Monday, October 4, 2010

Chat About Whose Friends, Exactly?

I'm a big fan of genealogical research.  I'm not sure why. I think it's because I like the idea of digging up names and dates and information so that people don't get forgotten.  I used to help my grandmother work on her gigantic mixed-up family tree, and then later I put the same skills to use in trying to untangle the branches on my husband's.

At present I'm nearing completion of a family tree for my two friends, Jessica and Andrea.  Jess and Andi are sisters, and have the distinction of being (apart from my husband) the two closest friends I have with whom I can converse independently of a modem.  Most of my friends live inside of a Toshiba laptop, but I see these two in the so-called real world at least once a week.  As we sat in the local Wendy's one afternoon, I was telling them about the work my mother and I had done on a family tree for my godmother, and they started talking about how they would love to know more about their own family history.  From there it was a pretty simple transition to my taking on the project, and that leads us to today's blog entry.

Most of the research was doable via the magic of the internet, but to get more complete stories, I needed to access people's obituaries.  Fortunately, since my friends' family has been in our area for the last few hundred years, almost everything is in the local paper's archives, so it's just been a matter of multiple visits to the library.

If you've never had occasion to use the microfiche reader in your own library, you might find the contraption somewhat daunting.  It looks like a television and an old-fashioned movie projector had a few too many drinks one night and this was the result.  It serves the purpose right enough, but it takes a little while to get used to it.  Old newspapers are scanned onto reels of film that get threaded onto the feeder, and the pages of the paper are displayed on the screen for you to read.

Sometimes, for reasons I've never understood, the papers are displayed in negative format -- white printing on black.  This is especially jarring when you're looking at photographs; a smiling child becomes some kind of demonic black-toothed spawn.

Andrea sometimes comes with me when I'm on an obituary hunt, which is good, because she's got an eye for catching them.  The more recent issues -- from about the 1960s onward -- are less confusing, but when searching older newspapers for the obituaries, it's like a text version of "Where's Waldo?"  Sometimes I feel like the newspapers of bygone years were arranged by someone wearing a blindfold.  There's no cohesiveness to the layout at all, and there seem to be more advertisements than anything.

The headlines are hysterical sometimes too.  Older editions of our local paper were all written in column format, and some columns had larger headlines than others.  The result is odd things jumping off the page, such as one issue with the dueling headlines "DEDICATED TO CHRIST" and "THE HAND OF DEATH." 

Far and away our favorite thing, however, is the "Chat About Your Friends" column.  I'm not sure when this started or when it stopped, but it existed for a good forty or fifty years in our local paper.  "Chat About Your Friends" was filled with peculiar minutiae of the daily lives of residents of the paper's home city.  For example:

~ Misses Minnie and Pearl Grayson of Tilghman Street recently took a day trip to the city of Lancaster to visit their aunt.
~ George "Bodkin" Jones, the postmaster, is ill in bed with a terrible cold.
~ The Masters family of rural area 1 is planning to travel to California to spend the Christmas holidays with relatives.
~ Little Billy Simpson, age 9, is recovering nicely from his recent injury.  He cut his hand while chopping wood.
~ Sarah Smith, who resides near the fairgrounds, received a package from Chicago by post on Tuesday afternoon.

Andrea and I are fascinated by this column.  The best way I can describe is that it's like a giant list of Facebook status updates, except that the updates were written by someone who's just observing the status.  We tried to imagine what such a column would look like today.

~ The Rogers family visited their son at the state penitentiary on Sunday afternoon.
~ Jenny Thompson feels that the world is vastly unfair.  She has written six poems about it.
~ Rick Holmes and Jeremy Jackson are now friends, despite having never actually met in their lives.
~ Laura Klotz was dogsitting for her parents this past Saturday. 

In other words, Facebook status updates are boring enough to read on Facebook.  At least when you're reading your Facebook, you know the people on your friends list (presumably) and have at least a small interest in what they're doing at a given moment.  Imagine the local newspaper treating Facebook updates like actual news, and publishing them daily for everyone to read.  How did this constitute legitimate reporting?  Did someone actually get paid to spy on the neighbors and regurgitate their findings in the paper?

It's social networking without the actual networking.  I'm not sure it even qualifies as social.

Arguably the funniest thing about "Chat About Your Friends," however, is its location in the paper.  It invariably is found on the same page with the obituaries, which makes the whole thing come across almost like "Here's what your living neighbors are doing...and here are the ones who aren't doing anything anymore."  It manages to straddle the fine line between humorous and creepy.

Upping the weirdness factor, obituaries in the old newspapers weren't always very well organized.  I don't just mean the fact that they were sometimes scattered in between ads for shirtwaists and tapeworms, although trust me when I say that's weird enough on its own.  No, I'm actually referring to the fact that they were sometimes printed in two separate columns.  It's somewhat understandable, since I imagine that back in the days before laser printers and stuff the space in a newspaper was at a premium.  You reached the end of the column, your piece wasn't finished, so you moved up to the top of another column.  Makes sense.

Except that now, remember that the obituaries ran side by side with "Chat About Your Friends."  They sometimes ran into each other.

"Mr. Ogden Thompson of St. John's Court was struck by a vehicle on Thursday evening as he crossed Franklin Street.  He is expected to be survived by his wife Kitty and their three children Arthur, Sam, and Mabel, all at home.  Mrs. Thompson is expecting a large crowd of guests for a picnic this weekend and hopes for favorable weather.  Mr. Thompson will be propped up in a comfortable chair for the duration of the festivities."

Sometimes they bled into those ads, too.

"Calling hours will be Saturday morning at the home of the deceased's son-in-law, Mr. Jacob Hess, followed by interment in the West End Cemetery.  Anyone wishing to make a contribution to the deceased's family in his memory is encouraged to try Johnson's Malt Beer, available only from Schantz's Select Emporium.  It'll put a spring in your step and a smile on your face."

And if you go back far enough, they weren't even on their own page -- they were just scattered around the entire newspaper, interspersed with the actual news.  Most of them were on the same page with "Chat About Your Friends," but others were treated like filler if the front page was in need of copy.  That's how that "HAND OF DEATH" headline came about, in fact; they took five obituaries and turned them into an article, leading in with the explanation that the hand of death had fallen on several well-known persons of the area.  The rest of the obituaries were relegated to the same page with "Chat About Your Friends," since they were evidently not important enough.

Although, to be fair, a large percentage of what was printed on the front page seemed like filler.  I don't think we had any actual news in this region until around 1950.  There's no other way to explain some of the stuff I've found.  The hunt for a farmer's runaway pig was treated like the 1890's version of O. J. Simpson's flight down a California highway.

I had to give up for the day when the obituary for Mrs. Violet Trout appeared alongside the results of a fishing competition.

"Mrs. Trout was a well-respected member of our community.  She taught at the sixth-grade level in our local school for a number of years prior to her marriage, and has served in the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Flagsdale Fire Company.  The fish weighed 9 lbs., 12 oz., and was judged to be the finest trout specimen caught in the history of the contest.  Graveside services will be held at 10 o'clock, followed by a celebratory fish dinner in the winner's honor."

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