Some random musings on sharing our social lives

Black & white wedding photo, April 28 1920. A double wedding in the Gray family. Ethel Gray (bride standing) married William O'Brien (seated to her right) and Doris Gray (seated) married Fred Wright (standing to her right).

April 28 1920, a double wedding in the Gray family. Ethel Gray (bride standing) married William O’Brien (seated to her right) and Doris Gray (seated) married Fred Wright (standing to her right). Photo courtesy of Peter Duncan.

When the Big T and I attended a wedding on New Year’s Eve, it didn’t take long before photos of the event started to appear on guests’ FaceBook and Twitter feeds — including mine.

FaceBook post documenting a wedding. Su Leslie, 2016

Covering the wedding, FaceBook-style.

At this particular wedding, there was no “official” photographer; instead guests captured the event on their smartphones or cameras, then shared widely,with much tagging, liking and commenting.

It’s an often-made criticism of social media that platforms like FaceBook, Instagram and Twitter are filled with the minutiae of people’s lives; cute pet moments, a new dress or shoes, meals and drinks — what, where and with whom. Events — from kids’ play-dates to weddings — are photographed and shared with friends, family and followers around the world.

For some, this is over-sharing. Too much content spilling, uncensored, into too many other lives. And when we compare this very public exposure of everyday life to how (and with whom) we shared memories even fifteen years ago, it does seem that social media has provided a brand new platform for the public dissemination of trivia.

But it’s not really new. Lately, I’ve been reading newspaper social columns from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For a country with a very small population, New Zealand had a surprisingly large number of newspapers for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of these have been digitised as part of a project called Papers Past, managed by the National Library of New Zealand.

While social columns I’ve seen in more contemporary newspapers seem to focus on major events and on celebrities or prominent people, these earlier papers covered not only the major touchstones in people’s lives — like weddings — but also much less momentous events; parties, kitchen teas, even people visiting friends and family, or going on holiday.


Press, Volume LXXII, Issue 21762, 20 April 1936. Found at Papers Past.

social round from papers past 1

Social column from The Press (Canterbury, NZ); 26 March 1925. Sourced from Papers Past

Accessing this very large and easily searchable archive of newspapers has proved really useful in helping me research my son’s paternal ancestry. The article below, about the marriage of two of the Gray sisters in 1920, has helped confirm familial relationships and put faces to names in the wedding photograph above.


DOUBLE WEDDING AT HORORATA: Star, Issue 19944, 10 May 1920. Image: courtesy of Fairfax Media/Papers Past.

But more than that, the social columns have provided insight into the millieu in which ancestors existed — much as FaceBook, Instagram etc. do today. Sports club memberships, community involvement, even golfing victories and assertions of various ancestors’ “popularity” and attractiveness were all reported  — not to mention (sometimes very detailed) descriptions of the women’s clothing.

Thus I know that the bridesmaids in the photo above were wearing dresses of “vieux rose” (a sort of dusky pink) and “heliotrope” (a pinkish-purple). FaceBook of course, would have provided me with photos, but given variation in lighting and camera quality, these may or not have represented the colours accurately.

The newspapers were also remarkably candid in reporting people’s whereabouts;  presumably with their knowledge and consent. For example …

“Mrs F. G. M. Raymond (Beverley Road) left yesterday on a visit to her mother …”

… seems to my jaded twenty-first century sensibilities practically an invitation to burglars. Most people I know are quite cautious about sharing holiday posts and photos on their social media accounts while they are still away, but perhaps folks were more honest in those days.

Perhaps the biggest difference between old and new is in who decides what is newsworthy.

While I’ve identified a number of ancestors in the Christchurch area during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, only a few families appear in the newspaper social columns. They lived in the Hororata area and would probably be termed “prominent” families.

Whether on FaceBook or in old-fashioned print, newsworthiness is socially constructed. The difference is that the social columns were created by third-parties;  journalists operating in a commercial environment, with time, space and social constraints. In the press, news is what sells papers (and advertising).

By comparison, anyone with a social media account can make their own news — and anyone whose friends or family have an account can, willingly or not, become part of that news.

Screenshot of the blogger's FaceBook profile picture.

#OMG #oneforthealbum. Is this how I’ll be seen by future family historians?


9 thoughts on “Some random musings on sharing our social lives

  1. I have often referred to those old social news bits as the Facebook of their day! They were in all the old US papers also. And I love them! I have been able to learn not only where people were going and living and working, but also who knew who in the family by reading wedding guests lists. And I learned where my great-grandparents met from one of those social news items also!

    Great profile pic, Su! 🙂

  2. Couldn’t agree more. I have found references to my family in Papers Past, in relation to visits to Hororata and elsewhere. There were also references to school prizes, fete competitions; all very small stuff but obviously enjoyed by the newspaper audience of those times. And if the social items weren’t important enough for the newspaper, there was certainly lots of gossip about everyone’s doings. To communicate, to share minutiae, is what we do, and always have done.

  3. I can handle just about anything except pictures of your surgery scar or bloody/broken bones and pictures of your food. Those just don’t interest me in the least. Pictures of you actually cooking your food would be okay.

  4. I didn’t realize that the practice of publishing a “Social Column” was so wide-spread. I thought it was only a peculiarity of small towns.

    When I was researching a couple of family stories in old back issues of my home town newspaper, I was a little stunned by the Social Column. You’re right, of course. I hadn’t thought of it as the Facebook of its day.

    I love the photo of the double wedding. It looks like it was a very elegant affair.

    … then there is Punk Su. Is there a story behind that photo?

    • I think 19th and early 20th century NZ was pretty “small town” on a world scale. Certainly by the time I was a child, it was only local papers that really reported that stuff — unless it was about celebrities.
      I loved finding out about the double wedding; as well as the brides being the Big T’s grandfather’s sisters, one of the grooms was his grandmother’s brother, so the Wright and Gray families have a double connection. Which I guess is very “small-town.”
      The Punk Su … hm. That photo was taken a couple of years ago when we were going to a costume party, but I did look a bit like that “back in the day.”

  5. I love this post. Those old society columns can fill in a lot of blanks if you are lucky enough to have family members who made the column. Some of my family members pretty much avoided records of any kind, including the paper. Darn it!

    I do think one big problem with social media is premature condolences. When someone dies, there needs to be a bit of time before people start mass posting on the grieving loved ones walls. The worst is when extended family members learn of a death from an acquaintance offering their sympathy to a different family member.

    • 🙂 yes, most of my ancestors avoided the social columns by being too poor to be considered “newsworthy.”
      I know what you mean about social media posts being a terrible way to find out about a death in the family. We recently had that experience; and to make it worse the post was quite ambiguous, so we had a difficult few hours trying to find out what had happened so that we didn’t call the bereaved person with condolences only to find we’d misunderstood.

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