Friday, August 3, 2012

Old Newspapers: Thoughts and Gleanings


Old newspapers are gold-mines of information for the writer and history buff. You can find copies of many popular newspapers and magazines from the 19th century online now, and most will allow you unlimited browsing for only a small yearly fee. Larger newspapers such as the New York Times require a subscription, which may or may not be worth the expense to you. Your local library may also have browsing access to some of these online morgues, so it's worth a trip down to check.

There are even history buffs who collect old newspapers. You may think that a paper from hundreds of years ago would be quite rare and expensive, but there are actually millions of them that have been preserved, and only a few collectors. If you have a particular newspaper in mind, you can probably pick up a copy for as little as $25 or even less in some cases. Newspapers with articles about important historical events are the most expensive: some of those will run into the hundreds of dollars. If you just want a bit of local color, though, you could easily locate a newspaper from the right era and area.

Here are just a few of the interesting facts I've run across in my online research.

Late 18th-century newspapers regularly advertised horses, cows, hogs and other animals that were lost, found and stolen. Owners try to sell their livestock, too, by spinning irresistible pitches: "No horse in the state makes a more elegant appearance, nor held in higher esteem for his colts," the owner of 17-hand-high Eclipse says. "He is perhaps superior in strength and speed to any horse on the continent."

The Sabbath was widely observed -- and broken -- in 19th-century York County. James Hooper, 10, falls between the logs of a raft and drowns as he fishes in a swollen Kreutz Creek one Sunday. A newspaper offers no sympathy: "This is another warning to Sabbath-breakers boys."

Littering was a problem in the old days, too, and it carried a stiffer fine than today. Hanover officials in the 19th century draft one such ordinance: "That if any one person or persons, shall put or leave any kind of nauseous unwholesome Stuff longer than is absolutely necessary to remove it out, shall pay a fine at the discretion of the Burgess not to exceed sixty dollars."

A newspaper recipe to convert snow to something useful: "Take 1 pound of hard soap and dissolve over slow fire. Add six to eight pounds of clean snow. Boil ingredients for three hours or until lather shows on the surface. Add a wine glass of salt and let cool. The new soap will weigh as much as the snow originally used."

Bake sales, bazaars, rummage sales and other fund-raising events aren't new to 20th-century churches. In the 1860s, the African Methodist congregation on North Duke Street sponsors a fair starting on a Monday and continuing day and night throughout the week. The fair features the sale of some "fancy" articles and refreshments. Cost of admission: 10 cents.

"Don Pedro's baile ball, under the new title of the 'Music Saloon,' is open every night in the interest of Terpsichore. The music is kept playing to attract custom, and, if we are not mistaken in our recollection, it has a strong tendency towards a New York 'Concert Saloon.'"

The "Lost and Found" column has remained the same throughout the years. Someone traveling along the banks of the Codorus Creek happened upon a book titled "The Dying" with some surprising content inside: $400. The traveler apparently was honest because The York Gazette ran a "found" notice. The book proved to be more valuable than the money, however. Sometime later, the newspaper published a notice saying the $400 was counterfeit.

A Shrewsbury-area farmer named visited Baltimore one day with a fine team of horses and a covered wagon containing more than 1,000 pounds of flour. He left his team in the street to visit a pub, and when he came out, his team and wagon were gone. He contacted the police, who telegraphed other stations. Later that day, officers discovered the wagon. The horses were walking up the street without a driver. Nothing was lost. "The owner will doubtless profit by this piece of experience," a newspaper reported.

"We saw an interesting race the other afternoon. The man who held the lead carried a leg of mutton and the one behind a strip of inch-plank. The pursuer gained rapidly on the leg of mutton (it turned out afterwards that that was what he was chasing) and soon over-took it. The runners faced each other and without a word began the battle. It was a very comical contest. One swung the stick and the other the leg of mutton, while both were blowing furiously from the long race they had had. We laughed when the leg of mutton got in on the cheek of the other with a loud slap, and counted the first knock down. The plank finally proved too much for the sheep leg, and the battle closed with the surrender of the latter to the wielder of the former. The two men then parted apparently satisfied."

"The greatest novelty of the season. The most singular and beautiful spectacle. A grand lantern fete will be given at the Palace Gardens. When the entire spacious area of the grounds will be brilliantly lighted. All the trees will be illuminated. Thousands of beautiful lanterns and hundreds of pyrotechnic torches will be brought into requisition in rendering this the great night of the season. The citizens of New York have never yet beheld so gorgeous and wonderful a scene as will be presented on this occasion. A grand concert and superb fireworks will be added to the extraordinary attractions of the evening. Admittance, as on ordinary occasions, 25 cents."

John Walker, a Warrington Meeting gravedigger, kept detailed entries in his account book. He charges Joseph Walker 50 cents for digging a grave for his child. He receives $1.50 for digging the grave of William Morthland, who "got killed," and $2 for digging a square grave for Dr. Cook's mother-in-law. The square grave says a good bit about the mother-in-law's figure.

If you're looking for facts to spice up your story, or just browsing through the past, a newspaper is a wonderful place to start.

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