Secondary History- Old Newspapers- they’re only good for wrapping up fish and chips, right?

Many of us have used adverts from old newspapers to illustrate various aspects of history – early C20th adverts for, for example, Fry’s Chocolate or Palmolive Soap suggest both continuity and change, but why not use some of the stories too? They can help to round out our studies of people and events which can often appear two-dimensional or ‘flat’. They provide students with the ‘human’ side of life that they find so fascinating, but often struggle to get to grips with.

Take for example this story, from the Birmingham Daily Post, Friday January 2nd 1880:

Petty and opportunist crime was rife in Victorian times as well as today. The image of a hairdresser buying a revolver and showing off, blowing away part of his own hand, is priceless!

Or this story from the same issue of the paper:

The image of Victorian life, and crime and punishment, projected by cases such as these in nearly every newspaper you look at, suggests that life was tough in Victorian times too, and that plenty of people were on the lookout for the opportunity to make some money quickly and easily. You can also compare stories such as these with stories from your own local newspaper today to see if our attitudes to crime and punishment have changed all that much.

Copies of old local newspapers are available freely in most libraries – try the Local Studies Collection – or in County Records Offices. Many local papers publish facsimile issues from time to time and it is worth approaching the publisher to see if they have ‘back copies’ lying around in their offices. Don’t just use the adverts, however fascinating –there are plenty of stories to enliven your study of Victorian and C20th Britain.

If you are in Further or Higher Education you can access the British Library newspaper collection free via JISC:

Alf Wilkinson, May 2012


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