Despite the very high price, I subscribe to Ancestry.com for two reasons: First, it’s an outstanding resource for a historical novelist, because it gives me access to images of documentation (for example, birth and death certificates; citizenship applications) and to census pages which in turn tell me a lot about the way people lived. If I need to name a character and I’m stuck, Ancestry.com will rescue me. If need a sense of how much a bricklayer earned in 1880, a little digging there will provide that information.
Before you ask: yes. I do need this kind of information. Historical novelists are the personification of OCD.
Second, a full Ancestry.com subscription gives me access to Newspapers.com.
Not so long ago I had to have access to a university library’s off-site research databases before I could look things up in historical newspapers. Now there are many free online sources, including the Library of Congress. Newspapers.com is not free (and not cheap) but the database is huge, and includes papers from small towns as well as big urban centers, going back in some cases to Revolutionary era publications. If you are writing about the Civil War, there’s nothing you can’t find through Newspapers.com.
For my own purposes, I have looked for (and found) reliable information on a wide range of topics including:
- The materials used in different kinds of clothing, and the price ranges;
- What vegetables could be put on the table fresh from the market on a given day;
- What an 1884 obituary looked like, and who they were about (hint: not poor people);
- Society wedding details;
- What was being sold in which stores, for how much;
- Public opinion on matters as diverse as elevated trains and vaccinations;
- What a dressmaker did, and what s/he earned;
- Crimes, small and large, in detail, including robberies, kidnappings, assaults, gang fights, forgery, impersonation, and fraud
- Arrests for gambling and prostitutions.
Here’s an interesting example of an unusual story that I clipped. I may never use it, but it caught my eye. From the New-York Tribune, Friday, 30 November 1883. Page 2:
As useful and wonderful as Newspapers.com is, it is not flawless. Its usefulness depends on the quality of its search engine, which is iffy and can be terribly frustrating at times. So for example, I used it today because I wanted to get a sense of when the term ‘intern’ began to be used for medical students. I searched ‘intern’ in newspapers published in New York (state) from 1875-1885, and I got 3,613 results. While I didn’t go through every return, I’m fairly sure that ‘intern’ was not used to refer to medical students in a clinical training setting. In fact, only one of the returns had anything to do with medicine. In an 1880 NYT article intern was defined as a “representative of the [medical] staff” in describing a hospital internal dispute.
The problem is that optical character recognition still has some way to go, and the proof is right here. In searching for ‘intern’ Newspapers.com gave me newspaper articles with the following words highlighted:
‘Internal’ and ‘international’ make sense, but William, tavern, patent, Eastern? So I wasted an hour looking through multiple pages with false returns like these. This has happened in the past, and I wrote to customer support at the time outlining what was going on. I never heard back from them.
Is Newspapers.com worth the expense, given this unfortunate glitch? For me it is, but then not many people worry about the price of a lamb chop in 1884. Or how infants were offered for adoption: