity for general lighting purposes.

article about Thomas Edison inventing the electric light bulb, New Haven Register newspaper article 16 August 1879

New Haven Register (New Haven, Connecticut), 16 August 1879, page 2

Disregarding the naysayers, Edison persevered. At one point, it appeared that a filament made from platinum would last longer. Platinum has a higher resistance to heat than other metals. It also expands and contracts in sync with the glass of the bulb. This promising metal was needed in quantity to run experiments and—if proved successful—to provide enough material for the mass-produced product. However, general consensus maintained that the metal was so rare it was “about to become extinct.”

Edison didn’t give up. He wrote letters to American and British consuls throughout the world and to the scientific community. In his letters, he described the metal, “how and where it was found and might be found, how it could be identified and treated” and so on. He even included a sample of platinum, at his own expense. Encouragingly, he also offered a $20,000 prize.

Edison and Platinum, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 14 August 1901

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 14 August 1901, page 6

And so the race was on. What better way to motivate someone than to offer a cash prize for finding large deposits of platinum, and a steady string of customers for the product once the light bulb was in regular use? And prospectors did find it and mine it in abundance.

Platinum in California, New Haven Register newspaper article 26 July 1879

New Haven Register (New Haven, Connecticut), 26 July 1879, page 1

In life, unlike a light bulb, few things happen in a vacuum. So what were some of the after effects of Edison’s venture into crowdsourcing for platinum? Edison’s ever-curious mind saw another business opportunity when he was learning to separate gold from platinum. Using his new method, he was able to take tailings—the “junk” materials discarded in the mining process—and extract the gold. In one ton of tailings that had cost him just $5, he was able to extract $1400 worth of gold. While the amount of gold that could be extracted varied, this was obviously an astonishing discovery.

As this 1880 newspaper article reported:

At the rate of $1400 to the ton…he computes that at the various mines around Oroville “there are at least $50,000,000 in the tailings.”

Edison's Discovery in Gold Mining, Macon Telegraph newspaper article 2 April 1880

Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 2 April 1880, page 2

This is an astonishing sum! To understand his claim, $50 million in 1880 converts into about $1.2 trillion today.

Edison’s use of platinum in light bulbs greatly increased the metal’s value. In 1885, five years after Edison announced the creation of a practical light bulb, platinum’s market value was just $3 to $5 an ounce. Just five years later, its price nearly matched that of gold at $20 per ounce.

A King of Metals -- The Value of Platinum as Affected by Electric Lights, Daily Inter Ocean newspaper article 19 October 1890

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), 19 October 1890, page 32

Platinum was now being produced in quantity—and other uses were found for it. The ring on your finger may even be made of platinum.

As this 1879 newspaper article reported:

As a result, large quantities of the rare metal were found in various locations. The gravel-heap of a single mine will, it is said, yield more platinum than all the rest of the world does now.

article about Thomas Edison and his use of platinum in electric light bulbs, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 1 October 1879

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 1 October 1879, page 3

Edison proved the naysayers and doubters wrong:

Very few of the many investigators who had studied the subject of electric lighting believed that the experiments [by Edison] would prove important. Edison, it was supposed, had walked into a cul de sac, where others had preceded him and found no thoroughfare. A considerable amount of pity, both here and in England, was wasted on the ingenious man who had gone beyond his depth. Not having been properly educated in early life, he was ignorant, so they said, of the properties of matter.

article about Thomas Edison and his invention of the electric light bulb, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 1 October 1879

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 1 October 1879, page 3

In the end, platinum proved to be essential for the supporting wires to hold the filament, but still burned too quickly to provide a steady light when used as the filament itself. The best material for a filament proved to be carbonized bamboo fiber in a vacuum. Edison made this discovery while examining a bamboo fragment that had peeled off his fishing pole!

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Finding a suitable filament was not the only challenge Edison faced. Along the way, he also had to develop a superior pump to create the vacuum necessary in the bulb, a more powerful generator to produce the electricity, a realistic and safe electric delivery system for electricity, and more. Yet, he met all of these challenges.

Edison wasn’t the only one working on the electric light problem. And he wasn’t the only one to develop a bulb that worked. In England around the same time, Joseph Swan independently created a very similar bulb. In fact, Edison used some of Swan’s ideas as a foundation for his experiments. Swan and Edison later joined forces in the Edison-Swan Company, which then switched from bamboo filaments to cellulose ones.

Edison continued to refine his light bulb throughout the fall of 1879, and by the end of the year he was giving public demonstrations of his marvelous new invention. On 27 January 1880 he was granted U.S. patent 223,898 for his electric light bulb.

photo of the light bulb Thomas Edison used for public demonstrations of his new invention during Christmas week, 1879

Photo: the light bulb Thomas Edison used for public demonstrations of his new invention during Christmas week, 1879. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The genius of Edison comes out in several ways in this story of his perfection of the electric light bulb. He took a project he felt was interesting and worthwhile despite others loudly proclaiming it couldn’t be done—or if it could, it couldn’t be done by him because he lacked the knowledge and training (he was self-educated). He tackled the problem of not having enough of a necessary material by using crowdsourcing and incentives to gather more. While he could have easily worried and worked himself to the bone, he took time to escape from the project and listen to the guru in his head while enjoying the peace of a fishing trip. And it was there that he discovered the solution that was literally a part of his fishing rod. He took a lot of junk and literally turned it into gold. He put in the work and gained the satisfaction of making a lasting contribution to the world.

Historical newspapers (http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/newspapers/) are not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors—they also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Did any of your ancestors make an important invention? Please share your stories with us in the comments.

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Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor Propels U.S. into WWII

This Sunday marks the 73rd anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack against the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941 that triggered the U.S. entry into World War II.

photo of the USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

Photo: the USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Credit: Victor-ny; Wikimedia Commons.

Speaking to a solemn joint session of Congress on 8 December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made this famous declaration:

Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

U.S. Declares War on Japan, Bellingham Herald newspaper article 8 December 1941

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington), 8 December 1941, page 1

Although the Japanese attack was a stunning example of military planning and execution, and resulted in a smashing victory, it was indeed smeared with infamy—for the two nations were not at war, and the attack was completely unprovoked and came with absolutely no warning. In fact, one hour after the attack commenced two Japanese officials met with the U.S. secretary of state in Washington, D.C., to submit a formal reply to an overture made to the Japanese government on November 26 to maintain peace.

article about men enlisting for WWII, Boston Traveler newspaper article 8 December 1941

Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 8 December 1941, page 1

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The attack on Pearl Harbor dealt a severe blow to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. All eight battleships were damaged and four sunk, 10 other ships were damaged or sunk, over 300 aircraft damaged or destroyed, and more than 2,400 men killed. The Japanese military only lost 29 aircraft, 5 midget submarines, and 64 men killed. It appeared the Japanese had triumphantly achieved their objective of crippling the U.S. fleet so that it could not oppose their expansion in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific.

photos of the U.S. reaction to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 8 December 1941

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 8 December 1941, page 12

The Japanese victory was not total, however. Perhaps most importantly, the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers were not in Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack and escaped harm. Naval warfare in WWII established that the era of the battleship was over; the aircraft carrier ruled supreme, and in that sense the U.S. fleet was very lucky. Also, the Japanese concentrated on attacking warships and aircraft and ignored the support facilities on the shores of Pearl Harbor, essentially leaving that vital military facility intact to help the U.S. Pacific Fleet recover and prepare to carry the war to the Japanese.

Idahoans on Duty with Pacific Fleet, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 8 December 1941

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 8 December 1941, page 2

The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, 8 December 1941, the U.S. declared war on Japan. Nazi Germany and Italy, Japan’s allies, then declared war on the U.S. America was now fully engaged in WWII, a contest that would test the strength and resolve of the entire nation for 3½ years before victory was finally won—after the loss of more than 400,000 U.S. military personnel.

obituary for Hal Perry, killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Advocate newspaper article 11 December 1941

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 11 December 1941, page 1

Historical newspapers (http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/newspapers/) are not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors—they also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Were you or any of your family stationed at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941? Please share your stories with us in the comments.

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Are You a Descendant of Mayflower Pilgrim John Alden?

The Rev. Bailey Loring (1786-1860) was a descendant of John Alden, who was a crew member on the Mayflower and one of the original settlers of Plymouth Colony. Rev. Loring’s mother was Alethea (Alden) Loring (1744-1820), and her great-grandfather was John Alden, who married Priscilla Mullins.

Family stories and ancestral connections were reported in old newspapers, and GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives are essential for getting the stories of your family history. For example, here is Rev. Bailey Loring’s obituary, which states he is a direct descendant of John Alden.

obituary for Rev. Bailey Loring, Boston Recorder newspaper article 10 May 1860

Boston Recorder (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 May 1860, page 75

A “Shout Out” to the Alden Kindred of America, one of my all-time favorite genealogical organizations and websites: FYI—you’ll want to link this obituary and citation to your website. The “Alden Kindred” is a lineage society open to all descendants of John and Priscilla (Mullins) Alden and those interested in the work of the society.

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Are you a descendant of John and Priscilla Alden? Tell us about your familial connection in the comments section.

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