Tips for Researching Birthdays & Birthday Notices in Newspapers

Introduction: In this article, Mary Harrell-Sesniak finds birthday articles and notices in old newspapers to show how they can help with your family history research. Mary is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background.

I suppose there are people who don’t celebrate birthdays, but they’re hard to find. Who wouldn’t want to partake in this annual celebration of life?

The Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson was the exception. In 1900, he bequeathed his birthday to Adelaide Ide, a little girl who had “carelessly” been born on Leap Day (29th February). Many accounts claim that she had been born on Christmas Day, but one of the wonderful things about historical newspaper articles is that they correct mistakes like this.

Not wishing for Adelaide to be cheated out of birthdays every three years out of four, Stevenson wrote:

I, Robert Louis Stevenson, in a sound state of mind and body, having arrived at an age when I no longer have any use for birthdays, do give and bequeath my birthday, on the 13th of November, to Miss Adelaide Ide, to be hers from this year as long as she wishes it. Robert Louis Stevenson.

article about Robert Louis Stevenson, Daily Illinois State Register newspaper article 3 June 1900
Daily Illinois State Register (Springfield, Illinois), 3 June 1900, page 10

What a delightful birthday idea!

Genealogical Stories in Newspaper Birthday Notices

Newspaper articles round out our genealogical stories, so use them lavishly to learn how family celebrated festive affairs such as birthdays. Many articles, such as this one from 1895, suggest hints for planning a child’s big day.

article about birthday cakes, Evening Star newspaper article 2 February 1895
Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 2 February 1895, page 12

This next newspaper article, from 1892, reminds us that high teas were in favor – but it also demonstrates that many birthday customs have not changed. As is practiced today, the child’s name was written in frosting on the birthday cake, which was decorated with candles to match her age plus one to grow on.

article about birthday cakes and parties, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 6 November 1892
Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 6 November 1892, page 13

Life Milestones

Birthday articles with the most impressive genealogical data spotlight celebrants who attain impressive milestones, such as this 1894 newspaper article reporting on the 105th birthday of Hannah Chard. This article notes where she was born, her birth date, her maiden name and some of her progeny. Facts and narratives are reported, such as how she gathered cannonballs at the Revolutionary War battlefield in Pennsylvania from the Battle of Brandywine.

birthday notice for Hannah Chard, New York Herald newspaper article 14 April 1894
New York Herald (New York, New York), 14 April 1894, page 14

This 1800s newspaper article alludes to several timelines in Hannah’s life. Although she was of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, Hannah came to live with a Quaker family around the age of five after her father passed away, and her husband’s death is reported as occurring 12 years earlier. If you were searching for pertinent dates, an old news article like this provides important leads.

We also learn that Hannah enjoyed exceptional health at the age of 105, despite taking great comfort in smoking a clay pipe four times a day!

An interesting genealogy aside: I have an ancestor who also found cannonballs at the Battle of Brandywine battlefield.

photo of a cannonball from the Battle of the Brandywine found by Mary Harrell-Sesniak's ancestor, Edith Scott
Photo: cannonball from the Battle of the Brandywine found by the author’s ancestor, Edith Scott. Credit: Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

Surprise Birthday Parties

Surprise birthday parties frequently make the news, and those newspaper articles can identify family relationships helpful to your family history research, or sometimes describe gifts that may have become family heirlooms.

This 1880 newspaper article does both, noting three generations of family in attendance and a special chair.

Mrs. Evelene Laverty turned 75 in 1880, and she was kept out of the house before being surprised by her son-in-law with upwards of thirty relatives and friends at her surprise birthday party. Two of the people attending were her brother and sister-in-law, the Darlings, a useful tidbit when searching for maiden names. Their daughter, Mrs. R. C. Dart, was also present.

birthday notice for Eveline Laverty, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 3 January 1880
Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 3 January 1880, page 5

Surprise birthday parties are not always given by family members.

In this 1883 newspaper article, we learn about E. B. Myers, a school teacher at Elkhart, Indiana. When his students realized it was his birthday, they surprised him with a pair of elegant slippers and a lovely note:

Mr. Myers will please accept the accompanying gift as a token of the high esteem and regard of his pupils.

birthday notice for E. B. Myers, Elkhart Daily Review newspaper article 15 March 1883
Elkhart Daily Review (Elkhart, Indiana), 15 March 1883, page 3

Genealogy Tips for Researching Birthdays in the News

To recap, newspaper birthday notices may contain:

  • addresses (home & location of the party)
  • attire worn and decorations
  • dates (birthday & date of the festivity)
  • food, refreshments, activities & the entertainment
  • birthday gifts & presents
  • guest lists, family members & their relationships
  • photographs
  • Cross-reference birthday notices with birth and vital records, to see if someone fudged on an age
  • Cross-reference names to see how they are related
  • Search other years for similar announcements
  • Search for nicknames, particularly in classified advertisements

Foreign Birthday Terms

If an ancestor was an immigrant or child of an immigrant, search by foreign language birthday keywords. Remember that although different countries may share a language, the term in one location may vary from another. Here are some examples:

  • Dutch: verjaardag
  • French : anniversaire, fête, la jour de naissance
  • German: geburtstag
  • Irish: lá breithe
  • Spanish: ¡feliz cumpleaños!

Fun Genealogy Activity

If you’re working on your family genealogy or planning a summer reunion, search old newspaper headlines for memorable events that occurred on the day someone was born, or on a milestone birthday. You never know what interesting facts you might discover about their date of birth.

If you’ve found an unusual birthday notice doing your newspaper research, please share it with us in the comments.

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