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How To: Research With Historic Newspapers

HOW TO | RESEARCH WITH HISTORIC NEWSPAPERS


Content Challenges

It is surprisingly easy for us as researchers to get stuck in the elements common to the time periods in which we live. Keep in mind that newspapers reflect the evolution of language and technology as historical records.


Terms and Terminology

Awareness of obsolete terms and terminology will help (1) with understanding the language used in newspaper articles retrieved, and (2) may on occasion generate additional search terms to consider.

For example:

modern usage historic usage
candle maker chandler
druggist, pharmacist apothecary
gas, service station filling station
husband or wife consort
prison, correctional institution gaol
voting rights suffrage

Wolfram-Alpha will often times display a chart of a word's frequency in history. See, for instance the entry for the term, apothecary which peaked in usage between 1800-1850 and declined steadily after that.


Date Challenges

Old newspapers do not always identify dates in the "month day, year" notation that we are accustomed to in the twenty-first century. Time frames may be stated in such a way that require closer examination such as with the following terms.

term abbreviation meaning
instant inst. this month, the current month
proximo prox. next month, will occur in the future
ultimo ult. last month, previously occurring

A best practice for newspaper research is always making sure you refer to and subsequently grab the "masthead" from the newspaper issue you are using.  The masthead appears on page 1 of the newspaper and is that title, date, and publication information that is printed at the top of the page.

Example of a Masthead

Masthead Geneva Daily Times, February 8, 1899

 

Examples of Time Frames

Instant. (inst.) refers to this month, which consulting the masthead, is September 1790. So the sale noted below takes place September 22, 1790.

 

Proximo (prox.) refers to next month. Consulting the masthead tells us the current month is June 1788, therefore the ship will sail around July 10, 1788.

 

Ultimo (ult.) refers to the previous month. The masthead in this example is dated December 1894, so the marriage indicated would have taken place November 6, 1894.


Form of Name

Remember that an individual's name may appear in a variety of ways when published in a newspaper.

For example:

John F. Kennedy John Fitzgerald Kennedy John Kennedy President Kennedy

Women can at times be even more challenging to identify as their identities were often subsumed by their husband's names rather than their own.

For example:

Jackie Kennedy Jacqueline Kennedy Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Jackie Kennedy Onassis
Mrs. John F. Kennedy Mrs. John Fitzgerald Kennedy President & Mrs. Kennedy Mrs. Aristotle Onassis

 


Optical Character Recognition (OCR)

Optical character recognition (OCR) is the process by which text comprising an image or document is converted to machine-readable form when scanned. While small-sale scanning and digitization projects may allow for text correction of scanned images, larger scale projects such as newspapers may result in less precise full text results depending on the equipment and technology used.

OCR underlying newspaper text is at times inexact with quality of the output dependent on the quality and condition of the original image and text.

upper case misinterpretations lower case misinterpretations
H = II or B or Il (uppercase "i" with lowercase "L") d = cl or il
W = VV or AV (rarely) e = c (interchangeable), also e = o, and e = s
J = I h = b or il
T = I or 1 or X (rarely) m = in
R = J q = o
V = Y t = f

Source: "Some Common Misinterpretations of Letters by OCR Software." Last Chance to Read.


Historic Geography

Use maps and atlases to understand how borders changed throughout history.

The "Long S"

utmost severity of law

Use of the "Long S" in typography lasted well into the 18th century before declining in usage and being replaced entirely by "Short S."

Newspaper search engines often interpret the long S as a lower case "f". Consider this when you search 18th century papers in particular.

For more on the "Long S" see the Boston 1775 blog post, "The Long List of Rules for the Long S."

The Calendar Change

The calendar we are accustomed to, with its January 1st start date, with was not always in place. The current format, called the Gregorian Calendar, was adopted by England and its colonies in 1752. Prior to this time, the start of the year, especially in Quaker records, was March 1st. Because the adoption of the calendars was different in different places, a system of "double dating" was in place for many years where dates were designated as "Old Style" or "New Style."

Read more about the calendar change here.