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How to read periodicals?

10月.27 2017

Periodicals can contain almost anything. Be prepared to be really surprised when you start looking at old periodical sources. For example, in one issue of the United States Miller, the following were things listed under the heading NEWS OF THE WORLD: “March 1st, 1879, there were 47,009 post offices in the United States; An attempt was made to assassinate the Czar of Russia, April 14th; A pound of oat meal is said to possess as much nutriment as 9 pounds of ham; Nearly eleven million dollars worth of flour were shipped to South America last year;” and the joke: “There is only one miller in Congress. No wonder the old thing grinds slow.”

When reading periodicals, remember . . .

  • Periodicals often contain the earliest written records of important events. They may be as close as you can get in time to the event you are studying.
  • Many periodical sources are written for regional or niche audiences. Periodicals are especially good at recording important local information, including details you will not find in national news sources. For example, the local newspapers published after the Peshtigo fire included stories of personal artifacts (watches, knives, and other belongings) discovered in the fire’s wreckage.
  • Many periodicals include a lot of things that are not preserved anywhere else. Some of these things weren’t considered worthy of being recorded in a more lasting format at the time, but may be useful to you as a researcher.
  • Periodical sources can contain mistakes. Standards of journalism have changed over time, and not all stories are thoroughly fact-checked. Remember that periodical sources are not necessarily one-hundred percent reliable.
  • Be cautious: not all periodicals are written purely to inform or report the facts. Many other motives shape the way that writers tell stories in periodicals as in other sources.

What you can learn from periodicals: The Great Chicago Fire

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is often blamed on Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. The story of a cow kicking over a lantern and setting the city on fire has become a legend as well as the punch line for countless jokes. With a little searching, we discovered that this story came from the first Chicago newspaper article to explain the start of the fire, “The Great Calamity of the Age!,” in the Chicago Evening Journal Extra of October 9, 1871.

At first, we were really excited to have discovered the mythic story in a print source so close to the actual event. Later, however, we came across a 1915 article in the Chicago Daily Tribune titled “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow Story Refuted by Old Reporter.” In this article, a Chicago reporter named Michael Ahern claimed that a man named Jim Haynie had invented the story.


Shortly after, we found another newspaper article, this time from 1921, in which Michael Ahern claimed he himself was the reporter who invented the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over the lamp (“1871 Reporter Writes Story of Great Fire,” Chicago Sunday Tribune, 9 October 1921, sec. 1, pp. 1,3).


(click items above—left column and text to its right—for larger versions)

At that point we felt unsure about almost everything. Had the Mrs. O’Leary story been invented by a reporter? If so, why had Ahern waited until so much later to confess? And which of his confessions was true?

As we continued our research we found (you guessed it!) another helpful periodical source. This one was a scholarly article by Richard Bales, published in the Illinois Historical Journal in 1997. In this article, which later became a book, The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow, Bales uses evidence from hundreds of periodicals to argue that neither of the Ahern confessions are accurate.

Using an issue of the Chicago Daily Journal printed on the fiftieth anniversary of the fire along with published remembrances of it, Bales argues that local children told the reporter assigned to cover the fire (who, by the way, was not Michael Ahern) that the fire had been started by a cow kicking over a lamp.

Phew. Exhausted? We were. So, what can this story teach you about how to use periodicals? Here are some ideas:

  • Be cautious about how much you trust any single periodical source, even if it is very near in time and space to the events it describes.
  • Do not stop searching when you have found one source. Compare what you have found in one source to what appears in other sources. Do not make a claim based on any single source without finding support for it elsewhere.
  • Not all of your sources will agree with all of your other sources. This is frustrating, but it can make your search more exciting.
  • When sources disagree, you will have to make some judgments in deciding whom you will believe and why, and then justify these decisions in making your argument.
  • Even if a source is not true, it might still be useful. Even though we cannot verify the popular story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, it can still teach us something about history. Since newspaper stories at the time portrayed Mrs. O’Leary as a stereotypical Irish immigrant, you might choose to explain the story’s popularity by connecting it to anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment and anxiety about immigrants. Or you could argue that it is an example of the public’s need to find a scapegoat (or in this case, a scapecow) to explain why bad things happen.