Household Cleaning Tips from Our Ancestors in Old Newspapers

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 about how our ancestors cleaned their homes.

How did your great-grandmother know how to cook dinner, clean her house, or launder the family clothes? You may instantly reply that she learned from her mother. While that might be partially true, over time the technology of housework and what tools where available changed. Doing things the way your mother or grandmother did didn’t always work.

So aside from learning from family or perhaps while working as a domestic, women took to cookbooks and the newspaper to learn how best to clean, launder, cook, and tend to their families. Newspapers weren’t just the recorder of the day’s news—they were also the compiler of information that women used on a day-to-day basis.

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Polishing the Stove and Getting Rid of Bugs

Old newspapers provide a great look at what our female ancestors had to think about and what might be expected of them in their household chores. For example, in this 1905 Household Affairs column, one of the tips has to do with cleaning in tight corners using a paint brush. It goes on to point out that the paint brush can also be used to polish the ornamental work on a stove.

household cleaning tips, Savannah Tribune newspaper article 19 August 1905

Savannah Tribune (Savannah, Georgia), 19 August 1905, page 6

This housekeeping column also addresses what to do with bugs and their eggs. The tip recommends soaking your furniture in kerosene which would eliminate the pests. Obviously, in some cases, these household tips could be dangerous to put into practice. While kerosene or gasoline would rid your home of unwanted pests they could also kill the human inhabitants, as documented in this 1885 incident in Buffalo, New York, that killed a man and injured his wife when gasoline was spread throughout the home to kill moths.

Blown Up by Gasoline, Plain Dealer newspaper article 20 May 1885

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 20 May 1885, page 7

Ammonia and Stale Bread

One interesting aspect of reading household cleaning tips from vintage newspapers is the type of cleaning products they recommend. In this column, Household Talks, a mixture of ammonia and water is mentioned as a cleaning agent—but more interestingly, the advice for cleaning wall paper is to take “stale German Rye bread” and rub it in downward strokes along the wall paper. It is further advised to change or turn the bread often. According to the column, this stale bread is also used by artists to clean charcoal drawings.

household cleaning tips, New York Tribune newspaper article 21 April 1897

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 21 April 1897, page 5

Most modern people think of bread crumbs when thinking of what to do with stale bread. Who knew it was good for cleaning your house?

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Use the Power of the Rain and the Sun

Today, we have the convenience of washing machines to clean linens, sheets, bedspreads, rugs, and pillows. But what did your ancestress do to freshen up beds stuffed with feathers? Well, according to Mrs. S. O. Johnson, one answer would be to let the rain clean the pillows and mattress. She writes in 1869:

…old feather beds and pillows are greatly improved by putting them on a clean grass plat during a heavy shower; let the beds become thoroughly wetted, turning them on both sides. Let them lie out till thoroughly dry, then beat them with rods; this will lighten up the feathers and make them much more healthful to sleep upon. It removes dust and rejuvenates the feathers.

Hints on House Cleaning, Washington Reporter newspaper article 28 April 1869

Washington Reporter (Washington, Pennsylvania), 28 April 1869, page 7

It makes sense that our ancestors were accustomed to hanging clothes out to dry at a time before the advent of gas or electric dryers. But aside from the drying effect that hanging clothes and bedding would have, it was believed that the sunshine had some sort of “chemical effect.” Shirley Dare writes in 1893 that:

…the direct rays of the sun have a strong chemical effect on the particles of decaying matter. Its powerful chemical action is seen in bleaching stains from linen in a few hours which sharp acids would fail to remove. It is a similar potency which as we say, ‘sweetens’ clothes and bedding hung out in the sun.

She recommends that twice yearly all clothing, bedding and carpets should be placed out in the sun.

Just Skip the Housework

While not all household tips found in old newspapers are applicable today, this one found in a 1915 Texas newspaper is advice that is important for all modern families to remember. The aptly titled “Don’t Worry over Household Duties” suggests having other activities to do aside from household chores, and proclaims:

…don’t allow yourself to become nervous and upset over your household affairs. Nothing disastrous will occur even if you don’t get all the work finished that you expected to do.

Don't Worry over Household Duties, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 30 June 1915

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 30 June 1915, page 4

This advice is one of the best household tips I’ve ever heard!

What old fashioned cleaning methods did your ancestors pass down in your family? Share your household tips with us in the comments.

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Did Grandma & Grandpa Write Letters to Santa Claus as Kids?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to find some of the cute, funny, and heartwarming letters our ancestors wrote to Santa Claus.

In our genealogical quests, we often overlook valuable sources of family history—such as time-honored childhood traditions like writing to Santa Claus (once known as Saint Nicholas).

I recommend you include “Letters to Santa,” published in hometown newspapers, as part of your genealogy research. Can you imagine finding a letter to Santa Claus written by Grandma or Grandpa when they were tots? It would certainly bring a jolly twinkle to your eyes this holiday season!

Yes—it’s very possible that you might find a letter to Santa your ancestor wrote in the historical newspaper archives—and you might even find one with a home address!

Fact: Many Letters to Santa Were Shipped to the North Pole

The U.S. Post Office, not knowing what to do with the abundance of letters to Santa they received throughout the Christmas season, often shared them with newspaper publishers. After air travel became feasible, many letters were (and still are) sent to the North Pole in Greenland, often causing overtime for postal workers. This article from 1950 reports that as of mid-November that year, over 70,000 letters had been received in Copenhagen, Denmark; by Christmas they were expecting about 200,000.

Mail for Santa Claus Keeps Postoffice in Denmark Busy, Boston Herald newspaper article 17 December 1950

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 17 December 1950, page 47

Letter to “Dear Old Man” (Santa Claus) from Tom (1888)

Here is an early letter to Santa published after the 1887 Christmas holiday. Although it doesn’t reveal “Tom’s” surname, it has an interesting description about the custom of using a chimney post office for the children’s letters.

The little boy made it clear he didn’t care for peppermint sticks, and had some interesting requests—including this instruction to Santa: “Don’t put my things in Jim’s stockings. My stockings are red, with holes in the knees.” Tom also advised Santa Claus: “Ma and Pa are always foolin’ about Christmas Eve, but come along and don’t mind them.”

The Letters Santa Claus Receives, Haverhill Bulletin newspaper article 2 January 1888

Haverhill Bulletin (Haverhill, Massachusetts), 2 January 1888, page 2

Santa’s Letter Box (1899)

The previous letter to Santa seems more of a novelty, as it was published in the newspaper after Christmas. Around the turn of the century, delightful children’s correspondence to Santa became a regular feature in many newspapers in the United States, and their letters were printed in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In the following 1899 newspaper article, you can read these letters to Santa:

Albany, Tex., Dec. 15.—Dear Santa Claus: Will you please send me a doll, if you have one to spare? I want one eighteen inches long, kid body and bisque head, light hair or dark will do. Yours truly, BESSIE TILGHMAN.

Oak Cliff, Tex., Dec. 15.—Dear Santa Claus: Please send me a toy cannon, train, magic lantern and a small boat, some candy, nuts of all kinds, apples, oranges and some fireworks. I am a little boy 6 years old. Your little friend, JULE BERAND.

Dallas, Tex., Dec. 17.—Dearest Santa: Though I look older, I am only 4 years old. I don’t want a doll, but I want a watering pot and a carpet sweeper, and some ginger-snaps and jaw-breakers. Yours lovingly, BROOKSIE T. SMITH.

Santa's Letter Box, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 18 December 1899

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 December 1899, page 5

Notice the letter authors are clearly identified by first and last name. Are any of these letters to Santa written by your ancestors?

Georgie Freeman and Charlotte Ostan from Evansville, Indiana (1905)

These children had been very good all year, one performing night work and carrying in meat, and the other who didn’t want her five-year-old brother Tony Ostan forgotten.

Letters to Santa Claus, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 15 December 1905

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 15 December 1905, page 6

Almira and Kenton Christopher from Belleville, Illinois (1919)

As we all know, many families have a tough time at Christmas. Not wanting to disappoint their children, Mom and Dad often make up cover stories to explain the lack of presents, as shown in the following letters to Santa Claus.

In 1919, the Christopher children wrote that they were sorry Santa’s reindeer were sick, and that he wouldn’t be coming this year. However—just in case—Almira did wish for a coat, hair ribbon, dress, cap, shoes, fruit and nuts, and some other items, including a little piano.

Among the presents Kenton hoped for were a popgun, new suit and cap, an auto, bicycle, football suit, and a tree. He also added, “Do not forget to leave something for my sisters, brother and parents.”

letters to Santa Claus, Belleville News Democrat newspaper article 15 December 1919

Belleville News Democrat (Belleville, Illinois), 15 December 1919, page 7

Ruby Grace Coker from Marietta, Georgia (1923)

Some letters to Santa are purely fun, such as this one from a little girl who lived in Marietta, Georgia:

Dear Santa Claus—Christmas, I want you to bring me a doll that walk, talk and sleep. I want a pair of skates, and I want a box of water colors. Please bring some fruits, nuts and candy of all kinds. There is one more thing I want and that is a raincape. I won’t ask for anything else, because there is lots more little boys and girls that you have to see, but remember mother, daddy, brother and my little baby sister.—Your friend, Ruby Grace Coker.

letter to Santa Claus, Cobb County Times newspaper article 20 December 1923

Cobb County Times (Marietta, Georgia), 20 December 1923, page 6

Letters to Santa Claus Contest (1937)

With so many children’s letters to Santa sent to newspaper editors, the competition to be published was fierce. Not wanting to disappoint, some newspapers created contests—such as this one from the Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper, which offered a first place prize of $5 and a second place prize of $3, with six runners-up to receive $1 each. (I wasn’t able to locate the winning entries, but perhaps some of our readers would find them and report it on the blog.)

Letters to Santa Claus Entered in New Contest, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 12 December 1937

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 12 December 1937, page 2

Letters from the Echo of Richardson, Texas (1941)
In this collection of letters from 1941, many children told Santa Claus that they love him. (Don’t we all!)

Dear Santa Claus: I have been good. Please come to see me. Fill my stocking with fruit and candy and toys. Don’t bring me very much, but don’t forget other boys and girls. I love you, Ray Johnson.

Dear Santa Claus: I have been good. Please come to see me. Fill my stocking with fruit and candy and toys…I love you, Sylvia Jean Terry.

Letters to Santa Claus, Richardson Echo newspaper article 19 December 1941

Richardson Echo (Richardson, Texas), 19 December 1941, page 5

There are so many letters to Santa Claus in the newspapers, I hope you’ll take time to research them—and please let us know when you find any of these priceless family treasures!

Search Tips

Try entering your ancestor’s first and last name in combination with “letters to Santa” or “letter to Santa” in the “Include Keywords” field on GenealogyBank’s Newspaper Archives search page to get started.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page, looking for letters to Santa Claus

You might also try searching for your ancestors’ letters to Santa from the Newspaper Letters search page.

Christmas card from Mary Harrell-Sesniak to her blog readers

Hope you have a wonderful holiday season!

Merry Christmas!
Mary

The History of the Great 1918 Flu Pandemic: We All Wore Masks

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena researches old newspaper articles to learn about the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, a three-year disaster that killed approximately 50 million people worldwide and unquestionably affected the lives of any of your ancestors living in the years 1918-1920.

Influenza is a disease, makes you weak all in your knees;
‘Tis a fever ev’ybody sure does dread;
Puts a pain in ev’y bone, a few days an’ you are gone
To a place in de groun’ called de grave.

—“Influenza,” lyrics found on American Memory: the John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. Song sung by Ace Johnson, Clemens State Farm, Brazoria, Texas, April 16, 1939.

Earlier this year, despite having had a flu shot, I ended up catching the flu. Anyone who has had the flu knows how truly miserable it is. When you are suffering from it, you can easily understand how someone could die from its symptoms. Although still deadly, the flu does not strike the terror in people’s minds that it once did. In fact many people take a wait and see approach, frequently opting not to get the yearly influenza vaccination shot.

When many people think of our ancestors and the flu, they automatically think of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic—and with good reason. This was one of the deadliest flu pandemics in history.

What Is Spanish Influenza? Dr. Rupert Blue Tells about It, Times-Picayune newspaper article 6 October 1918

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 6 October 1918, page 1

From January 1918 to December 1920, this flu pandemic killed approximately 50 million people worldwide, nearly 675,000 in the United States alone.[i] By contrast, 16 million lives were lost during World War I, which was still ongoing during the Spanish flu pandemic’s first year. Why was this flu different from previous forms of influenza? One significant difference in this deadly strain was that young adults were affected just as much as the usual at-risk groups: young children and the elderly.[ii]

This influenza pandemic touched everyone’s lives whether they came down with the virus or not. Efforts to curb the spread of the flu disaster included requiring people to wear facemasks, and discouraging public meetings. The committee of the American Public Health Association decreed that non-essential meetings and gatherings in crowded rooms were dangerous. Some of the APHA recommendations included the closing of “saloons, dance halls, and cinemas.”[iii]

Influenza Mask Wearing Compulsory: Health Board, San Jose Mercury News newspaper article 11 December 1918

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 11 December 1918, page 1

The implementation of these public safety health precautions shows how seriously the influenza pandemic was taken. A startling example of this is described in the following article from a 1918 Washington newspaper, reporting that a public health officer shot a person on the street who refused to don a mask.

Refuses to Don Influenza Mask; Shot by Officer, Bellingham Herald newspaper article 28 October 1918

Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington), 28 October 1918, page 2

The vast movement of troops caused by World War I meant that an illness that would normally be quickly contained instead had worldwide consequences. While the 1918 pandemic is the one that often gets remembered, there have been other epidemics including those of a more recent nature, like the recent Swine Flu. There is no doubt that the 1918 pandemic wasn’t the only one that may have affected your family. According to the website flu.gov there have been four flu pandemics since 1918.[i]

Do you have an ancestor who had the flu during the Spanish flu pandemic? Want to learn more about the history of that outbreak? Good sources for researching historical epidemics are the books Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present by George Childs Kohn, and America’s Forgotten Epidemic: The Influenza of 1918 by Alfred W. Crosby.

Don’t forget to search for old newspaper articles about the flu on GenealogyBank. By searching on the word “influenza” and narrowing your search by date and place you will be able to find articles of how the pandemics affected your ancestor’s community and other parts of the United States.


[i] Pandemic Flu History. Available at http://www.flu.gov/pandemic/history/index.html.

[ii] The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918. National Archives and Records Administration. Available at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/.

[iii] The Influenza Pandemic of 1918. Available at http://virus.stanford.edu/uda/.

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.

1800s Newspaper Ad: Reward for Army Deserters

Fort Johnson in South Carolina was no different from Army bases across the country. From time to time soldiers deserted, as these men did on 3 January 1810. Captain A.B. Armistead wanted them back—and so he ran a newspaper ad offering “ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS REWARD for six Deserters, who deserted from this post on the 3d instant” and promising to pay “all expenses.”

reward ad for Army deserters, City Gazette & Daily Advertiser newspaper article 6 January 1810

The City Gazette & Daily Advertiser (Charleston, South Carolina), 6 January 1810, page 1

Armistead’s reward ad provided descriptions of the Army deserters.

description of Army deserters, City Gazette & Daily Advertiser newspaper article 6 January 1810

The City Gazette & Daily Advertiser (Charleston, South Carolina), 6 January 1810, page 1

In a note at the end of his 1800s newspaper reward ad, Armistead asked all of the newspapers in Georgia, North and South Carolina to print “this advertisement six times” and to send him the bill.

reward ad for Army deserters, City Gazette & Daily Advertiser newspaper article 6 January 1810

The City Gazette & Daily Advertiser (Charleston, South Carolina), 6 January 1810, page 1

Here are some of the descriptions of the Army deserters:

  • Charles Merul was “a native of South-Carolina, twenty three years of age, five feet ten inches high, has light complexion and dark hair; went off in citizens clothes”
  • Daniel Holloway was “a native of Virginia, twenty three years of age, five feet nine inches high, has fair complexion, blue eyes, and dark hair”
  • John Wynne “was born in Georgia”; the ad gives  a physical description of him, but the key identifiers were the pistols he was carrying, described as: “uncommon, particularly with respect to the locks and the fixing of the ramrod”

Old newspaper reward ads like this one, published in an attempt to reclaim military deserters, can be rich sources of genealogical information—often providing the names, origins, ages and physical descriptions of the missing soldiers. Historical newspapers had all the news of the day. Every day I am surprised by what I find doing genealogy research in the archives!

Name Research Tip: Search Variations of Family First & Last Names

It is generally rare for families to change the spelling of their names (although some immigrant families did so in an attempt to make their names sound more familiar to American ears, so be aware of this possibility).

When doing your family history research, however, you may encounter variations on the spelling of your family’s name for a reason that had nothing to do with the family: registrars often recorded names the way they heard them.

All my growing-up years I had to spell my last name because everyone wanted to write “Kent” instead of “Kemp.”

Why?

Because they were unfamiliar with my surname.

Kemp is an uncommon surname, and for that reason it is spelled differently in various records.

Some variations of my last name I’ve encountered: Kent, Kamp, Camp, etc.

You know by name research experience which names could be a problem.

In the past some immigrants did decide to simplify their names in an attempt to fit in better with American society, revising their original foreign-spelled name when there was an obvious English equivalent. Names were Anglicized: Mueller became Miller; Johansson became Johnson; etc.

Contrary to movie portrayals, it was not government policy to change people’s names.

There was no government official at Castle Garden or Ellis Island responsible for changing the names of incoming immigrants.

If you are having trouble finding your target ancestor searching by their surname, try searching on the first name.

In time Americans—whether they were government officials, teachers, etc.—became more familiar with immigrants’ first names and were more likely to record them spelled correctly. While they had difficulty with seemingly one-off surnames, there was a smaller supply of first names. It was easy for Americans to remember Johann, Guido or Ludwig. Although, of course, the first name could also be Anglicized: Johann becoming John; Tâm becoming Tom; etc.

For all these reasons, it is a good idea to try searching for variations of your ancestors’ first and last names when doing your family history research searches, to increase the chances of finding documents and records about them.

Let me give you a case in point.

I was recently searching the New Jersey State Archives for the death certificate of Isaac Meserole.

I went to the online index to New Jersey Death Certificates for 1878 to 1888 and searched for him.

I found several “Meserole” death certificates but not one for Isaac.

I knew Isaac had died in North Brunswick, Middlesex County, New Jersey, around 1882. So I searched using only his first name “Isaac”—leaving the surname field blank.

Bingo! His entry came right up, with his surname spelled as “Meseroll.” The registrar had written the name as he heard it.

Here is the entry for Isaac:

death certificate for isaac meserole for January 6, 1882, from the new jersey state archives

Death certificate for Isaac Meserole, 6 January 1882, from the New Jersey State Archives

This is a good research tip for when you search for ancestors on GenealogyBank or any online resource. Begin your family search with the correct spelling of your ancestor’s name. Then do follow-up searches, with name variations for both the first and last names, and see if you can find additional genealogy records. You may find that record you’ve long been searching for, but remained hidden because the ancestor’s name had been misspelled.

Finding Your “Roots” at Alex Haley Museum Opening

Alex Haley home dedicated as a genealogy library and museum.

When 17-year-old violinist Joseph Matthews performed at the dedication of the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center, he had no idea he would discover his family roots. Joseph, a high school senior from Memphis, Tennessee, was among hundreds who participated in two days of festivities at the Interpretive Center located behind Mr. Haley’s boyhood home in Henning, Tennessee. The center was dedicated on Friday, 13 August, 2010.

Mr. Haley, who passed away in 1992, received a Pulitzer Prize for his 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The book tells of his ancestors being sold into slavery in West Africa and their migration from North Carolina to Tennessee. The following year a TV series of Roots, described as “eight straight days of the Super Bowl,” aired and remains the highest rated TV miniseries in television history. Among the significant impact of Roots was a surge in interest throughout the world in family history research.

TIP: Search the Largest Collection of African American newspapers is in GenealogyBank.

Inside the museum Joseph and his family visited a FamilySearch center sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Through the free online program FamilySearch.org, Joseph explored his ancestral lines. “Basically we were able to type in my grandmother’s mother’s and father’s name, and from there we searched their records and we were able to find information about their parents as well as their siblings, birthdates, wedding dates, things of that nature,” said Matthews. “We made a couple of steps to where we can make some pretty good discoveries in the future as to our family lineage. We’re going to find out a lot more about our family and where we came from.”

According to Art Johnson, FamilySearch area manager, the placement of the FamilySearch center within the Alex Haley Museum is a perfect fit, “I think it’s a great opportunity to simply share the message of family history and genealogy to individuals that come in and commemorate the accomplishments and successes of Mr. Haley’s life. It’s an opportunity to simply bring people in and help them understand their heritage the way that Mr. Haley did.”
William Haley, Alex’s son, said that resources available through
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are very valuable in searching African-American ancestry. “I always send them to the LDS Church. I say, ‘Well find an LDS Church with a history portion and go in there and they will help you find out who you are and it doesn’t matter what country or anything, they will help you.’ Folks are very surprised at that, but it’s true.”

This is one of several related projects supported by the Church. In 2001, FamilySearch released the Freedman’s Bank records on CD, a unique searchable database documenting several generations of African-Americans immediately following the Civil War. In 2006, FamilySearch participated in the
Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society’s (AAHGS) national conference in Salt Lake City. An African-American family history conference is held in Salt Lake City each year.

The Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center and FamilySearch center are located in Henning, Tennessee, about 45 miles northeast of Memphis.

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National Archives Celebrates 75th Anniversary this Friday!

National Archives Celebrates 75th Anniversary on Friday, June 19th.

Susan Logue (Voice of America) distributed this commentary on the 75th Anniversary of the National Archives.

Before the National Archives was founded, many governmental records were kept in poor conditions. On June 19, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the legislation creating the National Archives. “There was a recognition by historians, by public officials and others that the history of the nation was being lost,” says assistant archivist Michael Kurtz. “Records were kept by the agencies that created them. Fires, floods and other disasters really ate away at the nation’s documented heritage.”

A visitor to the National Archives examines the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S.

Constitution Seventy-five years later, it is home to some of the most treasured documents in the United States. Every day, visitors fill the rotunda of the National Archives to get a glimpse of the documents that are the foundation of the United States government: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

But there is much more to the National Archives than just the so-called Charters of Freedom. More than 9 billion records preserved.

Since 1934 it has been responsible for all official governmental historical records: judicial, legislative and executive. Of course, not every government document is saved. Only one to three percent are deemed valuable enough to permanently archive. But, as Kurtz explains, that still adds up to more than nine billion records. While the paper records are vast, there are records in other formats as well including video, film, and digital.

“You have wikis and blogs, digital e-mail, all capturing government business,” says Kurtz. He notes they present new challenges to the Archives. “Preserving them is not like having temperature- and humidity-control vaults for paper records, which will ensure the paper records last for hundreds of years. Digital media is much more fragile.”

On the other hand, Kurtz says, the digital age has presented some opportunities for the National Archives, which can provide access to holdings to people who will never be able to come to the National Archives in person.

The National Archives is celebrating its 75th anniversary with lectures and panel discussions, screenings of films, and an exhibit called “Big!,” featuring some of its more unusual holdings. “The original premise was to showcase some unique items that normally don’t get displayed because of their size,” says exhibits specialist Jennifer Johnson.

Those items include a Civil War-era battlefield map of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, that measures four meters square and a bathtub modeled after the one made for President William Howard Taft, the largest U.S. president. He weighed about 145 kilos (320 pounds). “There were a series of items that were custom made for him, including his bed,” says Johnson. “We have a telegram where it is asking for a bathtub, listing the dimensions and describing it as ‘pond-like.’”
When the exhibition, Big!, closes next January, Shaq’s shoe will go to the George W. Bush presidential library. Presidential libraries are also part of the National Archives. There is also a shoe that belonged to basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, which was given to President George W. Bush, and a casting of dinosaur footprints.

Johnson says that was presented to Richard Nixon by two boys who discovered the fossilized prints in New Jersey. “When they discovered these footprints they petitioned Nixon to preserve that area of land so they could study it, and he did. So they gave him a casting of the footprints.” Today, she notes, one of those boys is one of the leading paleontologists in the U.S. There are also more conventional records in the exhibit, illustrating big events and big ideas in American history, like the lunar landing and D-Day, the Normandy invasion that led to the Allied victory in World War Two.

Exhibits like “Big!” give visitors a glimpse of the vast holdings of the National Archives, but the stars of the collection remain the Charters of Freedom.
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RFK Dies 41 years ago today

Robert F. Kennedy died 41 years ago today.

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I had the opportunity to hear RFK speak at Brigham Young University on March 27, 1968. The 1960s were difficult times – in 1968 – the Vietnam War was raging, RFK was challenging a sitting President LBJ for his party’s nomination, demonstrators were in all of the major cities. Less than a week following RFK’s talk Martin Luther King would be shot & killed. Two months after that RFK was shot and killed.

Kennedy’s remarks on campus were effective. He had done his homework; he had broken the ice and won over the respect of the packed arena. That fairly conservative campus was no longer his adversary but was ready to listen. He spoke briefly and took all questions. Tough questions. He was grilled but he was comfortable explaining his positions on the current state of the war and the country.

I clearly remember his opening remarks – with humor he reached out to his audience and showed respect for their history and beliefs. His actions and remarks echo in today’s headlines.

“Thank you very much. Thank you. I appreciate very much being here at this campus … I understand that this is a campus made up of all political persuasions. I had a very nice conversation with Dr. {Ernest L.} Wilkinson [laughter] … and I promised him that all Democrats would be off campus by sundown [laughter, applause].

But I feel very close to this state. Not only did part of my wife’s family live in the state of Utah for a long period of time, I traveled down your Green River…spent part of the time in the water (laughter) … part of my honeymoon here and I’ve had ten children since – so I have learned something from the Mormons [laughter].

I think that we still have a great deal in common, and in common with the man this university honors. For I too have a large family [laughter], I too have settled in many states [laughter]. And now I too know what it is to take on Johnson’s army. [Standing ovation, laughter and applause].” (Read the complete text at: Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol 3, Number 3, Autumn 1968).

The reference to “Johnson’s Army” was a reference to his taking on President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Democratic Party Primaries as well as to President James Buchanan sending General Albert S. Johnston and his troops to quell the non-existent “Utah Rebellion” in 1857. This otherwise obscure reference was well known to BYU students schooled in Utah history. With this series of well thought out personal & historical references he won over the crowd.

After his remarks students crowded around to shake his hand. I was one of them. I was surprised at how short he was. I had always pictured him as over 6’ tall – but he was only 5’9” … shorter than I was then (but now that I am shrinking, I am catching up to him :)

(Photo courtesy BYU Archives).

I learned that day that it is important to see and hear a person speak for themselves – to take the measure of a man. I concluded that he was an honest man who believed in what he was doing and trying to accomplish. It was an honor to shake his hand that day – 27 March 1968.

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NY Student History Research Contest Deadline Approaching

New York State Archives Sponsors 19th Annual Student Research Contest Albany, NY

This is a terrific opportunity to encourage students to use historical records.
The deadline for the contest is July 1st.
Awards go to individual students and to class projects.

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The New York State Archives, a program of the State Education Department, is sponsoring the 19th annual Student Research Awards. The deadline for entry is July 1, 2009 and the contest is open to all New York students in grades 4-12 who use historical records in their research projects.

Three awards are presented each year: grades 4-5, grades 6-8, and grades 9-12. The awards consist of a framed certificate, a check for $100 from an endowment established by Regent Emerita Laura Chodos and her husband Robert Chodos, an invitation to have lunch with the Regents in Albany, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the State Archives.

Eligible projects are computer-based entries, such as websites or PowerPoint presentations; exhibits; documentaries; performances; research for a historical marker, property or district; and traditional research papers.

Student Research Award winners for 2008, Grades 4-5, were: Walden Elementary School (Orange County) students Jenalee Amundsen, Sarah Baker, Brianna Canto, Nicholas Cavallucci, Annalise Cardish, Felix Cepeda, Isaiah Skyler Chapman, Alex Clum, Frank Cook, Jr., Ilyssa Daly, Michael Daly, Brandon DiSimone, Sara Donovan, Abigail Hardy, Antonio Jackson, John lamb, Shiann Malvasi, Joshua Metzger, Jad Moumen, Sammy Moumen, Anthony Newton, Alyssa Rosario, Nyle Rose, Sarah Savasta, Brianna Sheehy, and Mary Sherman for their entry Capron, He’s My Street.

Grade 6-8 winners for 2008 were Persell Middle School (Chautauqua County) students Mark Brombacher, Jennie Gross, Taylor Estrada, Michelle Ferry, Alex Hoagland, Justin Hodges, Holly Johnson, Nick Myers, Jacob Perkins, Marisa Pope, Lucas Raak, Lindsey Rensel, Olivia Sinatra, Johnna Vanstrom, and Ben Whitney for their entry The Lost Neighborhood Project.

The Grade 9-12 Student Research Award winner for 2008 was Alexandra Rheinhardt, a student from Cooperstown Central High School (Otsego County), for the documentary, Sounds of Conflict: A Cultural Divide.

Julie Daniels, coordinator of the awards program, explained that in order for an entry to be competitive, a substantial portion of the research should be based on historical records from archives, historical newspapers, museums, historical societies, libraries, local governments, or other organizations. She offered some examples of historical records: original letters, diaries, and photographs; meeting minutes; police and court records; ledgers, census records; and wills.

For information about this year’s program, click on “Education” at www.archives.nysed.gov, call (518) 474-6926 or email archedu@mail.nysed.gov.