Lack of Privacy and How it Helps Genealogists


Uploading blog posts on the second and fourth Fridays of the month would not seem to be an onerous task. But when you are forced into going car shopping because a rear end accident totals your car and you also go on a 7 day cruise the time between posts seems to evaporate!

Knowing that we had some time to sit waiting for our flight out of Seattle, Washington to come back home, I checked out a magazine shop in the Pike Street Market in Seattle. The vendor did not have any genealogical magazines because of their by-monthly publishing dates but he did come up with an interesting diversion. He talked me into buying a copy of Mental Floss which contained information about a wide variety of topics. I came across an article by A. J. Jacobs, “Private Eyes”, in which he wrote about the loss of privacy in this digital age. What I found intriguing was his comment that “You won’t find much respect for privacy in the old day of the U.S. census.”1 He noted, “In the 1800s, Uncle Sam asked about your mental health, whether you were ‘crippled, maimed or deformed,’ and the financial status of homes or farms.” According to the author of this article, the results of these early census were posted in public. You could check them for accuracy and your neighbours could perhaps find out formerly unknown information about you!

A. J. Jacobs also noted that local newspapers in the 1800s tended to invade the privacy of folks. I knew that because I have found many items of interest for my research in the community or locality sections in these older newspapers. In preparation for a presentation to my local Branch of the OGS I checked out The Ancestor Hunt website which has an index to online newspapers primarily for the United States and Canada. In exploring it I found that some years of two local Lambton County newspapers had been digitized and were online in the Canadiana online website. I found the Alvinston News from 16 October 1878 to 5 March 1879 in this collection. I conducted a random search of issues and found the following news items that bear out Jacob’s comments about a lack of privacy in the 1800s. The first is probably innocuous, “On Saturday 9th inst., a little girl of Mrs. Roberts, Kerwood, had her leg broken by a fall, she is under the care of Dr. Stanley and is getting along very well.”2

The second article might have embarrassed the farmer in question or perhaps he enjoyed the sympathies that would be expressed:
“Curious Accident
As Archie McIntyre, 9th con., Brooke, was plowing on a down grade, the plow point caught in a large stone. The sudden strain straightened out the small clevis, the team pulled Mr. McIntyre, who had the lines around his waist, over the plow handles; at the same moment the plow fell over on the land side and the wing of the plow turning upwards, he struck upon it breaking his right collar bone. His hand was also severely cut. Dr. Marlatt, who was sent for, set the fracture and the gentleman is now doing well.”3

How about having everyone knowing your business before you even arrive in town to take on a new job?
“James Black of Strathroy has made an engagement with John D. Black and will be employed in the planing mill during this fall and winter.”4

Do check out The Ancestor Hunt website if you have not already done so. Posts about how to go about researching in newspapers are also on the website.

Attending Local Genealogical Events
Lastly, it does pay to attend the genealogical events that OGS Branches and other groups host. I negotiated time out of a camping weekend in order to attend the Kent Branch OGS/Chatham Public Library Family History Fair held in September of this year. Not only did I pick up some research ideas, I also won a draw for a full one year subscription to MyHeritage. Not bad at all for an event with no admission cost!

If you don’t see me much during the winter it may well be because I am researching in my, Findmypast and MyHeritage subscription sites. Now if I can find 48 hour days…

Wishing you great research successes
Alan Campbell
Ontario Ancestors Blog [The Ontario Genealogical Society] © 2019

1. A.J. Jacobs, “Private Eyes, Moderns Problems” with A. J. Jacobs, Mental Floss- The Big Questions Issue, 2019, p. 29.
Mental Floss went electronic but with the help of the Paper and Packaging Board, the Big Questions Issue was printed for sale at newsstands. See the website.

2. Local and General News, The Alvinston News, Wednesday 20 November 1878, unpaginated [3], downloaded from 8 October 2019.

3. Local and General News, The Alvinston News, Wednesday 20 November 1878, unpaginated [3], downloaded from 8 October 2019.

4. Local and General News, The Alvinston News, Wednesday, 6 November 1878, unpaginated [3], downloaded from 8 October 2019.

I receive no renumeration for the mention of commercial genealogy companies or commercial software. The references to commercial websites and software are related to my personal research.


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