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:

The Marketing Finesse of Mrs. Lydia E. Pinkham

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena researches old newspaper articles and advertisements to show how, more than a century ago, Lydia Estes Pinkham used marketing techniques to promote her medicinal “vegetable compound” that may inspire today’s businesses.

Looking for marketing ideas for your business? You may want to take a look at old newspapers for inspiration.

Consider the work of Lydia Estes Pinkham.

Mrs Lydia E. Pinkham of Lynn Mass. Medical Vegtable Compound - Watertown Daily Times

Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, New York), 12 August 1880, page 4.

Who Is Lydia Pinkham?

Who is Lydia Pinkham you ask? She was a wife and mother living in Lynn, Massachusetts, when the Depression of 1873 threatened to ruin her family financially. Lydia had a recipe for a medicinal elixir that she had previously shared with family and friends. She started manufacturing and bottling this “medicine” in an effort to better her family’s financial position.

Faces Sell

Lydia Pinkham was a master marketer. Her marketing plan included placing an image of herself on her product’s bottles. By putting her face on the label she established a credibility with her target audience, women. She had several medicines; her vegetable compound was likely the most popular and had an alcohol content that was as high as 20%.[ii] At a time where visiting a physician was expensive and women suffered in silence through a variety of ailments—or ingested medicines that had deadly ingredients—Pinkham’s medicine provided some hope.

Customer Testimonials

Lydia also produced pamphlets, which were really thinly disguised recipe books, which not only gave suggestions of what products a woman should use but provided women’s own stories of being cured. In the pamphlet titled Food and Health, there are numerous testimonials that include women’s names and addresses. The pamphlet says of these testimonials: “…you will find letters from many classes of women, young and old, mother and daughter. They are genuine expressions of gratitude from one woman to another.”[iii]

Lydia Pinkham Obituary - Western Recorder Newspaper

Western Recorder (Lawrence, Kansas), 24 May 1883, page 4.

Establish Expertise

Pinkham encouraged her customers to write to her with their health questions. This service became so popular that these letters were being answered years after Pinkham’s death and signed by “Mrs. Pinkham.” When a photo of the gravestone of Lydia Pinkham was published in a 1905 issue of the magazine Ladies’ Home Journal it caused some to question the validity of these letters. Even though Lydia’s 1883 obituary had run in newspapers all around the country, it seems some people believed that Lydia was still answering these letters long after her death. At the end of this 1907 California newspaper article “Mrs. Pinkham” clarifies that she is actually the daughter-in-law of the real Mrs. Lydia Pinkham.

Tumors Conquered - Lydia Pinkham's Vegtable Compound Newspaper Article

Evening News (San Jose, California), 1 May 1907, page 6.


Newspapers ran all kinds of advertisements for Pinkham’s products including those with images and names of women customers singing the product’s praises. Were these women real or just figments of the company’s marketing machine? It appears that they were real women and although they may seem quite personal to us today, these testimonies are really not that different from postings online on medical support group boards, mailing lists, or review websites.

For Older Women - Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 27 June 1930, section 2 page 22.

Enjoy Enduring Business Success

Did Lydia’s marketing work? The evidence of her company’s success is that you can still purchase her reformulated products, manufactured by a different company, today. Marketing techniques that Lydia used in the 19th century, including customer testimonials, are still an effective way to spread the news about products in today’s market.

[i] From Food and Health, page 2. Testimonial by Mrs. Mary Dipietro of Canton, Ohio. <> Available online in the Lydia Estes Pinkham Collection on the Harvard University Library’s Open Collections Program Women Working, 1800-1930 at

[ii] The Name that Launched a Million Bottles. The Annette & Irwin Eskind Biomedical Library,

[iii] From Food and Health. Available online in the Lydia Estes Pinkham Collection on the Harvard University Library’s Open Collections Program Women Working, 1800-1930 at