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Cops and Guinea Pigs: Treasures Found in Chronicling America

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This guest post is by Kitty Felde who shares her experiences using Chronicling America* to research her writing. Kitty is the author of “State of the Union” and “Welcome to Washington Fina Mendoza,” a mystery series for children designed to introduce civics education. They are also available as an episodic podcast “The Fina Mendoza Mysteries.” Kitty is an award-winning public radio journalist and Host/Executive Producer of the award-winning Book Club for Kids podcast.

I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of research. Dangerous, I know, because researching is a great excuse for not writing. But often you find unexpected treasures that can sometimes become an essential part of your novel or play.

I’ve been using the vast newspaper records available online at the Library of Congress. Chronicling America, a partnership between the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a free, searchable database of American newspapers from 1777 to 1963. 

There’s a map where you can discover ethnic newspapers across the country. Who knew there was a German newspaper in San Diego and a Finnish one in Washington state? There were dozens of African-American newspapers from Butte, Montana to Miami, Florida. 

I fumbled around at first, but found absolute gold in the digital pages of Chronicling America. 

Photograph of the north front of the White House with fountain and lawn in foreground.
“North front of White House,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), December 16, 1902.

Currently, I’m working on a murder mystery set in the White House era of Theodore Roosevelt. The plot takes us all over the Washington, D.C., of 1902. I had so many questions. 

How did police get around town? Did they ride horses? Drive motor cars? Bicycles? Who were they? A profile of “Well Known Men of the Metropolitan Police Force” in the Washington Times helped me create my policemen characters – including one who was active in the temperance movement.

Full page article titled 'well known men of the metropolitan police force' with four portrait photographs at the center of the page depicting policemen in uniform and four portrait drawings across the bottom of the page depicting policemen in uniform.
“Well-known men of the Metropolitan Police Force,” The Washington Times, (Washington, D.C.), September 30, 1903.

What happened at an inquest during that era? The Evening Star  had a full report of one particular proceeding. Though I admit I was distracted by the ad for furniture on the same page that featured a $10.50 “Polished Mahogany-Finished Toilet Table.”

A what?

Small newspaper ad that reads 'all the wanted styles of blank books for bookkeepers and general use are to be had here at reasonable prices. Headquarters for fine stationery and office supplies. Wm. H. Rupp Co. 421 Eleventh Street N.W.'
Ad for stationery and office supplies. Evening Star, (Washington, D.C.), August 4, 1903.

I needed a place for a body to be discovered. The Washington Times reported on a years-long battle to either fill in or fence the James Creek Canal. Little more than a sewer, neighbors labeled it a “death trap” where five bodies a month were pulled from the mud.

For one scene, I needed the name of a stationary store where my amateur detective could find a blank book to record her clues. I searched “stationary supplies” and found an advertisement at the top of the page in the Evening Star.

My favorite gem didn’t happen in Washington at all. The Washington Times, like papers and TV news today, reprinted sensational or odd stories from around the world. This one involved a pair of guinea pigs at a temperance meeting in Paris. The experiment was designed to demonstrate the destructive power of alcohol. One animal was given water, the other alcohol. Guess which one got sick.

Small article titled 'reprehensible guinea pig' reporting on a science experiment done in Paris.
“Reprehensible Guinea Pig,” The Washington Times, (Washington, D.C.), November 29, 1903.

At first, there were challenges. I was overwhelmed. I wanted to read everything. (Anything to avoid staring at a blank screen and actually have to write.) But my lousy eyesight made it difficult to see an entire page on a 13” laptop. I wasn’t sure how to find what I needed. And when I found a juicy tidbit, what was the best way to keep track of it? Was saving links the best way to capture the information?

I am no research genius, but let me share my tips:

    • Narrow down your search parameters. If your work is set in 1939, look for newspapers from that year. If it’s set in Pittsburgh, narrow your search to just papers from Pennsylvania. 
    • Try various search terms. If you get too many hits with “police,” try “detective.” 
    • You’ll soon discover which newspapers go with the sensational, which have the most advertisements. Ads are great to help you describe clothing of the era or which stores or restaurants were frequented by your characters.
    • If you’re using Microsoft Word, use the snipping tool. You can isolate the articles you want to keep, and save images for future reference or inspiration. And for those of us who are visually challenged, you can save it IN A LARGER SIZE.  
    • Images are also helpful while you’re writing. I often drop an image into the manuscript if there’s a quote I want to use or a detail that’s perfect for the scene. (And then I delete the image.)
    • DO keep track of your links. It will save going back and searching all over again. Note the newspaper title and date of the article, just in case you do have to go back and search.
    • I’m sure you have a better way to organize your research. Me? I keep a simple Word or Google doc where I list topics I’ve researched. Sometimes I drop in a line or two, sometimes an image, but always a link.  
    • If you’re considering including images in your book, take note of the copyright and who owns it. While all the newspapers in the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America have been vetted and are in the public domain, some items like comic strips and icons like Mickey Mouse are still under copyright and require permission from the copyright holder.  You might want to start asking for permission now to use the material later, long before you’re done with the book. If the answer is “no,” that gives you time to find an alternate image. 

Good luck! And happy reading. 

*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Follow Chronicling America on Twitter @ChronAmLOC

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  1. Wow – what a great article! I researched Lizzie Borden in Chronicling America when I was looking at Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend ballet loosely based on the Lizzie Borden story. I wish I had had Kitty Felde’s tips on finding and tracking information. Thanks for an entertaining read and a helpful reference for researchers!

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