The Past Tells the Future of Genealogy: Is Anything Really New?

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott researches old newspaper articles to discover that what was new in genealogy 100 or more years ago is still new today.

There is nothing new except that which has been forgotten.

~ Marie Antoinette

This is certainly true in genealogy in a variety of ways. Naturally, we as genealogists spend a great deal of time and effort looking for that which has been forgotten or almost forgotten. We strive to discover, or rediscover actually, family history information every day.

On the other hand, I find it interesting when I hear some of the genealogy “pundits” trumpet all the newest “discoveries” in genealogy, often claiming that they are a harbinger of the end of genealogy as we know it. Some of these latest proclamations had me wondering, so I decided to see what was new (and old, which might have been forgotten) in genealogy through the historical newspapers in the database of GenealogyBank.com.

After a few quick searches, I encountered some terrific genealogy headlines and articles. Every one of them brought home the point that not all that much has changed in the world of genealogy! See if you can place the date of each of the following newspaper articles. Were these historical stories from yesteryear or news articles from today’s newspapers?

  • “Genealogy Study Rapidly Growing.” How often have we heard this? I especially appreciated this newspaper article’s subheadings: “In Recent Years Americans Have Been Making Great Study of the Family Tree” and “Genealogists Working Along New Lines and Startling Results Follow.” Sounds just like something I’d read in the news today.
Genealogy Study Rapidly Growing, San Jose Mercury News newspaper article 16 March 1912

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 16 March 1912, page 2

This newspaper article was published in 1912!

  • “Forum on computers, genealogy scheduled.” This one really could be from today, the type of article found in just about every genealogy society newsletter and newspaper column on “local happenings.” It is interesting to see the name of Genealogical Computing magazine in this article, and it is fun to see how far we have come in such a short time.
Forum on Computers, Genealogy Scheduled, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 22 September 1984

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 22 September 1984, page 20C

While this sounds like today’s genealogy news, this newspaper article was published in 1984!

  • “Of the New Genealogy, Its Enlarged Field of Study. How Genealogy as a Science May Help Us to Help Ourselves.” I wondered if this article might be discussing the role of DNA testing in genealogy today, but not quite… I enjoyed this article especially since it was on a topic near-and-dear to me: that of the needed link between genealogy and the academic world. Plus, this article is about an address given at the 60th anniversary of the New England Historic Genealogist Society by Charles K. Bolton.
Of the New Genealogy, Springfield Republican newspaper article 3 November 1909

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 3 November 1909, page 15

This newspaper article was published in 1909!

  • “Genealogy business booming national one.” With the business of genealogy booming, it seems to offer good career opportunities. This article was from an advice column and the author seemed to have a pretty decent grasp of genealogy, which was fun to see.
Genealogy Business Booming National One, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 18 July 1981

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 July 1981, page 33

While this would be good career advice for genealogists today, this newspaper article was actually published in 1981!

  • “Who Was Your Grandfather?” I thought perhaps this was an article for the newest television spinoff of Who Do You Think You Are?
Who Was Your Grandfather? New-Hampshire Patriot newspaper article 27 August 1851

New-Hampshire Patriot (Concord, New Hampshire), 27 August 1851, page 3

While this headline seems right out of today’s news, it’s actually about finding an heir for the deceased Jennings—and the newspaper article was published in 1851!

  • “Old Tombstone Wanted.” Once again, this headline could be from practically any newspaper today; as I read the article I can almost feel the angst of the writer as he pleaded for anyone in the local community who may have known anything at all about the tombstone he was searching for.
Old Tombstone Wanted, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 23 October 1900

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 23 October 1900, page 2

While this newspaper article refers to “a genealogical chain” and “the genealogist and all his vagaries,” it was actually published in 1900!

  • “Cousin George’s Decision” The subtitle of this article “He Thought His New Found Relatives Were a Very Shoddy Lot” made me think that this story’s moral is as valid today as when the article was written.
Cousin George's Decision, Daily Alaska Dispatch newspaper article 24 January 1900

Daily Alaska Dispatch (Juneau, Alaska), 24 January 1900, page 2

However, this newspaper article was published in 1900!

  • “Genealogy of Slang.” This article earned its way to being copied and placed on my bulletin board. After all who knows when it might come in handy for me to use the word “Gellibagger”?
Genealogy of Slang, Repository newspaper article 15 March 1890

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 15 March 1890, page 5

While using slang in genealogy might seem like a modern topic, this newspaper article was published in 1890!

Thanks to this trip through the past using historical newspapers, we can see that: 1) genealogy has been in the news a long time; and 2) what was new then is sometimes new today. Truly, “Nothing in Genealogy is as new as that which has been forgotten.” The past is often one of the best places to look for clues to the future.

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Written by Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. Scott specializes in immigrant ancestry, especially from Bohemia (Czech Republic), Cornwall, the United Kingdom, and Italy. In addition to GenealogyBank.com, Scott has been recently published by Ohio Genealogy Society, National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, SaveEllisIsland.com, MyHeritage.com, and Greater Cleveland Genealogical Society. He was a presenter at the 2012 World Congress of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in Slovakia. You can follow Scott on his Facebook page at OnwardToOurPast and on his website/blog at OnwardToOurPast.

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