Valentine’s Day History & Traditions: How Our Ancestors Celebrated

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary tells the history of St. Valentine’s Day, and describes some of the ways our ancestors celebrated this romantic holiday.

Valentines take many forms – from cards to flowers to romantic gestures – so why not take a look at Valentine’s Day traditions from history to generate new ideas of your own?

photo of an early Valentine's Day card, c.1919

Photo: early valentine, c.1919. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Saint Valentine

Our ancestors had many unique ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day, many of which centered on Saint Valentine or Valentinius of Italy.

Surprisingly little is known about Valentine, and the historical accounts of his life and death all differ. Most reports agree that he was a third century martyr who was beheaded on February 14 by the Romans for offering aid to Christians. But accounts differ as to what year he was executed, and by the order of which Roman emperor.

The story below, published in a 1913 newspaper, reports that Valentine rose through the offices of the church, but after becoming a bishop he was imprisoned by Calpernius, the High Sheriff. Roman Emperor Claudius wanted Valentine punished as a heathen, but passed the job onto Deputy Sheriff Asterius, whose daughter was blind. When Valentine saw her, he performed an exorcism which supposedly drove away the evil spirits causing her blindness. Her eyesight was restored and many, including Asterius, converted to Christianity. Unfortunately, Valentine was put back into prison and later beheaded.

article about St. Valentine, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 14 February 1913

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 14 February 1913, page 7

As the old newspaper article reports, the day Valentine lost his head (February 14) is also the day that lovers lose theirs:

The day on which Valentine lost his head – these over-zealous people frequently lose their heads, but not always that way – was February 14, and ever since that time it has been known as St. Valentine’s Day.

Romantic Poetry

Delightful Valentine’s Day poems abound in newspapers, including this excerpt about Cupid from Aesop’s “A Fable: The Wolf, the Sheep, and the Lamb” published in a 1749 newspaper.

a love poem, New-York Evening Post newspaper article 10 April 1749

New-York Evening Post (New York, New York), 10 April 1749, page 2

James Henry Hurdis (1800-1857), an artist and professor of poetry, alluded to the tradition of love knots in this poem from 1818. Love knots take many forms, but were often valentines written on paper or ribbon and tied in elaborate knots (see examples at this Victorian Rituals website).

a love poem, Providence Patriot newspaper article 7 February 1818

Providence Patriot (Providence, Rhode Island), 7 February 1818, page 1

Sending Valentine Cards

One of the most popular forms of celebrating Valentine’s Day, of course, is the sending of valentine cards to express your love. Valentines, in the form of love poems, have been written since the Middle Ages. In the 18th century printed valentine cards, with poetry and sometimes decorations, were produced. Valentine cards became hugely popular in the 19th century when lower postage rates made it affordable to send cards in the mail. Today, billions of dollars are spent around the world on Valentine’s Day cards, flowers, chocolates, jewelry and other gifts.

photo of an early Valentine's Day card

Photo: early valentine, c.1919. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Anonymous Valentines

Sending unsigned anonymous valentines was an annual tradition in our household, and I wonder if my descendants will be puzzled at one of my unusual heirlooms: a large collection of unsigned Valentine’s Day cards. Every February, unsigned V-day cards and chocolate candies would arrive in the mail. We always knew they were from the grandparents, but that didn’t stop us from delighting in the festivities.

I used to think the tradition of anonymous valentines was unique to my family, but after finding comics (such as the 1894 cartoon below) and other references, I now realize that this Valentine’s Day tradition predates my grandparents.

Valentine's Day cartoon, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper cartoon 25 February 1894

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 25 February 1894, page 18

Courtship Rituals

According to this 1856 newspaper article, gifts between would-be lovers are a long-honored Valentine’s Day practice, and one that the romantic Madame Royale helped establish. As the daughter of Henry the Fourth of France, she frequently hosted balls at her palace near Turin, which was appropriately called Valentine.

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Knights were instructed to present nosegays to their ladies, and in exchange, the belles furnished trappings or decorations for their admirers’ horses. If the knight won the tournament, he then presented the prize to his beloved.

As the historical news article reports:

At the various balls which this gallant princess gave during the year, it was directed that each lady should receive a nosegay from her lover, and that at every tournament the knight’s trappings for his horse should be furnished by his allotted mistress, with this proviso, that the prize obtained should be hers. These pleasant interchanges among the ‘young people’ finally grew into a custom, and thus originated the exchange of love tokens on St. Valentine’s Day.

article about Valentine's Day, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper article 16 February 1856

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (New York, New York), 16 February 1856, page 14

Bay Leaves, Clay Balls and Hardboiled Eggs

According to this 1874 newspaper article about grandmotherly traditions, our female ancestors celebrated Valentine’s Day by pinning bay leaves to their pillows.

The ritual including dreaming of one’s sweetheart in hopes of being married within the year. Another Valentine’s Day tradition entailed writing lovers’ names on bits of paper, rolling them in clay and then placing them under water. Whichever name rose to the surface first would be the Valentine.

article about Valentine's Day traditions, Daily Graphic newspaper article 14 February 1874

Daily Graphic (New York, New York), 14 February 1874, page 2

There was another ritual in this Valentine’s Day tradition which has thankfully died out! The yolk of a hardboiled egg was replaced with salt, and then the egg was eaten – shell and all – without speaking of one’s sweetheart or even “winking” after him.

Hope you have a very happy Valentine’s Day. Please share any favorite holiday traditions with us in the comments section.

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Old Fashioned Valentine’s Day Treats & Sweets

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 Valentine’s Day menus and recipes that our ancestors enjoyed.

Valentine’s Day is Saturday, and one item associated with that holiday is food. According to the website History, it was after 1840 that Valentine’s Day became associated with gift giving. British chocolatier Richard Cadbury introduced the idea of “eating chocolates,” a byproduct from the making of drinking chocolate. He even designed boxes for the candies to come in. He’s credited with creating the heart-shaped box that served as a beautiful gift package for the chocolates and provided a storage place for memorabilia.*

So what’s on your Valentine’s Day menu? Will your gift shopping involve the traditional heart-shaped box, or will you settle for a quiet night and a home-cooked romantic meal? If you’re having a night in, there are plenty of ideas for Valentine’s Day-themed foods in old newspaper articles to inspire you.

Valentine’s Day Menus

This 1928 Valentine’s-theme menu includes two gelatin recipes, one savory and one sweet: a heart-shaped salad and a strawberry soufflé.

recipe for a Valentine's Day heart-shaped salad, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article 11 February 1928

San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 11 February 1928, page 11

recipe for a Valentine's Day souffle, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article 11 February 1928

San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 11 February 1928, page 11

Like other holiday foods, Valentine’s Day food is associated with certain colors, mostly red and pink. This old newspaper article from 1951 proclaims that “Food for Valentine’s Day is probably as much fun to prepare as for any party because it is so pink and pretty.” While that may or may not be true, there’s no doubt that most people like the types of food described in these recipes, namely cookies and pie. The cookies described here are fairly easy to make, using a devil’s food cake mix as their base. Red food dye, cranberry sauce and heart shapes help the meringue add to the dessert tray.

Valentine Foods Fun to Prepare, Oregonian newspaper article 12 February 1951

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 12 February 1951, page 13

This 1941 Nebraska newspaper provides three possible menus for a Valentine luncheon, all with a different dessert. Depending on which menu you choose you could have “strawberry ice cream in meringue shells,” “red raspberry chiffon pie,” or “maraschino ice cream and petite fours.”

Add Color to Valentine's Day Table, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 31 January 1941

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 31 January 1941, page 17

Start with Oysters & Salad, Then Eat Candy

Probably one of my favorite Valentine menus found in the newspaper is this one from 1915 entitled “Queen of Hearts Cook Book.” In this early 20th century menu, oysters served on heart-shaped croustades are followed by a Love Apple Salad. From there the couple can have St. Valentine Sandwiches cut into heart shapes, and then they can move on to a dessert of heart-shaped candies dipped in chocolate. Of course like many Valentine menus, the ability to make all kinds of food heart-shaped is imperative. In this case the author instructs for the sandwiches: “…you will need a heart-shaped cutter which can be bought for about five cents.”

recipe for Valentine's Day, Boston Herald newspaper article 14 February 1915

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 14 February 1915, page 40

Obviously Valentine’s Day is the perfect time to serve heart-shaped foods. That tradition continues today and even my local pizza restaurants get in on the action by serving heart-shaped pizzas.

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Bring on the Chocolate

Sure you can buy chocolate candies – but why not whip up a chocolate dessert?

In this 1977 collection of recipes, those who love chocolate can choose either Chocolate Amaretto Kisses or Thicker No-Egg Chocolate Cake. While there is a recipe for His Valentine Cookies which can be served with either jam, jelly, caviar or grated cheese, my guess is the men might prefer the Myers’s Jamaican Rum Pie.

photo of desserts for Valentine's Day, Advocate newspaper article 10 February 1977

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 10 February 1977, page 86

recipe for amaretto kisses, Advocate newspaper article 10 February 1977

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 10 February 1977, page 86

recipe for chocolate cake, Advocate newspaper article 10 February 1977

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 10 February 1977, page 86

recipe for Valentine's Day cookies, Advocate newspaper article 10 February 1977

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 10 February 1977, page 86

recipe for Jamaican rum pie, Advocate newspaper article 10 February 1977

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 10 February 1977, page 86

Do you have a traditional, old fashioned Valentine’s Day recipe? I’d love to hear about it. Please share in the comments below.

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* Celebrating Valentine’s Day with a Box of Chocolates. History. http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/celebrating-valentines-day-with-a-box-of-chocolates. Accessed 8 February 2015.

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Newspapers Can Find Relatives You Didn’t Know You Had

I think I’ve discovered two relatives I never knew existed – in the city where I grew up!

I’ve been doing Genealogy for a long time and thought I had “met” them all at one point or another, and then I came across this old newspaper article.

Yale & Towne Dramatic Society to Give Play, Stamford Advocate newspaper article 1 May 1929

Stamford Advocate (Stamford, Connecticut), 1 May 1929, page 15

In May of 1929, employees from the Yale & Towne Manufacturing company came together to put on a production of the play “Arnold Goes into Business.”

Look closer at this enlargement of the main cast.

Yale & Towne Dramatic Society to Give Play, Stamford Advocate newspaper article 1 May 1929

Stamford Advocate (Stamford, Connecticut), 1 May 1929, page 15

Who are these guys: John and Mrs. Marie Anna Kemp?
Mrs. Marie Anna Kemp plays the part of Irma’s mother, Catherine Gleason,
and
John Kemp plays the part of Irma’s father H. A. Cooper.

Now if this surname was Smith or Brown, I wouldn’t have noticed it – but Kemp is a fairly unusual name. I like to research all Kemp ancestral lines to run them back a few generations to see if we are related or not.

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If these are my relatives, I have never heard of them. I asked my 91-year-old father if he had any idea who they were, and he had never heard of them either.

According to the old news article: “Every member of the cast…is a Yale & Towne employee.” That tells me they must live in or near Stamford.

My grandfather, Willard H. Kemp, did work for Y&T and his father was John Henry Kemp – but in 1929 he was 63 years old and was employed full-time in the Post Office. He didn’t retire until 1931 when he was 65 years old, and he never worked for Y&T. So this John Kemp could be him – but he doesn’t match the other clues given in the article or the other facts in his personal history.

So – who were John Kemp and “Mrs. Marie Anna Kemp”?

I looked in the 1920 and the 1930 census – no mention of any other John or Marie Anna Kemp living anywhere in the state of Connecticut.

So – just when I thought I’d tracked them all down, here is a newspaper article alerting me to two more possible relatives in our Kemp family tree.

I’ll have to dig deeper into GenealogyBank’s archive of 1.7 billion records to find out more about them. And it’s the same for you: you have ancestors that are waiting to be discovered. Sign up today and begin your search!

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Alabama Revolutionary War Veteran Dead at 106

In 1853, centenarian William Wicker passed away in Pike County, Alabama. He was 106. This American Revolutionary War veteran had been one of the first settlers to move to Alabama after its introduction into the union on 14 December 1819.

obituary for William Wicker, Daily Alabama Journal newspaper article 28 January 1853

Daily Alabama Journal (Montgomery, Alabama), 28 January 1853, page 2

Wicker enlisted into the military at 17, along with his father Robert Wicker. They served together with various South Carolina regiments during the length of the Revolutionary War. Wicker’s biggest firefight came during the Battle of Eutaw Springs, the last major Southern conflict against the British. After the Revolutionary War ended, Wicker lived in South Carolina and Georgia, before spending his final years in Alabama.

The Battle of Eutaw Springs is remembered as one of the bloodiest Southern battles during the Revolutionary War. Disney picked up this story and produced a television series in the 1950s known as The Swamp Fox, detailing the achievements of Wicker’s commanding officer General Francis Marion – who was known as the “Swamp Fox.” While Wicker’s likeness is not put directly into the show, most of the episodes cover events similar to the ones he would have been present for.

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From a young age, William Wicker knew he wanted to defend his country. Thanks to the Daily Alabama Journal, William Wicker’s memory lives on in old news print. Did any of your ancestors serve in the Revolutionary War? Where did they ultimately settle down? Perhaps like William, they too are some of the early settlers of the American South and Midwest.

Join GenealogyBank today to access over 1.7 billion records and find your ancestors’ stories. Start your 30-day trial now: http://bit.ly/1BChPbI

Note: FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank are partnering to make over a billion records from historical obituaries searchable online. The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present.  Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/

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‘It Is Well with My Soul’: the Story of Horatio Spafford

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena tells the moving story of how Horatio Gates Spafford wrote the famous hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” after undergoing severe hardships and tragedy.

Like many songs, the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” was born out of personal experience.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Its composer, Horatio Gates Spafford, was a Chicago lawyer who – although previously successful – had suffered setbacks when his considerable real estate investments were lost during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. His finances took another hit during the Panic of 1873 financial crisis. After two rough years, he decided to alleviate some of his family’s stress by giving them a change of scenery.

photo of Horatio Gates Spafford

Photo: Horatio Gates Spafford. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Spafford Family Vacation

Plans were made for the family (including Horatio, his wife Anna, and their four daughters) to journey to Europe in November 1873 via the French iron steamship Ville du Havre. Horatio accompanied them to New York, but at the last minute had to change his plans because of a business obligation. He sent his family on ahead, promising to join them in time. Wife Anna and daughters Annie (b. 1862), Margaret Lee (b. 1864), Elizabeth (b. 1868), and Tanetta (b. 1871) set sail on November 15th.

His family never reached their destination – and he never saw his four daughters again.

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Disaster at Sea

Ironically, the Ville du Havre’s captain – acting as confident as a familiar future captain on another “unsinkable” ship 39 years later – assured Anna Spafford and other passengers that his ship was very safe and the voyage would be an easy one. A week into the voyage, on 22 November 1873, the liner collided with the British clipper Loch Earn. Even as the ship was struck, sounding like an explosion according to passengers, the captain told everyone “it’s nothing, nothing.” As the ship began to take on water, the crew assured passengers that the ship was too safe to sink.*

But they were wrong; the Ville du Havre sank in just 12 minutes, killing an estimated 226 people – including all four of the Spafford daughters. Anna survived the shipwreck by clinging to a floating plank.

Illustration: “The Sinking of the Steamship Ville du Havre” by Currier & Ives, c.1873

Illustration: “The Sinking of the Steamship Ville du Havre” by Currier & Ives, c.1873. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

As anyone can imagine, the accounts of the Ville du Havre sinking are terrifying. Heartbreakingly, in the last moments of daughter Annie Spafford’s life she is recorded as proclaiming: “Don’t be afraid. The Sea is His and He made it.” As Anna was thrown into the sea, she felt her baby Tanetta pulled out of her arms by the rough waves.** All four daughters drowned. When Anna was finally rescued she was unconscious, floating on a piece of debris.

This New York newspaper reported the tragedy.

article about the shipwreck of the Ville du Havre, Daily Graphic newspaper article 1 December 1873

Daily Graphic (New York, New York), 1 December 1873, page 6

The old news article included an eyewitness account of the shipwreck.

eyewitness account of the shipwreck of the Ville du Havre, Daily Graphic newspaper article 1 December 1873

Daily Graphic (New York, New York), 1 December 1873, page 6

The historical newspaper article also reported the names of those saved, including Anna Spafford.

The rescue ship Tremountain took the survivors to Cardiff. During this voyage Anna said few words. A friend who had also survived the sinking, clergymen Thoeophile Lorriaux, was with her when she finally uttered the words: “God gave me four daughters. They have been taken. One day I shall understand why. I will understand why.”***

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Once Anna arrived in Cardiff she sent a telegram to her husband in Chicago that must have devastated him:

Saved, but saved alone. What shall I do?

Inspiration and Solace: the Hymn

Horatio left Chicago to meet Anna, who was staying with friends in France. At one point during the voyage, the ship’s captain summoned Horatio to his cabin and explained that he had determined the exact spot where the Ville du Havre had gone down. He let Horatio know that they were at that moment passing that very spot. Horatio then returned to his own cabin and, leaning for strength on his tremendous faith in God, wrote his famous hymn.

article about Horatio Spafford writing the hymn "It Is Well with My Soul," Worcester Daily Spy newspaper article 6 November 1902

Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 6 November 1902, page 5

The article included this description.

article about Horatio Spafford writing the hymn "It Is Well with My Soul," Worcester Daily Spy newspaper article 6 November 1902

Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 6 November 1902, page 5

The Aftermath

That tragedy for both Anna and Horatio changed their lives. It had a profound impact on their belief in what they were to do with their lives, and also impacted their theology. Understandably, it also had an impact on those who heard the hymn and the story behind it. The above news article concluded with a story of a gentleman, who had lost much in the Panic of 1893, hearing the background of Spafford’s hymn during a church service. Moved by both the story and the words of the hymn, the gentleman declared:

I will never again complain of my lot. If Spafford could write such a beautiful resignation hymn when he had lost all his children, and everything else save his wife and character, I ought surely to be thankful that my losses have been so light.

article about Horatio Spafford writing the hymn "It Is Well with My Soul," Worcester Daily Spy newspaper article 6 November 1902

Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 6 November 1902, page 5

Horatio Gates Spafford died of malaria in 1888 in Jerusalem. His wife Anna followed his death in 1923, survived by the two daughters who were born after the shipwreck tragedy that changed their lives.

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* Geniessee, Jane Fletcher. American Priestess. The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem. New York: Doubleday. p. 55.
** Ibid, p. 56.
*** Ibid, p. 60.

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GenealogyBank Is the Only Source of This Irish Passenger List Information

I am just amazed every time I see these Irish American passenger lists in GenealogyBank’s online newspapers and see that they tell me where these new arrivals had lived in Ireland, and where they were going to live in America. That information is NOT in any other passenger list source. How in the world did the editors of New York City’s Irish American newspapers find the time to interview and document the incoming Irish immigrants, and keep doing it for over a century?

passenger list, Irish Nation newspaper article 20 May 1882

Irish Nation (New York, New York), 20 May 1882, page 7

Irish American newspapers were diligent about reporting the great migration of Irish immigrants to America in the 19th and 20th centuries. Newspapers like the Irish Nation, Irish Voice, and Irish World regularly published lists of Irish passengers that came over on the passenger ships that week.

Genealogy Tip: What’s special about these Irish passenger lists for genealogists is the information provided: the passenger’s name; county of origin in Ireland; and their destination here in the United States.

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These published lists did not include every Irish immigrant – but for the tens of thousands that were interviewed and documented by the newspapers, these lists give us the critical place of origin and where they were heading, valuable information that is just not found in any other source. One of my colleagues, Duncan Kuehn, closely compared some of the passenger lists published in newspapers to the corresponding federal passenger lists. She found that for the passengers interviewed and listed by the newspapers, their names were often more complete – and often, additional names of accompanying family members were given in the newspaper account that didn’t appear in the federal lists. It would be even better if the newspapers had interviewed every single passenger, but we’re grateful for the excellent job they did on the ones that were documented. Genealogists must use these lists.

For example, in an issue of the Irish Nation from 1882, we see the following passenger lists.

passenger list, Irish Nation newspaper article 7 January 1882

Irish Nation (New York, New York), 7 January 1882, page 8

The first three passengers arriving on the steamer England on 29 December 1881 are:

  • Patrick Mitchel, from County Sligo – his destination was New York
  • Peter Judge, also from County Sligo, was heading to Baltimore, Maryland
  • Patrick Rourke, from County Clare, was going to Wisconsin

For genealogists having difficulty finding where in Ireland their Irish roots came from, this information tells them the answer. GenealogyBank is an imperative tool for Irish American research. Missing an Irish relative? Sign up for GenealogyBank today and find them. Start your 30-day trial now!

Click here to search GenealogyBank’s Irish American Newspaper Archives.

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What Were Your Ancestor’s Last Words?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary takes a fascinating look at some of the last words people said before they died – both famous and not-so-famous.

When a person breathes their last, the grieving often ask: “What were his or her last words?”

For some people in these final cherished moments of life, their dying wish is to impart memorable quotes or words of wisdom to those left behind. These last words are great fun to read and contemplate.

Many are quoted in newspapers, so if you are lucky you might find your ancestor’s last words.

Religious Expressions

Many obituaries report the deceased’s devotion to, or love of, God.

One example was reported in this death notice for Miss Anna Harmon, who died at the age of 30. She said:

I wish I might – I hope I do resign myself to Christ, for time and for eternity!

obituary for Anna Harmon, Vermont Gazette newspaper article 24 January 1804

Vermont Gazette (Bennington, Vermont), 24 January 1804, page 3

In 1831, Caesar Low told his wife that he was going to die. His death notice reported that “spiritual light seemed to increase in his soul” and noted his last statements just before he died as follows:

“Glory to God – Hallelujah to God, hallelujah – Oh, my dear Father! My Heavenly Father! He is my Father.” Then pointing to heaven, he said: “Yes, I am coming, I am coming!” His final words were:

See Jesus! See Jesus! How shall I act in Heaven?

obituary for Caesar Low, Liberator newspaper article 29 October 1831

Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts), 29 October 1831, page 176

Instructions or Words of Wisdom

Although not reported in her obituary, noted abolitionist and suffragette Lucy Stone (1818-1893) left advice for her only daughter with her dying words, Alice Stone Blackwell.

obituary for Lucy Stone, Springfield Republican newspaper article 19 October 1893

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 19 October 1893, page 5

Lucy encouraged Alice to “make the world better,” which she did.

last words of Lucy Stone, Oregonian newspaper article 28 September 1986

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 28 September 1986, page 167

By the time of her mother’s death, Alice (1857-1950) had become editor of the Woman’s Home Journal and recording secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. During her life she championed many causes, including Russian freedom and world peace – and unlike her mother, was able to celebrate the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920 (see the National Archives).

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Alice’s last words were not recorded – but many would like to think she was thinking of her mother when she passed.

photo from the obituary for Alice Blackwell, Boston Herald newspaper article 16 March 1950

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 16 March 1950, page 27

Appropriate Sayings

Joseph Medill (1823-1899), editor of the Chicago Tribune (who must have read hundreds of last words during his career), appears to have contemplated his own final utterance. Shortly before he passed, his physician heard him comment: “My last words shall be, what is the news?”

obituary for Joseph Medill, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 17 March 1899

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 17 March 1899, page 2

Bat Masterson (1853-1921), another newspaper man, is quoted as having written a lengthy statement. It didn’t appear in his obituaries, but was widely cited years later.

obituary for Bat Masterson, Estrella newspaper article 5 November 1921

Estrella (Las Cruces, New Mexico), 5 November 1921, page 4

Masterson’s last words were:

There are those who argue that everything breaks even in this old dump of a world of ours. I suppose these ginks hold that because the rich man gets ice in the summer and the poor man gets it in the winter things are breaking even for both!

Bat Masterson's last words, Greensboro Record newspaper article 30 September 1964

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 30 September 1964, page 9

How It Feels to Die

Others use their last words to express feelings about death and dying.

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For example, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) responded “beautiful” to a question about how she felt, and William Hunter (1718-1783), the famous Scottish physician and anatomist, said:

If I had strength enough left to hold a pen, I would write what a pleasant and easy thing it is to die.

article about some famous people's last words, Oregonian newspaper article 28 September 1986

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 28 September 1986, page 167

Jane Austen (1775-1817), author of Pride and Prejudice and other novels, didn’t feel the same. She was reportedly asked if there was anything she wanted. Her reply was:

Nothing but death.

Jane Austen's last words, Oregonian newspaper article 28 September 1986

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 28 September 1986, page 167

U.S. Presidents’ Last Words

Some of the most-quoted last words are from famous people, such as U.S. presidents.

Modern-day writers like to report that President John Adams, who died on the same day as President Thomas Jefferson on 4 July 1826, said for his final words: “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

As in all statements about history and ancestry, historical newspapers are one of the best ways to check the facts. For his last words, did Adams say, “Thomas Jefferson survives” or did he actually say “It is a great and glorious day”?

article about the last words of John Adams, Spectator newspaper article 14 July 1826

Spectator (New York, New York), 14 July 1826, page 1

Watch for a follow-up article offering more U.S. presidents’ last words, in celebration of the upcoming Presidents’ Day – and by all means, let us know what last words your ancestors are reported to have said!

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Captain Alden Howell: Last Confederate Officer

When Alden Howell passed away in 1947 at the age of 106, he was the last surviving commissioned officer of the Army of the Confederate States of America.

obituaryr for Alden Howell, San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram newspaper article 21 March 1947

San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram (San Luis Obispo, California), 21 March 1947, page 9

It’s a good thing that there were multiple obituaries about this centenarian. Each historical obit gives us more of the details of his life.

For example, see this old obituary in the Greensboro Record.

obituary for Alden Howell, Greensboro Record newspaper article 21 March 1947

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 21 March 1947, page 10

We learn that he was a captain of “Company B of North Carolina’s Sixth Regiment,” that when he enlisted he had been “attending law school,” and that after the war he resumed his studies and received “his degree in 1866.”

We also pick up this critical piece of genealogical information: he “was a descendant of John Alden,” the famous ship’s cooper on the Mayflower, signer of the Mayflower Compact, and best known for marrying Priscilla Mullins. A great clue.

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In his ripe old age Howell was called upon to give advice, as reported in the Morning Olympian.

Confederate Veteran (Alden Howell) Gives Advice on Life, Morning Olympian newspaper article 19 February 1941

Morning Olympian (Olympia, Washington), 19 February 1941, page 1

“Don’t get mad. Don’t use cuss words. Never complain.”

Good advice – even now.

Even in this feel-good news article we pick up more genealogical details. He was an attorney and banker in Waynesville, North Carolina. He retired “15 years ago and moved [to Los Angeles],” and this critical statement: “He and his seven-year-old grandson, Kenneth Brimmer, jointly cut a birthday cake Tuesday” – a good clue that both he and his grandson were born on February 18th.

Genealogy Tip: Track down every newspaper article. Don’t stop with the first news article or obituary you find about your relative. Each one might contain the critical clue or fact that you need to build your family tree. Take those clues, verify the facts and document your family history.

Note: FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank are partnering to make over a billion records from historical obituaries searchable online. The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present.  Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/

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January 2015 Update: GenealogyBank Just Added 8 Million Records!

Every day, GenealogyBank is working hard to digitize more U.S. newspapers and obituaries, expanding our burgeoning collection to give you the largest newspaper archives for family history research available online from the 1600s up to today. We’re getting off to a great start this 2015, just completing the addition of 8 million more U.S. genealogy records, vastly increasing our content coverage from coast to coast!

screenshot of GenealogyBank's home page announcing the addition of eight million more records

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

  • A total of 52 newspaper titles from 18 U.S. states
  • 26 of these titles are newspapers added to GenealogyBank for the first time
  • Newspaper titles marked with an asterisk (*) are new to our online archives
  • We’ve shown the newspaper issue date ranges so that you can determine if the newly added content is relevant to your personal genealogy research

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

State City Title Date Range Collection
Arkansas Denson Denson Tribune* 03/19/1943–06/02/1944 Newspaper Archives
California Manzanar Manzanar Free Press 07/14/1943–09/06/1944 Newspaper Archives
California Newell Newell Star 02/15/1945–02/15/1945 Newspaper Archives
California Newell Tulean Dispatch 03/31/1943–03/31/1943 Newspaper Archives
California San Francisco Corriere del Popolo 10/8/1918–12/6/1928 Newspaper Archives
California San Luis Obispo San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram 1/1/1951–10/31/1952 Newspaper Archives
Colorado Amache Granada Pioneer 06/09/1943–06/09/1943 Newspaper Archives
Florida Miami Miami Herald 6/13/1926–9/19/1928 Newspaper Archives
Florida Winter Garden West Orange Times, The* 02/06/2014–Current Recent Obituaries
Georgia Columbus Columbus Daily Enquirer 12/30/1940–6/28/1941 Newspaper Archives
Georgia Jesup Press-Sentinel, The* 09/13/2007–Current Recent Obituaries
Georgia Macon Macon Telegraph 5/14/1934–2/29/1944 Newspaper Archives
Kansas Wichita Wichita Eagle 11/2/1973–12/31/1974 Newspaper Archives
Kentucky Lexington Lexington Herald 2/6/1938–3/28/1939 Newspaper Archives
Maryland Baltimore Sun 4/4/1920–4/23/1920 Newspaper Archives
Missouri St. Louis Westliche Post* 03/13/1932–03/13/1932 Newspaper Archives
New York Adams Jefferson County Journal* 08/27/2014–Current Recent Obituaries
New York New York Courrier des Etats-Unis 6/22/1850–7/31/1890 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Cristoforo Colombo 01/08/1891–05/24/1892 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Gaelic American 10/20/1906–10/27/1906 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Jewish Messenger 1/10/1862–12/26/1902 Newspaper Archives
New York New York New Yorker Volkszeitung 01/24/1920–01/25/1920 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Vorwarts 06/18/1921–09/30/1922 Newspaper Archives
North Carolina Andrews Andrews Journal, The* 12/04/2008–Current Recent Obituaries
North Carolina Charlotte Charlotte Observer 11/1/1933–6/29/1934 Newspaper Archives
North Carolina Clemmons Clemmons Courier, The* 01/06/2011–Current Recent Obituaries
North Carolina Hillsborough News of Orange County, The* 08/27/2003–Current Recent Obituaries
North Carolina Littleton Lake Gaston Gazette-Observer* 07/08/2003–Current Recent Obituaries
North Carolina Mebane Mebane Enterprise, The* 09/17/2003–Current Recent Obituaries
North Carolina Murphy Cherokee Scout* 04/20/2007–Current Recent Obituaries
North Carolina Troy Montgomery Herald* 06/20/2003–Current Recent Obituaries
North Carolina Warrenton Warren Record, The* 07/08/2003–Current Recent Obituaries
North Carolina Yanceyville Caswell Messenger, The* 08/27/2003–Current Recent Obituaries
North Dakota Bismarck Staats-Anzeiger* 07/07/1931–07/07/1931 Newspaper Archives
Ohio Toledo Toledo Express* 03/31/1932–03/31/1932 Newspaper Archives
Pennsylvania Erie Erie Tageblatt 4/22/1903–10/31/1904 Newspaper Archives
Pennsylvania Philadelphia Philadelphia Demokrat* 12/21/1907–12/21/1907 Newspaper Archives
Pennsylvania Reading Der Pilger Durch Welt und Kirche 12/31/1870–12/26/1874 Newspaper Archives
Pennsylvania Reading Readinger Postbothe und Berks, Schuylkill und Montgomery Caunties Advertiser* 08/03/1816–07/27/1822 Newspaper Archives
Pennsylvania State College Centre Daily Times 3/1/1982–2/28/1983 Newspaper Archives
Utah Topaz Topaz Times 10/30/1942–2/9/1943 Newspaper Archives
Virginia Altavista Altavista Journal* 10/08/2003–Current Recent Obituaries
Virginia Appomattox Times-Virginian* 10/08/2003–Current Recent Obituaries
Virginia Brookneal Union Star, The* 10/02/2003–Current Recent Obituaries
Virginia Chatham Star-Tribune* 10/02/2003–Current Recent Obituaries
Virginia Emporia Independent-Messenger* 07/08/2003–Current Recent Obituaries
Virginia Lawrenceville Brunswick Times-Gazette* 07/08/2003–Current Recent Obituaries
Virginia South Hill South Hill Enterprise* 01/07/2004–Current Recent Obituaries
Virginia Wirtz Smith Mountain Eagle* 10/06/2004–Current Recent Obituaries
Washington Bellingham Bellingham Herald 9/3/1945–4/28/1947 Newspaper Archives
Washington Olympia Morning Olympian 7/23/1950–5/30/1952 Newspaper Archives
Wisconsin Milwaukee Wahrheit 06/22/1895–04/26/1902 Newspaper Archives

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Snow & Ice: Winter’s Frosty Fun

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. With the East Coast (especially Boston) digging out from yesterday’s blizzard, this seems like a good time for an article about winter. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to find poems and photos about our ancestors enjoying winter activities.

Some people love winter and the frosty fun that comes with it. They love wrapping up in blankets and sipping hot chocolate after a long day frolicking in the snow or skating on the ice.

photo of some boys making a giant snowball

Photo: making a giant snowball. Credit: Kamyar Adl; Wikimedia Commons.

Children Play

The cold weather keeps some people indoors, where snuggling up with a loved one by the fire is the highest priority. For many children, however, winter is a wonderland to be explored. If this describes you, this poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, presenting a child’s perspective on winter, may bring you joy.

Winter Time

Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,

A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;

Blinks but an hour or two; and then

A blood-red orange, sets again.

Before the stars have left the skies,

At morning in the dark I rise;

And shivering in my nakedness,

By the cold candle, bathe and dress.

Close by the jolly fire I sit,

To warm my frozen bones a bit;

Or, with a reindeer sled, explore

The colder countries round the door.

When to go out, my nurse doth wrap

Me in my comforter and cap;

The cold wind burns my face, and blows

Its frosty pepper up my nose.

Black are my steps on silver sod;

Thick blows my frosty breath abroad;

And tree and house, and hill and lake,

Are frosted like a wedding cake.

“Winter Time” was published in Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) and was reprinted in this 1903 Minnesota newspaper.

the poem "Winter Time" by Robert Louis Stevenson, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 14 January 1903

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 14 January 1903, page 4

Adults Worry

Unlike children, many adults find that the harshness of winter reminds them of some of the difficulties of life. The hassle of slippery roads, buried cars, and treacherous walkways takes its toll.

Enter Last Name

This poem brings these sentiments to mind. It was published in a 1917 Pennsylvania newspaper and attributed to “Uncle Walt the Poet Philosopher.”

the poem "Snow," Patriot newspaper article 8 January 1917

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 8 January 1917, page 6

Remember the Joy

It seems that children are naturally drawn to the slippery stuff in nature’s playground. Perhaps Uncle Walt needs to spend more time watching the pure joy of children playing in the snow to perk up his mood. Or watch lovers holding hands as they ice skate, round and round the pond. Or take a moment to really see the snow as it flutters to the ground. We get so focused on what we have to do and how the snow hinders us, we miss out on its wonder. The infuriating white stuff seems to be there just to make life hard. But maybe this is nature’s way of reminding us to slow down and remember what is most important. Perhaps it is time to wrap up in a warm, fuzzy blanket and read the newspaper by the glow of a crackling fire. Or maybe we need to dust off the sled and get some invigorating exercise as we pull the kids around the yard. It is hard to retain our crusty mood as we watch children, wrapped in snow clothes to the point of near immobility, waddle around the uneven surface of a snowy field, laughing as they tumble to the ground in a frosty heap. And taking a moment to laugh with them can heal our soul.

Photos Capture the Fun

Here are pictures from four old newspapers to remind us of winter’s joy.

These photos were published in a 1916 Oregon newspaper, entitled “Portland Children Reveling in the Snow with Christmas Sleds as Agents of Joy.”

photos of children sledding on the snow, Oregonian newspaper article 28 December 1916

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 28 December 1916, page 14

These photos were published in a 1939 Pennsylvania newspaper. They show adults “joining the ‘keep fit’ movement sweeping the nation” – but one look at their faces, and you realize what’s really happening: these adults are remembering how much fun it is to play in the snow.

photos of people playing in the snow, National Labor Tribune newspaper article 14 January 1939

National Labor Tribune (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), 14 January 1939, page 8

This photo, published in a 1912 North Dakota newspaper, shows U.S. Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer skating on the frozen Potomac River with his daughter Alice. The photo caption says “Washington Society” is excited about ice skating; Meyer is identified as “a leader in the movement.”

photo of U.S. Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer skating on the frozen Potomac River with his daughter Alice, Evening Times newspaper article 24 December 1912

Evening Times (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 24 December 1912, page 5

This photo, published in a 1910 Maryland newspaper, shows people enjoying ice skating on the boat lake in Baltimore’s Patterson Park. The caption says:

This is practically the only place for ice skating which is convenient to East Baltimore folk, and it is thronged morning, afternoon and evening when the park officials consider the ice thick enough for the sport.

photo of people ice skating, Baltimore American newspaper article 13 December 1910

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 13 December 1910, page 15

If you live along the East Coast, have you dug out from yesterday’s major blizzard? How much snow did Winter Storm Juno dump in your area? No matter where you live, we hope you have found some time this winter to get out and enjoy the snow and ice – winter’s frosty fun.

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