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.
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.
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
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 http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.$b287779.
** Answers to Questions, by Frederic J. Haskin, p. 12. Hathi Trust http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.$b287779
*** “What People Are Inquisitive About,” by Fred C. Kelly. The American Magazine. Available from Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=UbQ7AQAAMAAJ&lpg=RA4-PA45&ots=wkIdv0TUA-&dq=newspaper%20information%20bureaus%20questions%20and%20answers&pg=RA4-PA45#v=onepage&q=newspaper%20information%20bureaus%20questions%20and%20answers&f=false