The main source, at least the one with the widest reach, for exploring old newspapers, and a fantastic source for exploring the history of steel pens is newspapers.com.
This site is tightly connected to Ancestry.com. (another good source we’ll look at in a future post) They host over 320+ million pages in over 5,600 newspapers from mainly the US, but also some foreign newspapers.
The newspapers range in date from the 18th-century on up. Not everything is here, but an awful lot of useful information can be found on the site. What you find has a broader range than American Stationer. You find more local information from around the country than in the New-York-based American Stationer. The site contains many small-town newspapers in which local stationers would often advertise, or local governments would place notices of requisitions for supplies, which gives you a decent idea of who is using what pens. You can even sometimes find snippets of information on which traveling salesmen from what companies have checked into the local hotel.
There are some quirks to the searching and viewing of results that you need to get used to. Once I search, as I look at results, I always right click the result to view in a separate tab. If you don’t, and try to go back and forth, it doesn’t always come back to the same place you left in your list of results.
Once you find something of interest, you use the simple, but effective, clipping tool to make a clipping of the article. Once you save it, then you can view the clipping, share it, download it (as a pdf), print it, or add it to an ancestry.com person. You can go back and look at your clippings at any time simply by clicking on “Clippings.”
The clipping works great, and allows you to title the clipping and even add a slightly longer description if you want. The only real limitation to the clippings are that you cannot group or organize your clippings in any way. The best you can do is sort them by date you clipped, or date of the newspaper (oldest first, or newest first). This helps when getting a timeline view of things, but it makes it harder when you either use the site to search for different projects, or your subject spans across time with lots of other clippings in between. I tend to name my clippings by the year and then the key name I was searching. So, for the following ad, I titled the clipping 1842 – C.C. Wright American steel pens”
As they add new pages every month, it’s useful to save your main searches and they will send you an email when there are more results for that search. Sometimes it’s useful, and sometimes not, but it’s always worth checking it out.
Newspapers.com does require a subscription. If you do any amount of research, I don’t think you’ll regret it. I have suggested to them an ability to sort, group, tag or in some way to organize your clippings. We’ll see if they add it in a future release.
I have 748 clippings at the moment. Most are for pens, but I also have a number for family history, odd things I run across, and other interests.
Those clippings for early pens have allowed me to go back further, and to discover other makers, like C.C. Wright above, who have been forgotten in the few histories of the early American steel pen industry which were written in early times. Without newspapers.com I would not know a fraction of what I’ve discovered about the early period of American steel pens. (1800-1860)
Another good site is the Library of Congresses, Chronicling America. The site has information on a lot of historic newspapers (up to 1943), and a fair number of digitized pages which are fully searchable.
Instead of the “clipping” capability of newspapers.com, you can zoom in on an article and take a “picture” of it (the little scissors icon in the top), or you can save the whole page as a jpg or text, or a pdf with hidden text behind it for searching.
The quality of the scans are very good considering most came from microfilm. At least they’re of high resolution.
Newspapers.com has a wider selection of papers, and their interface and ability to cut and save clippings is very well-done. (though I’d like to be able to sort and organize my clippings instead of having them dumped into one big sortable pile.) But they are a subscription service and cost money. Chronicling American is free.
It’s a good idea to search both, because there are a few papers in Chronicling America that aren’t in newspapers.com. Either way, you’ll find some interesting information in the old papers.