Betty Crocker: America’s Favorite Fictional Cook

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 an icon in American cooking: Betty Crocker.

Betty Crocker is a household name that almost everyone in America is familiar with. But do you know who the real Betty Crocker actually is? While her name is attached to a very “real” image of a woman, she – like many other famous food icons – is not a real person, but instead a marketing tool used to sell food products and recipes, and to instill trust in her brand.

How did Betty Crocker come to be such a famous brand? Well, according to author Susan Marks’ book Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food, it started with letters sent to the Gold Medal Flour Company. Homemakers would write cooking questions to the company and they in turn would send replies they gathered from their Home Service staff. While the advertising department, staffed by men, sent out the answers to these recipe-related questions, the department’s manager didn’t think women would take cooking advice in a letter signed by a man. Because they didn’t necessarily need a woman to fill a new job, they invented a fictional female character. They provided her with a name, asked current female staff to participate in a contest for the best signature, and Betty Crocker was “born.”*

So what year was Betty born? It might surprise you that she actually predates the 1950s, the decade that most people associate her with. She first appeared in a much earlier decade, the 1920s.

So you’re most likely familiar with products that carry the Betty Crocker image and red spoon logo, but how has “she” influenced American cooking over the years? Aside from answering consumers’ letters, she has been the star of her own radio show, shared recipes, and published numerous cookbooks during her long tenure.

Betty Crocker on the Radio

In the days prior to television – and with the advent of cable channels dedicated to food matters way in the future – Betty Crocker hit the air waves. She brought her cooking advice to the masses by presenting programs on the radio. The actress who portrayed Betty not only provided help to her listeners, she used the advice of older homemakers to pass along cooking tips to her audience.

According to this 1929 newspaper article, the “recipe exchange” was a feature of the Betty Crocker radio broadcast that included readers’ tips and recipes.

article about the Betty Crocker radio show, Riverside Daily Press newspaper article 13 February 1929

Riverside Daily Press (Riverside, California), 13 February 1929, page 10

She not only presented a cooking show, but she conducted a “cooking school” on air. Listeners could “graduate” via Betty Crocker’s radio show. Those who actively participated in all eight cooking lessons would receive a Gold Medal Radio Cooking School diploma at its conclusion. According to this 1926 newspaper article, the “cooking school had many thousands of members all over the United States, ranging in age from 14 to 90 years.” Women could enroll in the school for no fee. Their graduation was a matter of preparing and reporting on recipes. One of the graduates, an 80-year-old woman, had written to Betty Crocker “…and pleaded that she please be allowed to graduate as she had tried so hard and she had never been graduated from anything before in her life.” Like the other culinary students, her diploma was announced over the radio waves.

article about the Betty Crocker cooking school, Evening Star newspaper article 24 January 1926

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 24 January 1926, page 33

Betty Crocker Recipes

Newspapers are a source for all kinds of recipes: those written by newspaper staff, submitted by readers, and found in advertisements. Betty Crocker recipes are no exception and can be found throughout the decades in historical newspapers.

Women who listened to Betty Crocker’s radio show were able to add many new recipes to their repertoire. This one from 1928 is for Chocolate Pinwheel Cookies. To show how fool-proof the dessert recipe was, the text exclaims: “Of 278 women trying the recipe, not a single one failed her first attempt!”

Betty Crocker ad for Gold Medal Flour, Evening Star newspaper advertisement 15 November 1928

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 15 November 1928, page 31

Betty Crocker recipe for Chocolate Pinwheel Cookies, Evening Star newspaper article 15 November 1928

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 15 November 1928, page 31

During World War II various foods, including meat, were rationed. Betty Crocker recipes addressed those on the home front who needed to feed their families with reduced quantities or food substitutions. In this 1944 advertisement featuring a recipe for Yorkshire Pudding (or “Pig in a Poke”), the text of the advertisement for Gold Medal Flour states: “Betty Crocker offers this ‘meat-extender’ recipe to show you one way Gold Medal ‘Kitchen-tested’ Enriched Flour can add nourishment to your wartime meals.” An image on the lower left reminds consumers that food was integral to the war effort, stating “Food Fights for Freedom” and reminding them to “produce and conserve/share and play square.”

Betty Crocker recipe for "Pig in a Poke," Oregonian newspaper article 30 January 1944

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 30 January 1944, page 41

Betty Crocker recipes were meant to help sell various food-related products. A great marketing tool, they demonstrated how to take Betty Crocker cake mixes and turn the finished product into something special for your family to feast on. Consider this 1960 advertisement that utilizes Country Kitchen cake mixes and transforms them into desserts like Spumoni Cake, Hawaiian Velvet Cake, and Colonial Butter-Nut Cake.

Betty Crocker cake recipes, Oregonian newspaper article 11 September 1960

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 11 September 1960, page 130

Betty Crocker Cookbooks

Many family historians most likely either have a Betty Crocker cookbook or remember one in their family’s collection.

photo of a Betty Crocker cookbook

Photo: Betty Crocker cookbook, from the author’s collection. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

Today we can download the Betty Crocker Cookbook app, but our elders were able to peruse Betty’s recipes in her cookbooks, such as Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book which was first published in 1950.

ad for a Betty Crocker cookbook, Greensboro Daily News newspaper article 29 November 1950

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 29 November 1950, page 3

One of the benefits of this cookbook is the fact that it is published as a 3-ring binder which allows its owner to add additional recipes. This 1950 review of the cookbook exclaims: “One of its chief values is that it is looseleaf, enabling the housewife to add clippings from other sources.” The review goes on to explain that the photos and illustrations are helpful aids in preparing the recipes.

review of a Betty Crocker cookbook, Greensboro Record newspaper article 13 September 1950

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 13 September 1950, page 19

The Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book now referred to as the Betty Crocker Cookbook, is one of 250 cookbooks since 1950 that sport the Betty Crocker name.**

What are your memories of cooking with Betty Crocker? Do you own the Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book? Has your grandma passed down her Betty Crocker diploma? Share your memories in the comments below.


* Marks, Susan. Finding Betty Crocker: The secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food. Minneapolis, MC: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. Page 10-11.

** “The Story of Betty Crocker.” Accessed 16 June 2015.

Share Your Recipes with Us!

GenealogyBank has a shared group Pinterest board where you can share your old family recipes. If you have a family recipe you’d like to share, send us a Pinterest group board request and you can pin your recipe on our board to share with the community.

Related Food & Cooking Articles and Resources:

Civil War Genealogy: Old Letters in Newspapers & Research Resources

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary expands on her earlier article about Civil War letters published in newspapers by sharing some additional Civil War research resources and tips.

A recent GenealogyBank Blog article of mine discussed personal communications of the Civil War period (see: Civil War Newspaper Research: Personal Notices & Letters). Desperate families crossed enemy lines, sent letters via flags of truce, or – more safely – exchanged messages via newspapers, especially when a loved one had become a prisoner of war.

The importance of these Civil War letters published in newspapers should not be discounted, because in many cases they are the only record of a person’s experience during the war, if not their military involvement.

photo of a group of Union soldiers of Company G, 71st New York Volunteers, 1861

Photo: group of Union soldiers of Company G, 71st New York Volunteers, 1861. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Along with those old newspaper letters, there are other Civil War resources to help genealogists with their family history research. Here are some additional considerations for searching Civil War records.

Searching for Civil War Soldiers

When searching for Civil War records, the first stop for many is the National Park Service Soldiers and Sailors Database.

Many early American military records are to be found in this database. This is a wonderful resource – but as with all genealogical military databases, it’s nearly impossible for it to be complete. During periods of upheaval, many records go astray or were lost for many reasons.

What Happened to Lucien Wheatly?

One Civil War soldier I could not locate in the Soldiers and Sailors Database is Lucien Wheatly of the Sixth Regiment Cavalry.

A letter in the Richmond Enquirer reported that nothing had been heard from him since 17 December 1863. The writer, who was not fully identified, reported that Wheatly was a prisoner of war at a prison called “Scott’s Factory,” but thought he might have been sent away.

missing person ad for Union soldier Lucien Wheatly, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisement 30 May 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 30 May 1864, page 4

This is an extremely important citation, because it pinpoints the soldier’s last known location. However, scant information is available on this prison. The website Civil War Richmond states it existed from 1862 to 1864 and that its location has never been determined.

Whenever you cannot locate a historical place, search GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. I did an archives search, and found that there are only a few clues – but this one is important: Scott’s Factory was reportedly four or five miles from Smithfield.

article about a Civil War skirmish near Smithfield, Virginia, Richmond Enquirer newspaper article 3 February 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 3 February 1864, page 3

By triangulating the references in the old newspaper article (Chuckatuck Creek, Cherry Grove & Smithfield), a diligent researcher could possibly solve the prison’s location mystery, or at least narrow the possibilities. Perhaps someone more proficient in Virginia geography could use these clues to find Scott’s Factory. Google Maps shows Chuckatuck Creek to be about 12 miles south of Smithfield, and since the Union gunboat was to “go around and meet the Yankees at Cherry Grove,” perhaps one should follow the water routes.

Follow-up Searches for Lucien Wheatly

Whenever you can’t find an ancestor you’re researching, always perform a follow-up search using alternative dates. It’s not clear if there was more than one Lucien Wheatly, but I did locate the name twice in GenealogyBank’s collections, and also in several Web references.

  • Sanitary Inspector referenced in the 1890 Congressional Directory. Lived at 921 G Street N.W. (see Serial Set Vol. No.2819; 3 December 1890, Report: S.Misc.Doc. 9)
  • Cashier at an Illinois bank in 1892 (see Daily Illinois State Register (Springfield, Illinois), 26 May 1892, page 6)
  • Sales Representative from Chicago in 1911 (see The Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers)

Follow the Letter Reprints

When a letter was published in old newspapers, there was often a reference to “please copy” elsewhere. This is a good clue that the subject of the letter had connections to the place indicated. Note that the letter concerning Lucien Wheatly shown above concluded:

Any one knowing his [Wheatly’s] whereabouts will confer a great favor on his friends by addressing, by personal in the Richmond Enquirer, J. & B. D., Daily News office.

As noted in that missing person ad from 1864, the Southern newspaper Richmond Enquirer and the Northern newspaper New York Daily News often exchanged reports. That exchange enabled soldiers’ families in both the South and the North to place ads that would be seen in the other region.

This exchange is explicitly referred to in this article from the Richmond Enquirer, which mentioned that the New York Daily News recently printed 96 personals, first published in the Richmond Enquirer, that were addressed to persons in the North. That same historical news article reprinted ads from the New York Daily News from Northerners trying to reach family in the South. Here is one from “Jack” intended for an Edward Huntley in Richmond.

Civil War missing person ads, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisements 30 May 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 30 May 1864, page 4

The message from Jack is intriguing because it reports an inheritance. Jack, whose surname was withheld to maintain anonymity, let Edward C. Huntley know how to collect his share from Aunt Sarah’s estate. Holmes was the executor. Jack shared a reference to where he was in the Catskills and mentioned he had tried to reach Richmond twice, but was unable.

Here is another old newspaper ad from a Northerner, first printed in the New York Daily News and reprinted in the Richmond Enquirer. In this ad, the mother of Samuel Livingston was seeking information about her missing son. We learn from this ad Samuel’s rank, company and regiment. The ad also makes reference to a Colonel Moore who was wounded and left on the battlefield at Oloustee [Olustee], Florida. According to research on the battle, this was Col. Henry Moore.

missing person ad for Union soldier Samuel Livingston, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisement 30 May 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 30 May 1864, page 4

Livingston appears in the National Park Service Soldiers and Sailors Database as follows.

listing for Samuel Livingston, National Park Service Soldiers and Sailors Database

Genealogy Search Tips

  • Assume that every database is incomplete or has mistakes.
  • Use historical newspapers to fill in the blanks – and when you solve a puzzle, be sure to share it with others.
  • If a paper mentions “please copy,” there is always a personal connection. The person may have lived, worked or served in that place, a relative may live there, or there could be another possibility that you have not yet considered.
  • Not every publication will report that a piece was copied (i.e., reprinted), so look to see if it exists elsewhere. Sometimes the information will have been changed or have additions.
  • During the Civil War period, we often encounter scanning issues with the early newspapers. As fortunate as we are that they survived, some text may be smeary or split across two lines, so a search engine may misread it.
  • Don’t assume relationships unless specified. Mrs. Samuel Livingston could have been a wife, daughter, in-law or other relation; we only know for certain because her ad says that any news “will be most thankfully received by his mother.”
  • Always perform a follow-up search using alternate dates. Also, vary a person’s name by title and name abbreviations.
  • Follow location trails. Many battle parks and Civil War prison sites would be thrilled to add to their list of soldiers and sailors.
  • Map your ancestor’s movements. Think about known routes via land or water if they went to visit relatives, and consider military and troop movements.
  • Enrich your genealogical experience by taking a road trip. You may find that this experience adds an important component to your knowledge.
  • As an exercise, search for related names and events in the Soldiers and Sailors Database. For example, there is quite a bit of information on the 47th New York Regiment in which Samuel Livingston served.

As an exercise, see how many prisoner of war reports you can find and reconnect to their family. Each one has a story, such as the example below about William Kean who was captured on 17 June 1864 while on picket duty. One can only imagine how that came about.

missing person ad for Confederate soldier William Kean, Richmond Enquirer newspaper advertisement 23 July 1864

Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia), 23 July 1864, page 2

Researching your Civil War ancestor? There are many good Civil War genealogy resources available online. Be sure to include old newspapers, such as those in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. In some cases, you may find that the clue you’re searching for about your ancestor never appeared in a government record – but was contained in a letter a loved one had printed in a newspaper in a desperate attempt to get news about a missing son or husband. Their hunt for information may be just what you need for your own searches!

Related Civil War Articles:

Genealogy Research with Newspapers: Stories in Classified Ads

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena provides several examples of classified ads from old newspapers to show how these often-overlooked genealogy resources can help tell our ancestors’ stories.

Newspaper classified ads. They are traditionally for glancing at when you need a job or a used car, right? Classified advertisements are one way newspapers make money, both from their readers and local businesses. Looking through generations of classifieds, the structure remains similar though the content of the advertisements changes over time. Reading the classifieds makes for a fascinating social history study of your ancestors’ place and time.

The more I scan old classified ads the more I find to like. I’ve written before about the classifieds (see links at the end of this article) and how they pertain to family history research. Here are a few more historical newspaper advertisements that may spark some ideas for your own genealogy searches.

The Personal Classified Ads

There’s no doubt I love the Personals. I’m fascinated by what people paid to print about themselves or their family in the newspaper, and often wonder how their story ended. These tidbits offer genealogy researchers interesting social history information. They can also provide genealogical information on all aspects of a person’s life – including if the person went missing.

This example of a missing person ad would be a great find for the modern-day family of Charles Martin Hallinen, who left Champaign, Illinois, about 1890 and then seemingly vanished without a trace. This old personals advertisement also serves as a reminder that information may not necessarily be in the location you think it should be. In the case of this ad about a missing Illinois man, I found it in a Nebraska newspaper – and also duplicates in newspapers from: Salt Lake City, Utah; San Francisco, California; Reno, Nevada; and Dallas, Texas. These personals advertisements covered the span of at least six months.

missing person ad for Charles Martin Hallinen, Omaha World-Herald newspaper advertisement 14 January 1900

Omaha World-Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 14 January 1900, page 10

Often as genealogists, we come across an ancestor that seems to just disappear. While their fading paper trail may be due to a lack of records, it’s quite possible that they did vanish for some reason (perhaps on purpose or as the result of a tragedy) and the newspaper might be the place to find information about that missing ancestor.

Another example of a Personals ad with genealogical value is this one placed by the family of Theodore Stevenson, who died 27 February 1900 – his family placed a newspaper ad to remember his passing 16 years later.

personal ad in remembrance of Theodore Stevenson, Patriot newspaper advertisement 6 March 1916

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 6 March 1916, page 9

Homes for Orphans

Sure you can acquire all kinds of things in the classifieds: clothing, automobiles, animals, employment, etc. But if you read between the lines of this 1919 personals advertisement, it reveals a sad story.

home wanted personal ad, Patriot newspaper advertisement 7 July 1919

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 7 July 1919, page 14

That’s not the only example I found of family tragedy; other old newspaper advertisements for homes for babies and young children can be found in various editions of the newspaper.

home wanted personal ads, Patriot newspaper advertisements 18 August 1919

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 18 August 1919, page 10

Don’t Take as Directed

There’s no better peek into our ancestors’ everyday lives than when you check out the ads for remedies and medicinal services. I’ve written before about Lydia Pinkham, who was a genius at marketing her medicinal remedies to women. She used the newspaper classifieds to sell her product via testimonials complete with photos, names and addresses of satisfied customers. She wasn’t the only one who used the classifieds to seek out new customers. Plenty of examples of questionable medical cures can be found in the newspaper.

Medicinal advertisements not only provided reasons why the reader should invest in a bottle of a particular tonic, but also explained everything that the tonic cured – and included glowing endorsements from satisfied “users.”

In this example for Dr. Folger’s Olosanonian, or “All-Healing Balsam,” an armor-wearing knight on his horse is stabbing a figure holding a flag labeled “consumption.” The old advertisement states that the “question is no longer asked can Asthma be cured?” and promises that Dr. Folger provides a cure “quicker than any remedy in the world.”

Endorsements found in this advertisement include Mrs. Robert P. Bell of Morristown, New Jersey, who was:

severely afflicted with asthma. Her physicians had given up on her but with one bottle of Olosanonian she could get up out of bed and dress herself, the first time she was able to in months.

ad for Dr. Folger's “All-Healing Balsam,” Gloucester Telegraph newspaper advertisement 29 October 1845

Gloucester Telegraph (Gloucester, Massachusetts), 29 October 1845, page 4

It makes you wonder how many desperately sick people put all their confidence in Dr. Folger and his miracle consumption cure.

Government Notices

The U.S. federal census is the go-to resource for anyone with American ancestors. It’s the best tool we have for locating families. But while we all use it, we don’t often give thought to how the information was obtained.

In this 1830 classified advertisement, we see the title Fifth Census of the United States. The ad states:

The Deputy Marshal respectfully informs the Inhabitants of Ward No. 3, that he will This Day commence his duties in that Ward, and requests that written answers to the Interrogatories published by the Marshal of this District, may be left for him in all places, where it may be inconvenient for some Member of the family personally to answer the same.

classified ad for the Fifth Census, Charleston Courier newspaper advertisement 29 July 1830

Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 29 July 1830, page 6

According to the United States Census Bureau website, marshals or their assistants visited every house or “made a personal inquiry of the head of every family in their district.” This was the first year that uniform printed schedules were used.*

Classifieds provided many different types of government notices including information about military service and public meetings.

Have You Found Your Ancestor in the Classifieds?

Take some time now to read the old classifieds in your ancestor’s hometown newspaper. What was going on during historical events or times of stress (wars, economic depressions)? What can you learn about your ancestor’s lifetime in the classifieds?

Please use the comments section below; I’d love to hear about your family history finds in the classified ads.


* 1830 Overview. United States Census Bureau. Accessed 3 June 2015.

Related Classified Ads Articles:

Old Classified & Personal Ads Reveal Our Ancestors’ Love Lives

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena shows a surprising source of family history information: marriage ads placed by our ancestors in their local newspapers.

Are you married? Dating your partner for years? How did you meet your lover? That’s a question most people ask of couples who’ve been together a long time. Some couples meet through work, school or friends, others may take a perceived modern route. In today’s world there are all kinds of ways to meet a prospective mate; some are more traditional and others are truly a sign of the times – like online dating.

It might surprise you to know that those looking for love have always found answers in the newspaper. While today you may go to an online forum such as Craig’s List to scan the personals, advertising for a partner is not a new idea; our 19th and 20th century ancestors used the Personals in their local newspapers to facilitate long-term love matches.

a personal ad containing a love poem, San Jose Mercury News newspaper advertisement 4 September 1915

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 4 September 1915, page 10

Marry for Money or Love?

It’s that age-old marriage question: Do you marry for love or money? While passionate arguments could ensue over the benefits of either marital choice, the newspaper classifieds of yesteryear make it fairly clear which was more often preferred.

This old newspaper advertisement in the Business Personals section of an Ohio newspaper initially seems out of place and sounds, appropriately, more like a business proposition. Interestingly enough the gentleman placing the advertisement is casting a fairly large net looking for his love connections, advertising in Ohio when he’s living in New York.

personal ad from D. Rengaw, Plain Dealer newspaper article 4 July 1911

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 4 July 1911, page 14

Scrolling down the same page, we find another personal ad from a businessman who is interested in a marriage partner “with some money.”

personal ad from Frank Felman, Plain Dealer newspaper advertisement 4 July 1911

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 4 July 1911, page 14

In some cases, a dowry may have been what was required to meet with some potential suitors. At times, advertisers for potential marriage partners laid all their proverbial cards on the table, stating their assets and asking for specific goods (money, a home, etc.) that the potential bride had to bring in return. What may appear as a desirable commodity – a successful business man or farmer who owned his farm or home – meant requesting that the woman have cash to add to the assets, such as in this advertisement request from a Pennsylvania newspaper.

personal ad, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper advertisement 8 April 1900

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 8 April 1900, page 10

Situations Wanted

Sometimes I read the classifieds and wonder if the advertisements are a thinly disguised effort to secure a job and a marriage partner. Consider these old want ads found in a California newspaper. In the first advertisement a “refined lady” is looking for a housekeeping job with an older gentleman or an invalid. Another advertisement is placed by a mother who wants a housekeeping job working with men. Not sure who could turn down such a request that ends with the words “work cheap.”

personal ad, San Jose Mercury News newspaper advertisement 4 September 1915

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 4 September 1915, page 10

personal ad, San Jose Mercury News newspaper advertisement 4 September 1915

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 4 September 1915, page 10

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Individuals were not the only ones placing these advertisements; sometimes a love matchmaking service was trying to attract clients. Consider this example that promises “…lovely women and honorable men. Many rich.” For a small investment of only 2 cents (about 58 cents in today’s money), you could obtain a “big list” of names. I’m sure having a large catalog of potential mates would sound potentially promising.

ad from a matchmaking service, Omaha World Herald newspaper advertisement 14 January 1900

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 14 January 1900, page 10

Love in the Wild West

Requests for partners started popping up in newspaper advertisements as more single men traveled west looking for adventure or to try their hand at homesteading, and women found they were widowed or unable to find a mate after the Civil War. By 1898, the federal government even got in the act by publishing a chart showing where eligible men and women could be found. This demographic information was printed in the newspaper for those readers curious about which state likely held a potential marriage partner.

Enter Last Name

In this personal ad, a woman is seeking her love out west. I like how she encourages both rich and poor to write, but makes it clear that she is not wealthy.

personal ad, Omaha World Herald newspaper advertisement 14 January 1900

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 14 January 1900, page 10

Need a Spouse? Try Advertising in the Newspaper!

Using online dating services may seem like a new idea – but even our ancestors used the technology of the day looking for someone to love. Not all men married the girl next door, and while traditional opportunities to meet someone outside of your community may have been limited, there were alternative love-seeking options including placing an ad in the newspaper. As you research your family tree and wonder where your great-great grandparents met, don’t neglect to search the newspaper for a possible answer.

Genealogy Tip: Remember that when searching for your ancestors in newspaper ads, try variations of their name including just their initials and surname. Advertisements may have required payment per word – as well as each time they ran – so they needed to be brief and to the point.

Related Newspaper Advertisements Articles:

Vintage Fashion: Our Ancestors’ Summer Apparel

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 articles and advertisements that show what our ancestors wore during the hot summer months.

I don’t know about where you live, but here in California it is HOT. This week has been hot and humid, something we are not as used to since we normally live with a “dry heat.” So as the temperature goes up people try all sorts of ways to keep cool, including altering the way they normally dress. A few days ago I was standing in line at the bank and a woman in her bathing suit was in front of me! Because it is warm all year long here, I would say the concept of “summer fashion” is lost on most of us Californians.

Typically in most places, however, each season brings with it new fashions. It wasn’t too terribly long ago that our ancestors learned about the newest fashion trends via the newspaper. And while swimsuits are a summer fashion must-have (see Great-Grandmother’s Swimsuit in Vintage Fashion Articles & Photos), other summer fashions are important for outdoor activities, social events, and vacationing.

bathing suit ad, Charlotte Observer newspaper advertisement 11 July 1916

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), 11 July 1916, page 7

Summer Fashions of Yesteryear

I am grateful fashion trends have changed over the generations because some of the older apparel trends included way too much fabric to wear during hot summer months. Take this 1906 example from Louisiana. The Gibson girl look is well represented in these summer dresses, which are described as being “light” and made from “filmy fabrics.” And while I have no doubt that these linen dresses were much lighter than women’s standard fare at that time, I am grateful I didn’t have to wear that much fabric in a time when air conditioning wasn’t available.

summer fashions ad, Times-Picayune newspaper advertisement 11 February 1906

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 11 February 1906, page 5

I have to admit I love looking at vintage fashions from the 1920s, and newspaper advertisements provide us with a sense of what clothing was really available to our ancestors for purchase. Sure, it’s interesting to see what models were wearing at fashion shows, but newspaper advertisements verify what styles of apparel were available for the common family.

Take for instance this short-sleeved frock. The reader is informed that “The whole background of summer fashions is white” and the use of “dainty pleatings and exquisite lace trimmings” can be seen in the fashions of 1924.

ad for summer clothes, Plain Dealer newspaper advertisement 25 May 1924

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 May 1924, page 49

Similarly-styled dresses can be seen in an advertisement on the same page of the Plain Dealer, that proclaims:

When summer comes – it must not find us unprepared. Filmy Frocks of printed or plain georgette, crepe or chiffon, embellished with lace, embroidery or beads, in themselves suggest vine shaded verandas and light laughter, or the joys of the summer evening dance.

ad for summer clothes, Plain Dealer newspaper advertisement 25 May 1924

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 May 1924, page 49

Looking toward Hollywood

Celebrity has always attracted attention – and there is no doubt that, just like today, people have always been interested in what was being worn by the rich and famous. I love the description of the outfits in this 1939 article entitled “Ladies of the Screen Vie with Each Other in Wearing Latest in Summer Fashions.”

Ladies of the Screen Vie with Each Other in Wearing Latest in Summer Fashions, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 5 June 1939

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 5 June 1939, page 4

One of the stars mentioned in the piece is Margaret Sullavan who starred opposite Jimmy Stewart in the movie Shop Around the Corner, the inspiration for the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan film You’ve Got Mail. Sullavan’s outfit is described as:

…new hostess pajamas, the latest in lounging comfort, combine pigskin with a heavy roma crepe. The blond star chooses a watermelon pink shade for the very full trousers, with shirred bodice draped from the plain round neckline. A wide, natural-colored pigskin girdle, studded in silver nailheads, individualizes the suit, and, with it, Miss Sullavan wears a heavy cord snood to keep her curls in line.

Most likely the use of the word pigskin here indicates a type of leather.

A more summer-sounding outfit in the article is described as worn by Lupe Velez who:

…relaxing recently at Palm Springs, wore transparent oilskin fuchsia-colored slacks and bolero over a fuchsia and white striped oil-silk puckerette bathing suit.

(Oil-silk, incidentally, is a material much like that used for men’s tobacco pouches.)


What did those summer fashions cost our ancestors? I mentioned above how advertisements can provide us images of fashions that were available to our families, but they can also answer questions about the price of the apparel. This large 1933 newspaper advertisement includes sale prices for everything from wool bathing suits to summer coats and dresses.


ad for summer clothes, Daily Illinois State Journal newspaper article 20 July 1933

Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), 20 July 1933, page 11

What shoes would they have worn with that summer wardrobe? Today we mostly think of sandals and flip-flops as summer ware, but fashionistas know you need much more. This ad offers shoes for $1.95 a pair:

Every style in this sale was selected for fashion-rightness. Shoes for all summer occasions – in models for street, sports, daytime and summer resort wear.

Notice that they proclaim to have plenty of white shoes in stock, since white was traditionally worn during the summer months or specifically after Memorial Day and before Labor Day; a fashion “rule” most likely established by high society women to distinguish themselves from everyone else.

ad for summer shoes, Evening Star newspaper advertisement 13 May 1934

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 13 May 1934, page 26

When you find an old newspaper fashion advertisement, take the time to research what the price would translate to in today’s world. Various websites including Measuring Worth can assist you in converting those prices into modern-day sums.

What did your ancestors wear during the summer? While our ideas about what constitutes summer wear have changed over the generations, it’s a good bet that your ancestors chose outfits that would have helped them beat the heat. What did your ancestors wear? Their hometown newspapers provide clues.

Related Fashion Articles:

Researching Kids with Vintage Newspaper Ads of 100 Years Ago

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary shows how historical newspaper advertisements offer a fascinating insight into the stories of our ancestors’ lives – such as these old ads concerning children.

If you’re like most genealogists, you thrive by living vicariously through the lives of ancestors.

montage of ancestor photos with the caption: "Genealogists thrive on living vicariously through the lives of their ancestors."

We amass hordes of vital statistics on our ancestors – and then we look for detailed data about what happened in their lives. Who were their relatives, what did they do for a living, where did they live, when did all of this happen and why did they do what they did?

And for some of our ancestors, historical newspaper advertisements offer a fascinating insight into the personal stories of their lives.

Take, for instance, children.

Ads for Children

As every parent knows, we do our best to provide for our children – so it should come as no surprise to find old newspapers advertisements that are targeted toward children’s well-being. From schools to medical treatments, there is a wealth of information to be gleaned about what life was like back in their times.

Early American Schools

According to an article on the History of Public Schools at Wikipedia, by 1918 every U.S. state required students to complete elementary school. So what were parents to do if they wanted to arrange for more education beyond that level?

They turned to tutors and private educational institutions, such as the many featured in these 1915 Pennsylvania newspaper advertisements.

ads for schools and colleges, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper advertisements 11 September 1915

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 11 September 1915, page 5

Of course, not every advertisement was for a traditional school, and not every ad was for children.

ad for the International School of Photo-Play Training, Oregonian newspaper advertisement 9 April 1915

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 9 April 1915, page 2

At the International School of Photo-Play Training in Portland, Oregon, you could learn movie acting. The allure of high salaries, such as Mary Pickford’s $2,000 a week or Charlie Chaplin’s $1,250 weekly pay, was a strong draw.

Mary Pickford was a huge star in 1915.

photo of Mary Pickford, Tulsa World newspaper article 7 February 1915

Tulsa World (Tulsa, Oklahoma), 7 February 1915, page 8

Juvenile Apparel (Clothing)

What would you guess your ancestors paid for their children’s clothing?

I’m not certain what the average national salary was a hundred years ago. The Social Security Administration maintains a chart of average salaries in the U.S., starting in 1951 (when it was $2,799.16), so it couldn’t have been much back in 1915 (see

So in 1915 newspaper advertisements, when you see prices for juvenile apparel starting at a few dollars per item, that was considered expensive by many people. Note the Saturday specials for Joel Gutman & Company of Baltimore, Maryland, in the ad below:

  • Boys’ and girls’ footwear was on sale for $1.90, with high and lace shoes selling for $2.15
  • Boys’ suits were priced from $7.50 to $8.50, and overcoats from $10.00 to $13.00
  • Girls’ cloth dresses ranged from $1.67 to $2.85
  • Girls’ coats from $5.97 to $8.37
ad for children's clothing from Joel Gutman and Company, Sun newspaper advertisement 9 January 1915

Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 9 January 1915, page 4

Medicine and Quackery

If you want to have a good laugh – or can handle being shocked at what happened in the past – take a look at the medical treatments available to our ancestors. Many of the medical treatments of yesteryear, such as the opiate paregoric (powdered opium), promised to cure everything from diarrhea to colic (see

As seen in the ad below for castoria (castor oil) warning parents “Don’t Poison Baby,” the dangers of paregoric were known 100 years ago. Surprisingly, you could purchase it without a subscription until 1970, so it ended up in many household medicine cabinets.

ad for castoria (castor oil), Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper advertisement 7 July 1915

Colorado Springs Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado), 7 July 1915, page 5

If your children were “vertically challenged,” parents could arrange for magnetic wave treatments.

Dr. Charles I. White, who (in my humble opinion) should be added to the many lists of quack doctors, promised to double the growth of children by electrical treatment. Let’s hope none of your family was drawn in by the spurious medical advertisement shown below.

ad for the "magnetic wave" medical device, Riverside Independent Enterprise newspaper advertisement 16 January 1915

Riverside Independent Enterprise (Riverside, California), 16 January 1915, page 3

Delve into historical newspaper classified ads and let us know if you find information that helped with your family history research.

Related Vintage Advertisement Articles:

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.

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

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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Help Wanted-Female Classified Ads: Working Women Ancestors

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

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

photo of a secretary at her typewriter, 1912

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

Early Newspaper Classifieds

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

photo of women weavers at work, c. 1910

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

Help Wanted-Female Ads

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

Enter Last Name

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

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

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

photo of women typists and accountants, c. 1920

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social History in the Classifieds

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

Enter Last Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

Situations Wanted

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

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

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

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

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

More Articles Related to Female Ancestors’ Occupations:

Vintage Ads & Our Ancestors’ Shopping

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary finds vintage advertisements and articles in old newspapers and historical books to gain insights into a part of our ancestors’ lives: shopping.

Take a walk down the “past lane” of our ancestors’ shopping lives by delving into historical newspapers.

You’ll find marvelous articles and vintage advertisements to gain insight into purchases that surrounded them in their daily lives.

Vintage Advertisements

Iconic imagery, such as this 1900 advertisement, puts a face to historical eras and displays important visuals of clothing, hairstyles and accessories. They’re marvelous pieces of history—and as such, are highly sought-after collectibles.

Doesn’t this ad inspire you to slurp a Coca-Cola while dolled up in frilly plumes and pearls?

a vintage ad for Coca-Cola

Source: Wikipedia’s article “Advertising” displaying a vintage Coca-Cola advertisement

Advertisements in Historical Books

Advertisements abound across every historical newspaper, and are also located within GenealogyBank’s impressive collection of advertising ephemera. Use the Historical Books search page to search the books collection for vintage advertisements.

search page for GenealogyBank's Historical Books collection

Try entering a business name if you know where your family worked—and if you don’t, query the search engine for a type of trade. You’ll be amused at what you find.

vintage ad for the Excelsior Hat Store

Popular Shopping Items

The popular items of yesterday have certainly changed, so explore newspaper feature pages for intriguing reports. Don’t forget newspaper shipping reports. As so many goods arrived by ships, you’ll soon discover what were the interests of the day.

Enter Last Name

Most people would assume that tea was the popular drink of the 18th Century. It was, but another beverage was highly sought after: cocoa.

Doesn’t this report confirm what chocaholics already suspect—that our forefathers and mothers loved chocolate as much as we do? I imagine the shortage of cocoa might have been alarming news for some.

article about a cocoa shortage, American Weekly Mercury newspaper article 16 March 1727

American Weekly Mercury (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 16 March 1727, page 2

Types of Genealogy Discoveries from Vintage Ads

There is much more to advertisements than you can imagine—they can provide all sorts of family history information and clues.

You might identify information about:

  • where a family worked
  • their coworkers
  • wages
  • working conditions

And who knows, you might even make a startling discovery, such as this one about my Dutch ancestor, Andrew Vos.

His classified advertisement not only confirmed that he was an early and important importer of fine art, but also named the artwork in his inventory. What a thrill to consider that many grandmaster paintings, now only seen in museums, may have passed through his hands.

Original Paintings for Sale, Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser newspaper advertisement 27 April 1805

Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 27 April 1805, page 2

This 1805 newspaper ad also identified his place of business as 107 North Front Street in Philadelphia. Last year my husband and I were able to walk to the location, not far from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia. What a thrill to walk in the footsteps of an ancestor!

So take a chance. Explore early advertisements and news reports—and don’t forget to be creative when adding keywords. Look for business names, along with specific goods and services. Almost anything that our predecessors owned was advertised for sale—even houses from the Sears Catalog.

photo of twin houses bought from the Sears Catalog

Photo: twin houses bought from the Sears Catalog. Source: Library of Congress.


Enter Last Name

Keywords to Include

Depending upon the target timeframe, consider using these keywords in your shopping searches:

  • Antiques
  • Bookmobile
  • Bring and Buy Sale
  • Business Names
  • Catalog or Catalogue (such as Sears)
  • Factory
  • Flea Market
  • Food (you could discover the price of milk)
  • Jumble Sale
  • Marché aux Puces
  • Market or Market House
  • Mercantile
  • Provisions
  • Sale
  • Salesmen
  • Sheriff Sales (useful to discover names of neighbors)
  • Trade Days
  • Trading Post
  • Trash and Treasure
  • Trunk Sale
Sheriff's Sales, New Brunswick Fredonian newspaper advertisement 5 February 1824

New Brunswick Fredonian (New Brunswick, New Jersey), 5 February 1824, page 1

We’d love for you to share your GenealogyBank “shopping” discoveries with us in the comment section!

Great-Grandmother’s Swimsuit in Vintage Fashion Articles & Photos

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to find ads and stories about vintage swimsuits, giving us another glimpse into our ancestors’ lives.

It’s HOT outside and it’s the perfect time to enjoy a day at the beach. One day as I was trying to stay cool at home with the air conditioning, I was scanning family photos and came across a 1920s-era photo of my great-grandfather and his sister-in-law at the beach. Looking at the old family photo reminded me of what I love about family history research: discovering the stories of ordinary people’s lives. Our ancestors’ lives were much more than a birth, marriage, and death date. They took part in all sorts of activities, including recreations like visiting the beach during the summer.

photo of Oscar Philibert and Lillie Chatham

Photo: Oscar Philibert and Lillie Chatham. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

So what type of swimsuits did your ancestors wear? Swimsuits, like all types of fashion, have evolved through the years to reflect the morals, laws, form, and textiles of the times. According to the article “Swim Wear History” by the Vintage Fashion Guild, the bathing suits of ancient Greece resembled the bikinis of today! As time progressed, modesty and segregation between the sexes called for swim attire that lacked function. As swimming and beach visits became more popular in the 19th century, beach wear evolved to the swimsuit fashions seen today. That article goes on to say that those early Victorian suits made of wool covered everything on the human form but they also adhered to wet bodies, defeating their original purpose: modesty. This lack of function for swimsuits can be seen in photos from the early 20th century as well.

Enter Last Name

Controversy has always followed the wearing of swimsuits. Older generations voiced their disapproval of the younger generation showing too much skin—and in some cases the law has stepped in to make sure the public is well-covered. One example of someone who tried to push the envelope in what bathing beauties wore was the Australian professional swimmer and actress Annette Kellerman (1886-1975), who was an advocate of women wearing one-piece swimsuits instead of the impractical dress and pantaloons ensembles of the time. She was even arrested for wearing one of her one-piece suits on a U.S. beach.

photo of Annette Kellermann

Photo: pictorial post card, “Miss Annette Kellermann, Champion Lady Swimmer and Diver of the World.” Credit: State Library of New South Wales; Flickr the Commons.

Swimsuit Fashions through the 20th Century

This 1916 newspaper ad offers a swimsuit that pretty much covers every part of the body except the arms and neck. In describing this more “modern” suit, the writer states “that the suit is not the same as a half dozen years ago—a simple thing good enough to swim in.” As we read more about this ensemble and all of its pieces and design, it’s funny to see how language and descriptions have changed. I’m not sure how many women today would want to wear a swimsuit described as “…striped as a porch awning.” Modern-day women may take offense at someone commenting on their fashion choice looking like something that should be hanging off someone’s porch.

swimsuit ad, Charlotte Observer newspaper advertisement 11 July 1916

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), 11 July 1916, page 7

It’s easy to see the style differences from the 1916 suit featured above and this “scantier” 1923 swimsuit. Scantier certainly describes this vintage swimsuit, with its “shorter trunks, narrower shoulder hands, and no sleeves.” It’s easy to understand how this suit style would be much easier to swim in as the model, Miss Martin of the Ziegfeld Follies, is quoted as saying.

swimsuit ad, Miami District Daily News newspaper advertisement 3 January 1922

Miami District Daily News (Miami, Oklahoma), 3 January 1922, page 3

While we most associate today’s bikinis as revealing swimsuits, women did wear two-piece swimsuits decades before the bikini, like this ad from 1937 describing how “an overskirt of white jersey dotted in red matches the ‘bra’ top of the suit, and is worn over red jersey shorts.”

swimsuit ad, National Labor Tribune newspaper advertisement 10 April 1937

National Labor Tribune (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), 10 April 1937, page 8

As younger generations look at the vintage swimsuit fashions from yesterday, they probably find amusement at past efforts to cover up on the beach, and wonder why our ancestors wore so much material. It would seem that each generation disapproves of the younger generations and their fashions—and vice versa. That’s as true for 1922 as for the bikini-wearing women of 1960, as shown in this article reporting comments from newspaper readers about the wearing of bikinis. Notice that listed with each name is also the commentators’ street address—a potentially valuable genealogy clue.

Enter Last Name

My favorite quote is from Mrs. Nemitz who says of bikinis:

“Don’t think I’m old fashioned, because I’m not. I just don’t care for bikinis, and the men that I have talked to don’t care for them either.”

Good thing she didn’t know about what happened when the modest bathing costumes of her mother’s generation became wet—talk about revealing!

Bare Views on Bikinis, Plain Dealer newspaper article 2 July 1960

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 2 July 1960, page 12

So what did your female ancestors wear for a swimsuit? Were they daring and tried to show more than was allowed, or did they keep all covered up? Did they enjoy just dipping their toes into the ocean or did they need swimwear that allowed them freedom as they swam? Fashion history can provide an interesting look at our ancestors’ lives, and looking at swimwear reminds us of how similar some of our attitudes are to our ancestors’ opinions.

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