Frederic Haskin’s Answers to Questions: Like Google before Google

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena profiles Frederic J. Haskin and his Question & Answer column that was syndicated in more than 100 newspapers during the 1920s.

Where did inquisitive minds seek answers to their questions 70 or more years ago, long before the age of the Internet and search engines like Google? Your immediate answer might be: the library. Librarians, then as now, are the great reference source (even when Google lacks an answer). In fact, the New York Public Library has recently reported the finding of old index cards of reference questions and answers from the 1940s to the early 1980s. Recently, they have started to add those index cards to their Instagram account (@nypl) each week.

Frederic J. Haskin’s Answer Column

But who else, aside from librarians, answered questions in the days before the Internet? The newspapers. While many different types of Question & Answer columns were printed in newspapers, one column was syndicated in more than 100 newspapers during the 1920s. Frederic J. Haskin of the Information Bureau is said, at one point, to have received 1,000 letters a day which he answered with the help of his staff.

According to Haskin’s 1926 book Answers to Questions, his work on the Q & A newspaper column started because:

the author of this book gradually developed a large mail from readers asking questions about subjects which he had discussed. Pleased by the questions that his writings had inspired, the author set out to answer the inquiries which he received. As this became known, his mail increased until he was forced to obtain funds from the newspaper which he represented to pay for the cost of additional research work.*

Each newspaper that ran his Q & A column would start with an invitation such as this:

Any reader can get the answer to any question by writing… information bureau Frederic J. Haskin, director, Washington D.C. Give full name and address and enclose two-cent stamp for return postage. Be brief. All inquiries are confidential, the replies being sent to each individual.

When printed in the newspaper, readers’ questions were always signed with only their initials, allowing them to ask pretty much any type of question.

Questions, Questions and More Questions

The questions asked by people ranged from the historical to current events, practical to trivial. Understandably, questions that affected people in the here and now were asked, like this May 1919 question about the length of military enlistment – six months after the official end of World War I.

a question and answer column by Frederic J. Haskin, Charlotte Observer newspaper article 1 May 1919

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), 1 May 1919, page 7

In some cases, questions amounted to simple trivia – but for some of the questions, you may wonder what was the story behind the question that was asked. In this column from November 1922, the questions include “Why are some cranberries white?” and “Is China the most densely populated country?” to “Can a husband demand the delivery of mail addressed to his wife?”

For the latter question, the reply was:

Neither husband nor wife can control the delivery of mail addressed to the other against the wishes of the one to whom it is addressed. In the absence of instructions to the contrary, the wife’s letters will be placed with the husband’s mail unless they be known to live separately.

a question and answer column by Frederic J. Haskin, Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper article 6 November 1922

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), 6 November 1922, page 15

Haskin was a prolific author on various topics. Some of his Q & A columns also ran with an advertisement for his informative booklets, like this one on Parliamentarian Law, and there were other topics as well – such as poetry and maps

ad for a booklet on Parliamentarian Law by Frederic J. Haskin, Omaha World Herald newspaper advertisement 12 November 1931

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 12 November 1931, page 13

With a Touch of Genealogy Research

In his book Answers to Questions, the questions received from 5,000 newspaper readers and his answers are compiled and arranged according to topic. Chapters range from Agricultural and Aircraft to Criminology and Religion.

Haskin understood the reference and educational value of his Q & A column. He wrote in his book:

It is also the most unusual school in the world. It costs nothing to go to it. It has millions of students. It offers a more diversified curriculum than any university. It spreads its knowledge through the daily press and the mails. It reaches the ditch digger and the captain of finance, the washerwoman and the social leader. It is open to anyone who can read and write. All a student is required to do is ask and it will answer. It is the school of universal information.**

It’s surprising how many of these old Q & A columns could be useful to today’s genealogist. And in some cases Haskin’s Information Bureau acted as a detective service. In a 1922 article about the Information Bureau that appeared in the periodical The American Magazine, it is recalled that one of the letters received was from a woman who wanted to know the whereabouts of her brother, a civil engineer, whom she had lost contact with. Using city directories, the Bureau researcher was able to give her an answer:

Your brother left Buffalo, probably in the year 1916. If he went to Detroit, he did not remain there permanently. As he was not enlisted in the army or navy during the way, though of draft age, he may have been married without your knowledge…

The researcher also recommends contacting the brother’s college alumni association. That article explains more about the Information Bureau and its team of expert researchers. And just like the traits of a good genealogist, it states:

Neither Haskin nor the people in his bureau pretend to know the answer to every question: But they do know where to find the answers.***


* Answers to Questions, by Frederic J. Haskin, p. 11. Hathi Trust$b287779.
** Answers to Questions, by Frederic J. Haskin, p. 12. Hathi Trust$b287779
*** “What People Are Inquisitive About,” by Fred C. Kelly. The American Magazine. Available from Google Books:

Eleanor Roosevelt’s ‘My Day’ Newspaper Column: A Public Diary

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about Eleanor Roosevelt’s popular and long-running newspaper column, “My Day.”

When you think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt what comes to mind? Maybe it’s the fact that he was the only U.S. president to be elected to four terms. Maybe you’re familiar with the programs he helped to establish during the Depression, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Maybe you remember the words from his speech after the attack on Pearl Harbor, calling it “a date which will live in infamy.” Our 32nd president led the nation during the difficult times of the Great Depression and World War II.

What do you know about his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt? She was a crusader for many political and social issues, including women’s and civil rights. Mrs. Roosevelt has a long list of accomplishments in her own right apart from being a first lady. Starting in late 1935 she became one of the most-documented first ladies in U.S. history, due to the fact that she began a syndicated newspaper column that she personally wrote. Eleanor worked on her column “My Day” six days a week, from 1935 to 1962, writing about her daily activities and giving her views on a range of subjects.

This 1935 newspaper notice announced the upcoming “My Day” newspaper column.

Roosevelt Columns, Plain Dealer newspaper article 30 December 1935

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 30 December 1935, page 7

Many of Eleanor Roosevelt’s newspaper columns read like diary entries. In some cases, they resemble a letter to a dear friend—filled with her thoughts, conversations and opinions.

Her newspaper columns addressed many different topics; not all were especially poignant. For example, in one early column she discusses how much sleep she got and describes eating a tray of food by herself in her room. But looking at the totality of the columns helps paint a picture of the United States through the mid-20th century, reflecting the important issues our families faced such as war, poverty and racism. These “My Day” columns provide researchers with a social history of life during this time.

One issue that Eleanor Roosevelt was passionate about was civil rights. In her 21 February 1936 column, she mentions that she and her husband enjoyed a concert by African American singer Marian Anderson.

My Day in the White House by Eleanor Roosevelt, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 21 February 1936

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 21 February 1936, page 6

Three years later in February 1939 Eleanor Roosevelt quit the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) over their refusal to allow Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall. At that time the Hall was segregated and the DAR refused to allow African Americans to perform there.

In her resignation letter, Mrs. Roosevelt stated:

“However, I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist. You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obliged to send in to you my resignation. You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.”

You can view a copy of that DAR resignation letter on the National Archives website.

Thanks to the support of Eleanor Roosevelt and other like-minded individuals, Marian Anderson eventually sang at Constitution Hall at the invitation of the DAR in 1942.

photo of Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson

Photo: Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson in Japan. Credit: Flickr: The Commons, U.S. National Archives.

Mrs. Roosevelt’s 27-year newspaper column spanned her time as first lady, when she became a widow, and when she worked with the United Nations. One of her only breaks from writing the columns was in the days following her husband’s death on 12 April 1945.

In her last column, which ran 26 September 1962, Eleanor was once again addressing the issue of civil rights. In that column she discussed the issue of desegregating the schools, saying:

“In the same way, we must realize that however slow the progress of school integration in the South, analogous situations exist over and over again in the Northern states. There the problem of school desegregation is closely tied to desegregation of housing; certainly we are not doing any kind of job that we could hold out as an example to our Southern neighbors.”

With that discussion Eleanor’s “My Day” column came to an end.* She died two months later on 7 November 1962 at the age of 78.

* “My Day” by Eleanor Roosevelt, 26 September 1962. Available on the website My Day by Eleanor Roosevelt. Prepared by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project.