I’ve always liked archives: decades-old yearbooks, yellowed encyclopedias, and piles of dusty magazines full of dated fashion and ads for bygone businesses. My pandemic habit of trawling the depths of Wikipedia (which I document on @depthsofwikipedia) has grown to half a million followers, and I’m not even close to scraping the bottom of the well. As a kid, my dad used to take me to the library archives to see century-old newspapers and we’d giggle at the old-timey language and hyperlocal headlines.
So I’m delighted that digitized newspaper archives live on, even as print media continues its slow decline. There are a number of free services for old online newspapers — the Library of Congress, the National Archives, Ancestor Hunt and many more — but to me, newspapers.com takes the cake. The site is supremely searchable: you can narrow by dates, newspapers, or region, and it’s easy to organize and share clippings. I consider the $8/month subscription splurge to be worth it.
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Community newspapers have long chronicled the type of minor news I love: family lore, fleeting fame of youth athletes, and pets with big personalities. Reading history in real-time shows major news events next to quotidian fluff like bakes sales and bowling tournaments, and whether you’re interested in genealogy or topic research, one of newspapers.com’s 700 million pages of newspapers is bound to provide something of value.
The site also has a top-notch Twitter presence which highlights the weird, the wild, and the wonderful: snippets about a small-town Kentucky resident’s most embarrassing moment and the strife of a Brooklyn woman whose husband disappeared, taking her favorite cranberry pie recipe with him (the story inexplicably made headlines as far away as Reno, Nevada in 1907).
I’ve retreated to the quiet pages of forgotten features, and I’ve seen the birth of things I consider commonplace and utterly unremarkable.
There’s no shortage of stories about furry first responders, like a St. Bernard named Ted whose heroic rescue of nine people earned him a writeup in a 1920 paper out of Buffalo, New York. And in 1938, a black cat Skippy earned a “bronze medal of bravery” from the Humane Society for saving her elderly owners from a gas leak.
In an effort to escape the noise of social media, I’ve retreated to the quiet pages of forgotten features, and I’ve seen the birth of things I consider commonplace and utterly unremarkable. Measuring spoons, for example, were at one point an exciting innovation. An 1889 ad in The Boston Globe describes them as “The ‘Original’ and only subdivided Tea Spoon Measured ever made” and delineates their purpose. In 1905, an article from Elwood, Indiana described the booming business of selling ice cream cones, 1905’s hottest (coldest?) food fad.
Some stories seem to mirror current events. Chicago elementary schoolers went to school “by radio” during a 1937 polio outbreak. Other things, like an ad for a radium watch, are chillingly oblivious to modern science. And some articles simply make me laugh, like the college girls who pooled their money to buy a hippo in the 1960s, or the rural New Hampshire town who got a new train whistle in 1921 (it sounded like a distressed calf, though, and to the farmers’ disdain, it made the cows release milk and go haywire).
The website is owned by Ancestry, the privately-held Utah company that turned the long-time Mormon tradition of record-keeping into the world’s largest for-profit genealogy company. A central tenet of the Mormon faith is that the dead can be baptized into the faith after their passing, so the Church of Latter Days Saints owns a collection with 2 billion names, which it stores in a nuclear disaster-proof repository built into the side of a mountain.
Other archival rabbit holes are all over the internet. There’s the Internet Archive, David Rumsey’s collection of historic maps, and the Prelinger Archives of historic videos. Preserved materials of the past hold endless wisdom and vital information. But as much as the essential events matter, there’s endless delight to be (re)discovered in the silly stories.
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