19th century primary sources: books, magazines, and directories


Call me strange, but I love to do research.   It’s like a scavenger hunt:  one source leads you to another, which leads you to…a dead end.  Then you have to pick a different trail to follow.  Like you other researching folks out there, I have a ton of bookmarks and tags, but only directly use a fraction of what I find when writing a novel.  It’s tempting to use more, but it would clutter up the story.  It’s not supposed to be a treatise on how clever I am at research.  The rest I squirrel away, hoping it will be useful later.

Here are a few of my favorites, from the 19th century:


The 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Company Catalogue.

Sears offers a treasure trove of goods, from abdominal corsets to Zulu guns.  The pictures are hand-drawn, and include plenty of written descriptions.  The catalog gives one a sense of the products, fashions, and items needed in day-to-day 19thc life.  We also encounter the terminology and turns of phrase in use at the time.  Check back here next week, when I’ll be posting entries from the Sears catalog advertising personal “enhancement” products.  They are a hoot.






Victorian Fashions & Costumes from Harper’s Bazar, 1867-1898, Stella Blum, ed.

These are fashion plates from Harper’s Bazaar Magazine, and organized into various fashion decades:  “Bustles and Puffs,” “Natural Form and Cuirass,” “Return of the Bustle,” and “Hourglass Figure.”  The descriptive captions are original to the plates, and there is a helpful glossary of terms.  Good thing – anyone know what a cuirass is?

American Victorian Costume in Early Photographs, Priscilla Harris Dalrymple.

This collection has the benefit of being actual photographs, rather than sketches.  It too is divided into decades of the 19th century, with ample captions to explain the fashion trend details.


Geer’s Hartford Directory, 1896.  Not only does it contain names, addresses, and phone numbers; the advertisements are interesting as well.

Historical Sketch of the Police Service of Hartford, 1636-1901, Thomas S. Weaver.  It’s loaded with photographs, rosters, and humorous anecdotes of criminals and policemen.


The Book of Household Management, by Mrs. Beeton.  It went through numerous editions, but the one available  digitally is from 1888.  In addition to overall background for my novels, I’ve used it in several posts, especially this one.







Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Amherst, Hampshire, UMass – what a terrific resource this is.  Class lists, course descriptions, architectural and fund-raising decisions, events, and so on.

The New York Times archive (see right-hand column, labeled “History Links”):  if you’re looking for anything published in this newspaper from 1851 or later, just about all of it is available for free.  (A few items cost a small fee).  A lot of Flashback Friday material comes from this source.

The Library of Congress, “Chronicling America” project: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.  A lot of U.S. newspapers have been digitized here.  The search feature is a bit clumsy, though.

In addition, if you are fortunate enough to have free access to Proquest (sadly I do not), there are numerous nineteenth century magazines available, including:  Godey’s Lady’s Book, Collier’s, etc.

What have you run across that you find useful?  I’d love to hear from you!

Happy hunting!

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4 thoughts on “19th century primary sources: books, magazines, and directories”

  1. RonRon

    Great website and a wealth of research info.-terrific job..Ron

  2. Julie GloverJulie Glover

    I could swear that I have seen a TV show or movie with the story of Mrs. Beeton. It was fascinating about the development of her book on household management. Great resources!

  3. Matthew WrightMatthew Wright

    Awesome collection of sources – thanks for posting! It’s amazing what is coming up on the web now of out-of-copyright stuff from the 19th century. Or what you can sometimes find. When I was a kid, my mother had an edition of Mrs Beeton, I forget which edition but it was probably later than 1888. Still a pretty old book, though.

    Matthew Wright


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