14 January 2010

Newspaper ads offer genealogy clues

Newspaper display and classified advertisements not only offer insight into an era, but they give us valuable clues for additional genealogy research. They also add character and local flavor to people and places.  

For instance, in advertisements you’ll find people selling goods, services, and property; searching for an escaped slave or servant; administering an estate and requesting debtors and creditors to come forward—and much more.

Sometimes the ads surprise our 21st-century sensibilities, like this one from the 28 April 1746 issue of the Boston Evening-Post:

“Any white person that has occasion to put out a child to nurse, to a careful motherly woman, with a good breast of milk, may hear of such an one in one of Deacon Gibson's tenements, close by his dwelling house.”

Look closely at the details:
  • Deacon Gibson is well known enough not to use his first name or his address.
  • His title suggests he is a deacon at one of the Boston churches.
  • He owns two or more tenements in addition to his own residence, and he assumes people know where.
  • He garners income from rentals, therefore he may be advertising for a wet nurse because he is owed rent.
  • The woman is white, “careful,” “motherly,” and healthy.
  • She probably lost a baby recently.
  • Her services as a wet nurse suggest she needs a source of income, possibly because she owes rent to her landlord.
  • People who live in and near the tenement are familiar with the identity of this motherly figure.
The ad also implies that Deacon Gibson is a respectable man who is trying to help this poor but respectable woman find one of the few income-making positions open to her.

This ad leads to new research possibilities. Look in Boston newspapers for tenement rental ads, news stories, church news, society pages, real estate transactions, death notices, probate proceedings, etc., that refer to Deacon Gibson. Also look for church membership records, deeds for the house and tenements, probate, and other records.

Boston Evening-Post is available through Early American Newspapers 1690-1876, a database from NewsBank Inc. Members of New England Historic Genealogical Society have free access to Early America Newspapers 1690-1876 and 19th Century U.S. Newspapers (Infotrac). These databases may be available through your local library as well.