Newspapers: Early Social Media

Newspapers are an often forgot resource to family history seekers. Accessibility is an issue, but local libraries, newspapers.com and Chronicling America are a few access points.

I recently lucked up while searching for “J.W. Dial” on newspapers.com. (Tip: put your ancestor’s name in quotation marks to search for their exact name – “J.W. Dial”, “Dial, John”, etc.) John Wesley Dial (or J.W. as names were sometimes shortened to initials years ago) is my great-great-grandfather who grew up in Lauderdale County, Alabama and moved right over the state line to Iron City, Tennessee. As you’ve probably figured out by now, I like to write, and to my surprise, John liked to write too.

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I was delighted to see in the July 8, 1909 edition of the Florence Herald that my great-grandmother, Bessie Waymon Dial, was mentioned. At age two, she had a bad case of pnuemonia but John updated readers that she had greatly improved — thankfully! I wouldn’t be here to write this today if she hadn’t.

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What might help you in your research is that small town newspapers had community “gossip” columns. So-in-so visited their sister in this-town. So-in-so’s baby is sick. So-in-so quietly married last Thursday. I’ve discovered a lot of good info this way. Or, you might find out that your grandfather even wrote one of those columns!

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This reminded of an early form of social media. People wanted to know what other people were doing. (Hello, Facebook!) People also wanted to debate topics and there were naysayers back then. One example is a man with the alias of “the Gourd” in the Florence Herald in the early 1900s. He didn’t hold back his thoughts, which involved criticizing the practice of Sunday school and giving thoughts on Bible verses. Here are a few examples of his columns. The paper received many letters in response to him.

 

It brings to mind present-day social media conversations. People want a forum to be heard and to express their thoughts. The community newspaper was an outlet in it’s day. If you get a chance, read through old papers where your ancestors are from, or even pull up the Florence Herald on newspapers.com. It’s worth the read.

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