Friday, June 21, 2013

Extra! Extra! Read All About It!

Small town newspapers, especially the really old ones, can be a great way to get lost in the past. Our ancestors didn't have the ease and convenience, and sometimes the burden, of our information technology. There was no internet or computers, no television or radio. Our ancestors had the local gossip and the small town newspaper.

Besides obituaries, my favorite part of an old newspaper is the column of local information submitted by area residents. They were a way to keep up on what your neighbors were building and buying, who was visiting, and who was sick or recovering. Most of the papers I've used are weeklies from small towns in the Midwest, but I suspect the local news format transcended geography.

I recently posted a transcription of an 1897 Adrian, Michigan newspaper article about my ancestor, Lawrence Hummel, and his unfortunate accident. [Hummel post #1] I have several observations about the content of this article:

It Was Graphic

Newspapers were a way to share stories, and share they did. What better way to get readership than to push the limits. Perhaps this began in Jack the Ripper-era London, when newspapers shared gruesome crime details and postmortem photos in print. Here is a great BBC article about this sensationalism.

After the Hummel accident, extremely detailed descriptions were given about poor Otto's head wound, and the bloody mess left behind in the office where Mr. Hummel was treated.

They Were Namedroppers

Face it. Our ancestors were gossips! They didn't have television for entertainment, so neighbors and townsfolk were the next best thing. Besides the Hummel family members, mention was made of four different doctors, a state senator, a school, two business blocks, and three business owners. Of course, these people and places give reference points for the accident. But really, they were namedroppers.

Adjectives Rule

The language was verbose. The articles were filled with long sentences, lots of adjectives and adverbs, and a host of commas. This is a minor criticism, but the style certainly increases the sensationalism and gives it a wow factor. It sure makes me want to read more!

Newspapers can be such a valuable tool in your family research. This single article gave me incredible family information - names, dates, occupations - but more importantly, put a singular family story in a greater social context.

Stayed tuned for future posts about the Hummel's and their runaway horse.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress via WikiMedia Commons 

© 2013 Sally Knudsen