Strolling around the Sandwich, Massachusetts Bazaar Flea Market on a Wednesday morning in September 2021, I spotted a large book across the way on a seller’s table. An avid collector of ephemera, I hustled over to the table to examine the item.
The book, which turned out to be a photo album, was about 2 inches thick and the old brown leather cover was crumbling. Opening the cover, I was amazed to find page after page of cabinet cards of people about the same age. After carefully removing several to inspect them, I asked the seller for the price. He said $40 US; I offered him $30 US, he accepted, and I headed to the car with my treasure.
Within a couple of hours, I’d photographed all the pages of the album, removed and scanned each of the photographs, and determined there were 47 cabinet cards of people who were all almost the same age. 42 of the photographs had names on the back and all but one of the photographs were taken in New Bedford, Massachusetts by 3 different photographers. A few of the photos were dated 1890.
Finding the common thread
My first instinct was that the album belonged to a photographer, but I quickly dismissed that theory when I understood that the cards were taken by several different photographers. Perhaps a graduating class, then?
I turned to newspaper websites to see if any had a New Bedford newspaper from 1890 where I could look for clues. The first two did not — one had a paper from Fall River, which is about 15 miles away, so that was something I noted, but I kept looking.
Most people don’t think of MyHeritage as a newspaper website, but it turns out that MyHeritage has a great newspaper collection and a super easy-to-use interface. I gave them a try and — jackpot! The MyHeritage newspaper collection had the New Bedford Evening Standard and The Evening Journal, covering the years 1860–1920.
I conducted a quick search of 1890 (publication date exact), New Bedford, Massachusetts (publication place exact), and the keyword “graduation” (keywords are in the + button on the right). The second article that appeared in the search results was “Class of ‘90,” and it contained a beautiful description of the graduation exercises and included several of the names on the photographs.
Class of ‘90,” newspaper article, The Evening Standard (New Bedford, Massachusetts), 28 June 1890, p. 2, col. 6.Focusing my search on the class of 1890, I found a graduation program in a report the school district published each year. All of the names on the photos were listed.
Researching the class members
The process of researching and creating narratives for each of the people in the album began. For each narrative, I created a webpage and added the information I found from numerous websites to the narrative’s Endnotes, which is a combination of sources, abstracts, and notes. My research for each student typically included their parents, and if applicable, their spouse and children. As I completed the research for each of them, I wrote their narrative and linked each statement to the corresponding endnote. A little over two months later, when all of the narratives were complete, I created public trees on MyHeritage and other websites and uploaded the photos and data so descendants of the album members could access the information and photos.
With regard to the research, while the basics — birth, marriage, death — are an obvious research requirement, the tens, if not hundreds, of bits of information that can often be found in newspaper articles, city directories, and small, local publications provide insight into the life and interests of the person. While valuable any time, that information is especially helpful for filling in the 20-year gap between 1880 and 1900 where U.S. census records don’t exist.
Several of the class members died very young with few records available, such as Alice Maria Purrington (1872–1894). Her death record provides a bit of information about her death, but her obituary tells us so much more.
Beyond the obit
While a great obituary can be a treasure, local news articles fill in both the big and little pieces of information in a person’s life.
Take the case of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Maria Briggs. A birth record exists listing her parents and she was enumerated as their daughter in the 1880 and 1910 censuses, but in 1900, Lizzie was listed as an adopted daughter. This inconsistency was cleared up when her mother’s will was contested in 1915 and a New Bedford newspaper article referred to Elizabeth M. Briggs as a “daughter by adoption.”
Turn-of-the-century newspapers can also rival any of today’s social media sites for events and travel updates. It sounds like Lillie Ann Heap (1872–1897), who also died very young, had a wonderful 13th birthday…
Between his time in New Bedford and starting his new position as headmaster of the Cambridge English High School, Ray Greene Huling, who was New Bedford High School’s principal in 1890, traveled to Rhode Island, Canada, and visited the World’s Fair in Chicago.
The MyHeritage Newspaper Collection was a goldmine for researching the 1890 photo album I found. These are just a few examples of how MyHeritage’s newspaper collection helped bring to life the personalities and lives of the members of the New Bedford high school class of 1890.
Kimberli Faulkner Hull is a genealogist, author, photographer, and publisher of Cool Adventures. On Twitter @KimberliHull.
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