Lost 'art' of when daily life was news

Dan Cherry is a Lenawee County historian.
Dan Cherry is a Lenawee County historian.

Many years ago, one’s personal business was considered news, printed in columns that readers often went to first, to see the latest happenings with their neighbors.

Having worked for three newspapers in my life, and physically owning the entire collection of a long-discontinued newspaper, I never grew tired of surfing the "personals" columns of yesteryear.

The columns were composed by community correspondents, typically on a weekly basis. The correspondent would go from home to home, or attend a community meeting, to get the news of what the neighbors were doing.

What the correspondent recorded became a source of interest and fascination to readers: who went where, who was sick, and the like.

This column from the June 10, 1909, edition of The Adrian Daily Telegram highlighted the personal business of community members.
This column from the June 10, 1909, edition of The Adrian Daily Telegram highlighted the personal business of community members.

The personals — discontinued for the most part in the 1970s — have helped genealogists learn more about their ancestors. While we may consider the daily travels and visits to be mundane by today's standards, they were the social media of the day, and readers could not get enough of them.

I knew a Telegram correspondent from the 1920s. Caroline Scott told me how she would go door-to-door with her pencil and stenographer's notebook, asking those on her "rounds" what they had been up to over the past several days:

"Mrs. Alice Smith motored to Clinton to find a new coat for winter."

“A.J. Riley is improving the house on his farm with paint.”

"Little Johnny Jackson had his tonsils out Tuesday and is on the mend."

"Edna Ames bought a new bicycle and is the most popular girl on the block at present."

Before HIPAA, hospital patients were fair game as well. Admission dates and the reason for treatment were sometimes printed. There's nothing like the whole county knowing you were admitted to the hospital for a "disagreeable digestive tract."

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, people were listed as having the illness, doubling not only as the personal news, but as a warning, of sorts, to others to stay away from that household.

Then there were the paralleling "want ads" 100 years ago that also offer a glimpse into local life but by today's standards violate multiple fairness laws and codes:

"Seeking married man to milk cows at the D.L. Smith farm west of Adrian. Those of ill repute or suffering from laziness need not apply."

"Single woman wanted to clean house twice a week. No laundry. Must like children. Inquire at 32 Main Street."

A June 1910 advertisement enticed men without money to become barbers: “Wanted — Men to learn barber trade. Few weeks required. Splendid trade for poor man. Be your own boss. Can start shop with small capital or work $12 to $20 weekly. Good demand for barbers.”

In the same ad section was a dramatic admonishment to all who read it: “My wife Alice Eliza has left my bed and board without any just cause, and I will not pay any debt after this date which she contracts. M.W. Perkins.”

The fate of the relationship between Alice and M.W. does not appear to have been followed after that. Correspondents moved on to the next bit of news: who went where, whose baked apple pie was the most popular, and who needed to be avoided because of a communicable disease.

Dan Cherry is a Lenawee County historian.

This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegram: Dan Cherry: Lost 'art' of when daily life was news