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How to Research a Family Business: Newspapers and Trade Journals

Describes resources for researching the history of a business. Guide by Susan Kriete.

Using newspapers to find a business

Newspapers often contain useful information about businesses. They may include notices of leases and other real estate transactions, references to lawsuits, and/or advertisements.

Digitized newspapers can provide an especially useful starting point for researchers lacking basic information, such as where the business was located or what it was named, because they can be searched with whatever bits of information are already known -- an ancestor’s name, the business name, and/or the address. A single piece of information (such as the address) may lead to an article or reference containing additional information about the business.

NYPL provides access to many digitized newspapers through its Articles and Databases page. To see a list of our historic newspaper databases, select “Historical Newspapers” as the subject.

NYPL also holds many additional newspapers on microfilm, including many smaller and/or neighborhood newspapers. Small business may be more likely to advertise in local newspapers. However, since it is not possible to keyword search microfilmed newspapers, and they are not indexed in any way, this is a last resort, needle-in-the-haystack research strategy (unless you know the date of a specific article or advertisement). Lists of the Library's microfilm newspaper holdings are available on NYPL's Microform Reading Room page.

Locating Newspapers

To locate newspapers that are available online or through other repositories, try the following websites:

For more information on finding and searching historic newspapers, you may also want to consult the following NYPL research guides:


Locating and using trade journals

Trade journals, or specialized magazines designed to serve the interests of a specific trade or profession, became very popular in the 19th century.  In addition to all sorts of information about a particular trade, these journals may contain biographies and obituaries, advertisements, news about events in industry, and information on companies, labor relations and politics.

Publication of these journals multiplied rapidly in the latter half of the 19th century. According to noted magazine historian Frank Luther Mott, aside from “bootblacks, nursemaids, and janitors . . . practically every department of human endeavor had its periodical organs by 1885” (A History of American Magazines, 1744-1930, p. 133). To back up this claim, Mott provides examples of trade journals devoted to barbers, undertakers, grocers, pharmacists, military personnel, lumbermen, clay workers, oil riggers, the brick and tile trade, and many others. Whatever trade your ancestor may have toiled at, chances are that at some point there was a journal devoted to it.

Locating Trade Journals

The Library holds a large collection of trade journals, ranging from brewers to ice cream, electricians to executives, music to policing. To locate these titles, try searching our online catalog by keyword or subject using the terms “[name of industry] periodicals” (e.g. Hats -- Periodicals or Stationary Trade – Periodicals). Titles and subject terms can be quite specific and use outdated terms (e.g., “Cloaks – Periodicals”) so it’s worth experimenting with various search terms

NYPL has also digitized a number of pre-1923 trade journals in its collections, which can be accessed through the blog series Digitized Historical Business Periodicals from the Library.

Some trade journals are also freely available online through HathiTrust, Internet Archive and GoogleBooks