Old newspapers provide key to time travel

Oct 26, 2014

Credit bgfons.com

Time travel has been the focus of many a story over the years and recently was in the news with reports about American scientists investigating its possibility during WW II. Michael Crichton explored the concept in his novel Timeline, which required rearrangement of participants’ molecules. Both of these examples are too daring for me, but I’ve found a way to safely journey through time that’s safe for my students and me. All it requires is access to old newspapers, which are available at a local library.

My introduction to exploring the past via microfilm was my master’s project. I studied the history of Ellis schools and discovered a treasure trove of additional information available in those little canisters of film. I learned about the first library, fire department, and street bricking. Spinning through those little reels introduced me to not only the first schools and teachers but also declamation societies and fancy dinners and dances. I discovered Teddy Roosevelt campaigned locally. Reports of murders and natural catastrophes as well as support for victims intrigued past readers just as they do today.

Once I found this resource, I had to share it with my students.  I created a research scavenger hunt tied to a personal interview or study of an individual’s diaries and letters so my kids could scour the past to help them better understand not only their lives but also their communities.

Depending on the year they studied, Ellis and Thunder Ridge pupils discovered dates their towns got electricity and indoor plumbing. They were surprised to learn that early phone numbers contained only two or three digits. Analyzing costs of living created culture shock. The idea you could buy four or five gallons of gas for a dollar was novel. Local groceries advertising rib-eye steaks for 53 cents a pound and a gallon of milk for less than 20 cents made them long for the past until they found out what the average annual salary was. Once they learned that people earned much less, they didn’t long so much for the good ol’ days.

In a day when fewer people traveled great distances to shop or seek entertainment, towns like ours offered movie theaters, skate rinks, and bowling alleys, as well as several grocery stores and hotels. Students were surprised to discover how many services were available locally just a few decades ago. In discussions generated by their research, they analyzed why rural communities can’t support as many businesses today. They also understand that modern transportation makes it easier to jaunt to a nearby city where they have more selection.

The interview component of their assignment personalized their research. These teens visited with elders to learn what life was like for them.  If their chosen individual had passed on, they could read diaries and letters to answer their questions. One student met her great-grandmother born in 1922 this way. As she poured through old documents, she found grade school autograph books and entries in diaries regarding dating pre-WW II style. During the war, her grandma recorded a night when her community pulled their black out curtains as a security measure.

Other students discovered marriage during Depression years often meant young couples honeymooned by visiting relatives and returned to share a home with parents. Pre-antibiotic and pre-vaccine eras meant death frequently visited families. They also discovered ways people pulled together to accomplish work and enjoy good times.

Reading their reflections completed following this assignment allowed me to see that old newspapers and diaries have a broad appeal. Several students commented they’d found a new love for history. Almost everyone acknowledged that they gained an appreciation for those who lived in our towns before we did.