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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill  8/3/2005

Clipping Clues

"The bride, a pretty blonde, looked beautiful in her wedding costume of blue crepe with silver accessories." The 1936 description of my grandmother gives me an image I did not already have.

The Mendon [Illinois] Dispatch of 2 January 1936 contains a brief mention of my grandparents' 17 December 1935 wedding. Other than Grandma's attire, the clipping did not contain any new clues or leads. This week we will see how the information fits with other known facts and look at some ways to determine the original source of an undocumented newspaper clipping.

What the Clipping Told Me
The location of the marriage (approximately eighty miles from where my grandparents lived at the time) would have been a significant clue had I not already known it. Other details in the wedding announcement were consistent with information Grandma had told me years before. What the newspaper refers to as "a wedding dinner at the home of the groom's brother, Ralph Neill" was called a charivari by Grandma (but still involving Uncle Ralph and his wife). The newspaper indicates that the Neills will "go to housekeeping in the spring near Stillwell." Grandma told me that they did not have any money and they went back home to live with their respective families until Grandpa could rent a farm. And their big celebration was the splitting of a bottle of pop and a Snickers bar. The newspaper doesn't mention that.

The bottle of pop and a candy bar story are not provable, but a little bit of internet sleuthing indicated that Snickers bars had been on the market for several years by the time Grandma was married in 1935. If Snicker's bars had not gone on the market until the 1940s, it would have been a different situation. Fortunately the other details in the announcement dovetailed with information I already had.

What Did I Cut Off?
When I copied the notice from the newspaper, I included more than just the wedding announcement. Unfortunately, I did not include the entire column to the left. That column, which I only partially copied, contained a reference to Cecil Trautvetter, my grandmother's brother. While I cut off part of the column, at least the copy I made included his name. The reference appears to be in a local "gossip column," but still may be worth checking out.

On the right hand side of the announcement (again another partial column) is an ad, which could have come in handy had I not written down the date of the paper.

What is that Movie?
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had a movie showing in nearby Quincy, Illinois. That much I had managed to copy. Again other details were missing, like the complete movie title. All I could make out was "To... Ha... with music and lyrics by Irvin[g] Berl[in]" (his name I could surmise despite my age and unfamiliarity with his work, the movie title would require some sleuthing on my part--Depression era movies are before my time).

Had the clipping been undated, this would have been a significant clue. A search for Fred Astaire on the Internet Movie Database ( located a list of his movies with "Top Hat" being released in 1935 and co-starring Ginger Rogers. The attire of Rogers and Astaire in the promotional picture made more sense once I knew the title.

How Did They Spell It?
There were seven misspellings in the brief write-up. Grandma's maiden name was consistently spelled as "Trautretter" and Neill was spelled correctly every time except in the headline where it was listed as "Niell." A few other errors must have slipped right past the proofreader.

A scan of the newspaper item can be viewed here

General Suggestions
Clues to the Actual Location
My grandparents were married three counties away from where they resided. If a vital record cannot be located on your ancestor, but the date of the event is known, consider searching for a notice of the event in their "hometown" paper, or in the newspaper from where they were living at the time of the event. A write-up in their local newspaper may provide the location where the event actually took place as it did for my grandparents.

Keep Your Eyes Peeled
A reference to another family member was missed in my attempt to locate the desired item. When researching a small town newspaper it is always an excellent idea to read all the gossip or correspondents' columns for other family references. The reference may be inconsequential, but sometimes significant clues can be obtained, particularly ones to relatives making visits "home."

Contextual Clues
The undated Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie would have allowed me to date the notice had the paper's date been unknown.

Had the location of the paper been unavailable, several references would have been helpful:

  • The city of Quincy, Illinois--where the movie was showing
  • The towns of Coatsburg, Loraine, Stillwell, Marcelline, Stillwell, Roseville, and Carthage, which are all mentioned in the gossip columns. Since no state is listed, it is assumed these locations are in Illinois and probably known to the reader. Hopefully they are centrally located and relatively near to Quincy. It still will take some doing to determine the paper in which the notice appeared. In some cases, searches of every name census indexes at may even help pinpoint the newspaper's location, especially for those individuals who appear to live in the area in which the paper was printed.

This newspaper reference was located the old-fashioned way: manual searching. As more and more newspapers are digitized, indexes are created by scanning the newspaper. Keep in mind that these indexes are created by optical scanners. Some letters will be read incorrectly, due to poor printing originally, faded ink, or low-quality microfilming. When these factors are combined with incorrect spellings, searches can become even more frustrating. If the date of an event is known, it may still be necessary to perform a page-by-page search of the newspaper.

News items usually appear in a large daily paper in a few days, but news items on the "common" man and woman are rare. Small-town weekly papers usually include items within a few issues, but I always look for two months after the event. Sometimes things like planting and harvest get in the way of sending something to the local paper.

Turn it Over
If the newspaper clipping is the "real deal" and not a photocopy, look at the back of the item for additional clues. I was able to determine the origin of a mid-1930s clipping by analyzing the classified advertisements on the back. The street names indicated to me that the obituary was not from one of the small town weekly papers in the area, but rather was likely from the "big city" daily nearly fifty miles from where the individual lived and died.

Use the Census
If the newspaper's date and place are unknown, consider searching nationwide census indexes for the names of individuals listed in the clipping. Determining if these individuals are clustered in a specific geographic area may get you on the path to locating the document's origin.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS ) He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including "Ancestry" Magazine and "Genealogical Computing." You can e-mail him at or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005,

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