Finding that Needle in the Haystack: The Power of Full Text Searching in Chronicling America

Imagine scrolling through the microfilm reels, at your local library, hoping to uncover that one small mention on your research topic: a name, an event, a place. Perhaps, discovering that one piece of information takes hours, days, or more…Now, imagine, going to your home computer, visiting Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, and plugging your search term and Bam! there are dozens if not hundreds of articles on the topic with which you are interested. Chronicling America can save hours of research time, with the help of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software which scans the digitized newspapers and makes those millions of words on historical newspaper pages leap forth with full text searching capability.

Here are a few searches with which our friends and colleagues have asked us for help, lately. I thought I’d share them with you, as they are all great examples that demonstrate the power of full text searching in Chronicling America.

 Searching for Information for an Archaeological Site Find

We found lots of information on a bottle which was found in an archaeological context in Louisiana

An archaeologist I know recently sent me a text message with an attached photo he had taken in the field. He wrote: “Here’s a challenge for your newspaper project. I found this bottle today while surveying in Louisiana and want to find out more about it. It says ‘Pa-poose Root Beer Extract. Made in New Orleans.‘ Do you think you can find anything about it for me in Chronicling America?”

I tried a simple search in Chronicling America for the brand name of the bottle he provided. I tried searching All States and entered “Papoose Root Beer” into the search box on the home page. Eureka! I came up with 141 results between 1906 and 1922 (remember 1922 is our cut off date).

Here’s the earliest advertisement of this product that I found, in the Palestine daily herald. (Palestine, Tex. 1902-1949), April 20, 1906.

And the latest…The herald. (New Orleans, La. 1905-1953), September 28, 1922.                                                                                          

Papoose Root Beer Extract advertisement, published in The herald (New Orleans, L.A.) circa 1922.

 These ads tell a great deal about this artifact: the inventor’s name, the general dates of manufacture (1889 until at least 1922), where it was manufactured and places it was bottled, its intended purpose as “a delicious beverage and Blood Purifier” and much more.  The 1922 advertisement even provides an image of the product packaging, a detail not often found in an archeological context. My archaeologist friend replied “Thanks! This is totally awesome! I was even able to download the pictures to my phone so I can share this with others.” As you can see, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers will be a powerful research tool for historical archaeologists who wish to conduct research on artifacts that they uncover!

Sifting Through Search Results to Find that Needle in a Haystack

The circa 1951 replica of the SC Sword of State

A colleague at one of the special collections libraries here at the University of South Carolina recently asked us at SCDNP for assistance in using Chronicling America. A SC state government employee had contacted him seeking information on the physical description of the Sword of the State, a ceremonial sword carried into Statehouse Senate Chambers by the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate, which is laid at the rostrum while the Senate is in session. The original sword, crafted in the early 18th century in Charleston, S.C., was stolen in 1941 from the State House and remains at large to this day. Britain graciously gifted a replica in the 1950s which is used today.

This search wasn’t quite so easy as the bottle query. I tried searching “Sword of the State” limiting the search to “South Carolina” with few results. I kept playing around with the search terms, entering them into the various search boxes available in Advanced Search. You can perform Advanced Searches using the With Any of These Words, With All These Words, With the Phrase, and the Within 5 Words of Each Other (or 10, 50, etc.) search boxes. I retrieved the best results searching “sword of state” within 5 words of each other and limiting the search to South Carolina newspapers only.

Circa 1902 article in The watchman and southron (Sumter, S.C.) mentions the original sword of state scabbard was monogrammed with a "W.M."

After sifting through many articles that were retrieved but which were not relevant to the task at hand, I found a mention in an article noting a physical characteristic of the sword of state. This article, published in The watchman and southron (Sumter, S.C.), notes that the Sword of State was on display at an Exposition in 1902 and had an accompanying scabbard with a curiously monogrammed “W.M.” on it! Another article mentioned that the sword of state was double edged. Perhaps one day small clues like these will aid in the identification and return of South Carolina’s original Sword of State!

                                                                                                                                           Finding historical primary source materials on African-Americans

South Carolinian, Kelly Miller, was the first African-American student admitted to John Hopkins University and later became the Dean of Mathematics at Howard University

On another occasion, a colleague here at the University of South Carolina remarked that he was having little luck searching for information in traditional resources on Kelly Miller. Kelly Miller, a native South Carolinian,  was the first African-American student admitted to Johns Hopkins University and who later became the Dean of Mathematics at Howard University. So, I thought this might be another opportunity to flex Chronicling America’s searching muscles and see if we could find good results. Again, remarkably, there was a tremendous list of primary source historical newspaper articles to be read in Chronicling America! I performed a simple search for “Kelly Miller” and searched All States. While it appears that neither white nor African-American historical SC newspapers reported on Dr. Miller, he was a leading figure in America in the early 20th century on issues of race and African-American advancement. A contemporary of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois, Dr. Miller was covered in hundreds of articles in newspapers digitized in Chronicling America.

Got a research question? Maybe we can help you find what you are looking for in Chronicling America. Comment here and let us know!

To learn more about the South Carolina Digital Newspaper Program, visit us at

This entry was posted in Articles, Tips for Chronicling America and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.