Kids Holiday Gift Ideas: Craft Projects from Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to find craft projects our ancestors might have made, such as cut-out patterns, paper dolls, soap box coasters, and paper airplanes.

Want a fun craft project for a child’s Christmas or holiday gift that can be completed in a weekend?

Search old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, for ideas about gifts our ancestors might have made. Newspapers’ Feature pages of the past often included patterns and craft projects that our grandparents made, and the projects have the added benefit of inspiring the young to pursue genealogy.

Coloring books, cut-out patterns, paper dolls or even paper airplanes are easily found in old newspapers. Assemble the patterns into a booklet or place the projects into a special Christmas stocking along with the required materials. You might even consider embellishing the stocking by adding some of the patterns to the fabric of the stocking.

If you don’t wish this to be a surprise, help your children make these crafts as gifts for others. Either way, the fun will last for hours!

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Search Tips:

  • Search the newspapers’ Photos & Illustrations category with keywords such as:  “contest,” “cut out,” “paper dolls” or “paper planes.”
  • Some of the projects, including those for toy airplanes, were patented in their day. Search Google’s Patent Search for corresponding projects.

Here are some examples of fun children’s craft projects and activities from yesteryear.

Christmas Fireplace to Be Cut Out

Here’s a pattern from 1903 for your child to create a fireplace decorated for Christmas.

fireplace cut-out pattern for children, Baltimore American newspaper article 13 December 1903

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 13 December 1903, page 47

Prize Painting Contest

Use this kid’s craft pattern from 1904 to create your own mini contest. Add crayons or watercolors and fun prizes so that friends or siblings can play along. The caption reads:

For the four best paintings of the above picture two prize packages and two gold-plated Outlook Flag Pins are offered. Boys and girls who love painting should try what they can do with this picture, which has been made in outline especially for them.

outline scene for a children's painting contest, Boston Journal newspaper article 13 March 1904

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 March 1904, page 11

Paper Dolls to Paint and Cut Out

What child doesn’t love a paper doll?

paper doll cut-outs, Boston Journal newspaper article 29 December 1901

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 29 December 1901, page 2

Novelty Paper Dolls

Here’s a dapper-looking gentleman cut-out from 1902.

paper doll cut-outs, Boston Journal newspaper article 2 February 1902

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 2 February 1902, section: Fiction and Children’s, page 7

Soap Box Coaster

In this 1915 newspaper article, 11-year-old Albert Weld explained how he made a coaster for the soap box derby for only 30 cents—and for his prize-winning entry, the paper paid him $1.

Albert Weld's Coaster Cost 30 Cents; He Tells Each Step to Make It, Plain Dealer newspaper article 21 November 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 21 November 1915, page 69

This contest article also shows how every part of a newspaper can provide genealogical information about your ancestors. Imagine if Albert Weld was your ancestor, and you found this article. From it you learn:

  • Albert was 11 in 1915
  • He lived in Cleveland
  • His address: 1840 W. 52nd St.
  • He was in seventh grade at the Detroit school
  • His teacher was Miss Ward

Perhaps most wonderful of all, you get to read the short essay Albert wrote describing how he built his coaster for only 30 cents, including his plaintive final words: “I did this all myself, as I have no father or brother to help me.”

To top it all off, you get a picture of Albert, showing how he looked as an 11-year-old, even if the photo caption misspelled his first name as “Alfred.”

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Here’s one from the Patent Office.

“Arrowplane” for Boys and Girls

Description:

Reg. U.S. Pat. Office. In the accompanying drawings, four airplanes are shown. Cut out carefully all parts, following black lines being sure not to tear the paper. From a piece of cardboard, about the thickness of a writing tablet back, cut out four long and four short strings same size as patterns shown. These are used to reinforce the front edges of the airplane and to give them proper balance for flight…

model airplane instructions

Model airplane instructions

If you tried any of these kids’ craft projects, please let us know how they went! Or share with us some of your own homemade toy projects.

After all, as the introduction to Albert Weld’s article above stated:

Home made toys are just as much fun to play with as those that are bought readymade, and they are such fun to make.

Happy holidays to you and yours!

Related Kids’ Craft Project Articles:

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Finding Ancestors’ Names Can Be Child’s Play: Paper Doll Comics

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena addresses the problem that it’s often hard to find information about our ancestors when they were children. One solution? Look for their participation in fashion and coloring paper doll contests run by newspapers.

Previously in my article “What about the Kids? Researching Your Family Tree’s Children” I wrote about places to find children’s names in newspapers. I commented on how as researchers we genealogists often ignore the childhood of our ancestors because children did not generate the quantity of records that adults left behind.

The wonderful thing about newspapers is that they are the great equalizer: they record the stories of everyone whether rich or poor, young or old. While there can be no doubt that some people get more articles written about them than others, you can find ancestors’ names in all sorts of places in the newspaper—even in something as unexpected as a paper doll contest.

"Tillie the Toiler" paper doll

Credit: Windows Live Photo Gallery

It seems that today very few children read newspapers—or for that matter very few adults. But it wasn’t too long ago that children read the newspaper often, at the very least to check out the comics page, enter contests, and even acquire new toys to play with. One toy that could be found in the Sunday newspaper was paper dolls. According to the OPDAG (The Original Paper Doll Artists Guild) article “History of Paper Dolls” by Judy M. Johnson, the Boston Herald was printing newspaper paper dolls as early as the 1890s. Additional wardrobes for those paper dolls could be found in subsequent issues of the newspaper, adding to the child’s paper doll collection. During the Depression years, children could find many different newspaper paper dolls, most based on their favorite comics including “Boots and Millie” and “Jane Arden.”

Not only would the comic strip authors themselves provide dolls and wardrobes in the Sunday papers, they would solicit contributions from readers. One comic strip that encouraged readers to design outfits was “Tillie the Toiler.” Tillie, drawn by Russ Westover, ran in newspapers from 1921 to 1959. Tillie toiled at her jobs as a stenographer, secretary and model. Her life as a single working girl was the focus of the strip and the character of Tillie was also featured in a couple of movies.

Here’s a call to the young readers of “Tillie the Toiler” to submit designs for the Fashion Parade.

Dresses for Tillie! Plain Dealer newspaper article 29 January 1933

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 29 January 1933, page 1

I’m always on the lookout for unusual places to find ancestors’ names. Searching through those newspaper paper doll fashion contests can yield the names of the winners; those people chosen to have their doll and/or wardrobe published. Not only are the contest winners’ names and cities printed but sometimes even street addresses and, occasionally, the winners’ relationships to other budding fashionistas—such as in this example, where friends Zelene Des Champs and Ann Wolff from South Carolina submitted entries together.

"Tillie the Toiler" paper doll

Credit: from the author’s collection

Girls were not the only ones who submitted entries; boys and even married women from the United States and Canada submitted their doll and fashion drawings.

Aside from designing an outfit and having their name printed in the newspaper, children could also enter coloring contests featuring their favorite comic characters. In this 1933 newspaper article, Shirley Jean French is congratulated on her winning entry by “Tillie the Toiler” cartoonist Russ Westover. According to the 1930 U.S. census Shirley was 12 years old when she won the first-prize award. Of Shirley’s entry, Westover wrote that “Tillie has never been better dressed.”

winner of "Tillie the Toiler" coloring contest, San Diego Union newspaper article 27 August 1933

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 27 August 1933, page 11

While today’s American children may not be as engaged with newspapers as previous generations, for their grandparents and great-grandparents the Sunday comics page was not just a place to get a few laughs—it may have been a place to leave their mark on the world.

Genealogy Tip: Examine every part of a newspaper when doing your family history searches. You never know where a long-sought ancestor’s name might turn up—an obscure ad, a paper doll contest, a family recipe—providing a little more detail to help bring that name on your family tree to life.