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:

Missing Men: Lost Husband Ads in Newspapers for Genealogy

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena explores a family history resource in old newspapers that may surprise you: missing husband ads.

The Internet, text messaging, email, cell phones, social media and instant messaging…today we take for granted the convenience and peace of mind that having access to a person at the drop of a hat—24 hours a day, 7 days a week—brings. When I was a teenager my parents knew that if I drove somewhere they would not hear from me again until I returned home. If I was going to be late I would find a telephone booth and call but there was no way to be in touch constantly. In today’s world, parents panic if they don’t get an immediate response from their cell phone-attached youngsters.

Imagine a time when, if someone left the house and didn’t return, there were few ways to track them down.

Immigrant Disappearances

I was confronted with this reality years ago when I researched a client’s grandfather who had come to the United States in the early 20th century to seek out a better life for his family. The idea, like for many immigrants, was that he would emigrate first to find work and then make enough money to bring his wife and children over to their new home.

Instead they never heard from him again. No one knew what happened to him. The family wasn’t sure if he had died en route or years after arriving in America. Back at the time he disappeared, there was little that could be done to find a person who simply vanished into thin air. In some cases leaving without a trace was seen as a preferable option to a difficult or expensive divorce proceeding. In other tragic cases, an unfortunate mishap or act of violence was the reason for an unintended disappearance.

Missing Husband Newspaper Ads

So what did 19th and 20th century wives do when their husbands left and never returned? They used the newspaper. Specific newspaper articles targeting missing husbands existed, as in the case of the Jewish Daily Forward, which for a time included a column entitled the “Gallery of Missing Men” that provided descriptions and photos of husbands who had deserted their wives.

Newspapers also provided women the option of taking out a personal advertisement in the classifieds asking for the public’s help in finding their missing husbands.

These missing husband newspaper ads might be a surprising source of family history information, helping you fill in some details about your ancestors that you can’t find elsewhere.

Consider these two advertisements found in a 1907 Texas newspaper from GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, both placed by women pleading for the public’s help in finding their husbands.

missing husband ads, Dallas Morning News newspaper advertisements 12 September 1907

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 12 September 1907, page 8

In the case of the second advertisement placed by Mrs. H. L. Hooyer, her husband Henry was a harness maker who one day disappeared. In a previous advertisement more details of H. L. Hooyer were given, including a physical description and what he was wearing when he disappeared.

missing husband ad for Henry Hooyer, Dallas Morning News newspaper advertisement 28 August 1907

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 28 August 1907, page 8

Mrs. H. L. Hooyer placed multiple advertisements in the Dallas Morning News looking for her husband. His union magazine also carried notices of his disappearance. An article in the October 1907 The Leather Worker’s Journal (available from Google Books) from the Dallas Chief of Police provided information as well as a $50 reward. (See:

missing husband ad for Henry Hooyer, The Leather Workers’ Journal, October 1907

The Leather Workers’ Journal, October 1907. Credit: Google Books.

Another personal notice in The Leather Workers’ Journal stated that the family feared Hooyer had been a victim of foul play, with an unconfirmed report of his drowning in Nebraska. Conducting a quick search for H. L. Hooyer in GenealogyBank confirms that he had been involved in at least one past criminal court case, as well as a civil case, months prior to his disappearance. Whether Henry did meet with an untimely death or not, his wife is listed in subsequent city directories and in the 1910 U.S. Census as a widow.

Find Lost Ancestors in Missing Person Ads

In an era when social media meant a daily or weekly newspaper, personal advertisements alerted the community to those who went missing. For wives who found themselves suddenly alone, the classifieds were one of their only options for seeking help locating their missing husbands.

Genealogy Search Tip: Remember, newspapers are full of family history information—which sometimes turns up in the most unexpected places. Don’t rule out the classified ads when searching newspapers; your distressed ancestor may have placed an ad for her missing husband, providing personal details to help fill out your family tree.