Old-School Social Networking: Social Brief Columns in Newspapers

Newspapers have been the chief “social networking” tool for over 300 years—and that’s a good thing for genealogists.

Newspapers’ social columns reported on the comings and goings of members of the local community, providing personal details that give a glimpse into the daily lives of our ancestors.

For example, here we have word that Dorothy Easton was visiting her sister Mrs. K. Summers in San Francisco.

article about Dorothy Easton, Western Outlook newspaper article 3 July 1915

Western Outlook (Oakland, California), 3 July 1915, page 3

This mention is just a one-liner buried in a social briefs column—just one line—but it is loaded with great genealogical clues:

  • the year is 1915
  • one sister is Dorothy
  • she’s not married
  • her surname is Easton
  • she lives in Los Angeles
  • the other sister is called “K”
  • she’s married
  • her surname is Summers
  • she lives in San Francisco

This social brief notice could be the critical clue to learn the maiden name, hometown and more about the family of K. Summers.

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Notice that the Western Outlook groups these briefs by town, with headings such as “San Francisco Items” and “Oakland Jottings.” Newspapers were written to sell. Editors made them personal by including these local social briefs to excite the local readers. Picture the impact of seeing your name or your neighbor’s name written up in the paper. That was big news.

You would take the newspaper over to give to them, talk about it with them, and mention it to your wider circle of friends. It is exactly like social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) today. It holds your attention; you comment on it and share it.

Here is another example of newspaper social networking, from 1879.

article about Carrie Carpenter, Daily Gazette newspaper article 18 November 1879

Daily Gazette (Rockport, Illinois), 18 November 1879, page 4

This notice provides great clues to more family information:

  • the year is 1879
  • Carrie Carpenter is single
  • she opened her own school in Stephenson County
  • her mother is Mrs. Mary L. Carpenter
  • her mother is County Superintendent of Public Schools
  • she has a sister

This article appeared on page 4, under the masthead of the newspaper just like the previous example from the Western Outlook, but in this case the social brief notices are not grouped and labeled by the town the persons mentioned lived in, or by an organization or topic.

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While the format varies from newspaper to newspaper, it has been very common for the past three centuries to include these local social briefs of such high interest to the public.

Genealogy Tip: Be sure to perform a broad search for your target ancestor, including all of GenealogyBank’s deep newspaper archive. By limiting a search to only the newspapers in your town or state, you might miss key articles (like these social briefs) about your ancestor that appeared in a newspaper from across the country.

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Genealogy Tip: Research Every Clue in Newspapers, Including the Social Columns

When using newspapers to find family history information, look at the entire paper—don’t stop with just the obvious articles such as obituaries and marriage notices. Look at all of the articles.

Genealogy is everywhere in a newspaper: even in the social columns, as in the following example.

social column, Times Picayune newspaper article 28 August 1917

Times Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 28 August 1917, page 4

Briefs, Locals, Chatter—social columns have different headings in newspapers around the country.

They often are just quick notes—passing comments, really, giving locals an update on the activities of their friends and neighbors in the community.

Although brief, these social updates can provide a surprising amount of family history. Look at the genealogical clues in the above newspaper article example from the Times Picayune social column:

  • Names: Marion Monroe, along with the name of her sister’s husband, her father and her brother.
  • Places: Biloxi, Mississippi, where Marion’s sister lived; New Orleans, Louisiana, where Marion and her parents lived; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Corpus Christi, Texas, where her brother had been stationed.
  • Details: Marion’s father was a judge in New Orleans; her brother was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Engineering Corps; the Monroe family lived on Philip Street in New Orleans.

Genealogists, like any detective, gather clues and track down all possible leads to learn everything they can about the target person.

Search newspapers thoroughly for your ancestor: read every clue.

The Social Columns: Mrs. Smith Is Visiting Her Parents in New Mexico

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena shows how much valuable family history information can be found in newspapers’ social columns.

Newspapers report important events and breaking news on the local, national and international level. They document accidents, crimes, politics, and natural disasters. They also report on the rich and famous, the infamous, and politicians. Many people have an assumption that only “famous” or “important” people are written about in the newspaper. Some people assume that their ancestor’s name would never be found in the newspaper because they were “just farmers”—no one special.

But of course, everyday people’s lives are recorded in newspapers, with many articles documenting births, marriages, and deaths. Ordinary people’s stories can also be found in other parts of the paper. Newspapers document their community, both the good times and the bad. They report everything from who owes back taxes and epidemic victims’ names, to legal notices and school achievements. Many of a town’s small goings-on can be found in the local newspaper’s social columns.

I love the social columns of the newspaper. This is the section that names community members and reports on their everyday lives. Think of it as Twitter for an earlier generation.

According to the online article “Using Newspapers for Genealogical Research” available from the Genealogy Center of the Allen County Public Library in Indiana, one type of newspaper article that is especially helpful to genealogists is the “social items, such as notices of visitors from out of town; visits of local people to other places; birthday parties and their attendees; illnesses; community events, contests, and holiday celebrations and their participants; notices of residents who have moved to other locations; etc.”

There can be great genealogical benefits to searching a social news column, especially around the time of an ancestor’s death. Once as I was researching a death for a client the social column reported the illness of the client’s ancestor, the update on her illness, her death, and then mentioned that the deceased’s son was coming to the funeral. All great family information that was not recorded anywhere else.

Consider the following social news column, which records everything from the names of people visiting, to who won awards and who is ill.

Social News, Plaindealer newspaper article 30 October 1931

Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas), 30 October 1931, page 6

Some of the details we learn in this historical news article:

  • “Miss Muriel Carney, 1041 Grand avenue, left Sunday for Chicago to visit her uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. T. G. Thompson.”
  • “Mrs. Marvel of Albuquerque, N. Mexico, is visiting with her daughter, Mrs. Curtis Burton and Mr. Burton.”
  • “Miss Marie Hicks and Mrs. Bessie King spent Thursday in Tongonxie, Kansas, visiting their mother, Mrs. Mary Hicks.”

While these social postings typically fill up a column or two in the newspaper, sometimes a newspaper devotes much more space to the social goings-on in its community. Consider the following social column; it takes up a page and a half and includes social news from various nearby communities.

Society, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 29 June 1902

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 29 June 1902, section III, page 2

The reporting on several communities in the above social column serves as a good reminder that news of your ancestors may not be limited to just their town’s newspaper. A larger regional newspaper may also carry news from surrounding communities. Genealogically rich information can be gleaned from this Minnesota paper’s large social column, including birth notices, business openings, and out-of-town visitors.

Social news columns provide not only a glimpse of the comings and goings of your ancestors but they can also provide information on genealogical facts. As you search newspapers, don’t limit yourself to obituaries. Check out social columns to learn more about your ancestors and their lives.