Must-know tips for reading 18th and 19th century newspapers
20th century newspapers are great - they're easy to search and usually have very high-quality images.
18th and 19th century newspapers are a little bit of a different beast - newspapers have evolved significantly over the centuries. If you don't know a little bit about the history of newspapers, you will have tremendous difficulty.
But for the genealogist, 18th and 19th century newspapers are incredibly valuable. They allow you to make discoveries about your ancestors that you can't make with any other records.
So let's take a look at some key things to know about historical newspapers. Armed with this knowledge, your research and reading will be far more successful.
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1. Pre-industrial newspapers ignored local news
One of the main attractions of searching newspapers is that our ancestors often appeared in local news. But if you're researching your pre-industrial ancestors, keep this in mind:
With a few exceptions, it will be rare for you to find local news in newspapers prior to 1840. This is because the Industrial Revolution caused a massive change in the kind of stories newspapers wrote about.
Before the advent of the railroad and industrial mass printing, newspapers existed focused on informing the local community of news from far away.
Many newspapers merely reprinted stories from abroad or elsewhere in the country. One theory is that communities at this time had no need to read about local news in the newspaper - they were so tightly knit that local news spread by word of mouth.
It's important to note that while you may not find any "journalism" concerning your ancestors, it's still possible they appeared in advertisements, one of the main ways publishers tried to turn a profit.
When the industrial revolution allowed large metropolitan newspapers to distribute their papers faster and to a wider audience, local papers needed to change up their strategy - customers looking for national and international news could now read it from a big city paper.
So they began to cover local news more prominently, beginning in the 1840's and 1850's. But it wasn't until the the Civil War Era that local news become standard in small town newspapers.
2. Know the bias before reading
It's important to understand that most papers in the 18th and 19th centuries made no attempts to be neutral like papers do today. There are many reasons for this, but one has to do with the economics of news at the time.
Many newspapers couldn't turn a profit from selling space to advertising and issues to readers alone, so many times political parties stepped in. Often a local or national party would act as a patron for the paper in exchange for the paper disseminating what information the party asked.
Why do we care about bias?
A newspaper with an agenda may not taint a record you find of your ancestor, but if you're trying to learn more about their attitudes or worldview, it's useful to understand any ulterior motives of the newspaper.
This practice was so common that you can be fairly confident that any given 19th century newspaper has an agenda. The good thing is, this political patronage was so openly practiced that it will be easy to discover. Oftentimes the party name will appear in the publication's title.
You may also see current political nominees printed in the paper, like this one from 1848:
If none of these are immediately obvious, just read an editorial or two. You should be able to quickly figure out what issues and political parties are important to the editor.
Finally, not all bias was political - frontier towns were particularly likely to paint a very rosy picture of life in their area, in an attempt to attract more settlers. So keep this in mind if you're discovering that your ancestors hometown was a utopic place according to the local paper!
3. Newspapers specialized far more than they do today
In a way, it may be helpful to think of 19th century newspapers like the blogs of today - many were highly specialized and geared towards an incredibly specific audience.
As the century moved on, more and more people began to get involved in the political process and were therefore interested in news that applied to their specific interest group - whether it was focused on a particular social class, profession, political cause or religious denomination, there was usually a paper for everyone.
This is important to note because it can tell you what to avoid, but it can also tell you what to seek out.
For instance, if you had a relative who was a merchant, you will be particularly interested in mercantile newspapers, of which there are many.
Even if there are no direct mentions of your ancestors in these kinds of papers, they're really valuable because they let you make a reasonable guess to what issues were important to your ancestor and what their perspectives may have been.
4. Early American newspapers can be really difficult to read
Aside from understanding the context of the actual stories in the paper, 18th and 19th century publications can be very physically challenging to read and search.
Typeface varied greatly prior to the 1830's, which makes newspapers published before this decade rather difficult to index - computers simply aren't able to understand which character is which. So while there are many newspapers available for this time period, you may have to browse instead of searching due to unavoidable errors in creating searchable indexes.
Old newspapers - especially those published in small towns - were also printed on massive paper that is far bigger than the newspaper size we're used to today. They also typically lack visuals - illustrations and photographs weren't common until the very end of the 19th century.
5. Failure was common
Most newspapers, especially those in small towns, struggled greatly. The work was incredibly labor intensive, and many duties that are divided up today - writing, editing, printing or deciding what stories to run - was often done by one person.
Advertising revenue and sales of subscriptions or issues weren't enough to keep papers financially viable, so they often relied on political patronage, which could quickly be withdrawn for a wide array of reasons. Even with this help, not all were able to stay afloat.
This means that many papers went out of business after only a few years of publication. This is important to keep in mind when searching an online database.
Just because there are only a few years of a certain paper it doesn't mean that issues are missing from the collection - that might be all there ever was. Furthermore, it means you may not be able to rely on a single source for news on your family. If you seem to run out of issues from one paper, do some research to see if you can find when it ceased publication. Oftentimes another one will pick up right where it left off - make sure your searches are geographically focused so you won't miss anything.
18th and 19th century newspapers are wonderful genealogical and historical artifacts. Oftentimes they're the only sources we have on a certain ancestor or family.
Even though they can be difficult to read and navigate, they're well worth the trouble. Keep the above tips in mind throughout your searching.
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