One day nearly two years ago, I entered a bookstore in my hometown of Westerly, Rhode Island. I had heard the store would be going out of business soon and wanted to take one last look around. After a few minutes, I came across a tan binder on the bottom shelf that had certainly seen better days. Curiously, the binder was a promotional item for Mel Scheib and Co. Wholesale Plumbing of Rapid City, South Dakota. Flipping through the contents of the binder, I found pages and pages of clippings from local newspapers – The Daily Tribune, The Westerly Sun, and The Westerly News (only the Sun remains in business today) – dating from 16 February 1889 to 24 January 1919.
The binder, I was told, was formerly the property of George H. Stone, the author of many books on North Stonington, a neighboring town in Connecticut. Realizing that my great-great-grandfather had immigrated to Westerly from Italy in 1889, I immediately purchased the binder, viewing it as an opportunity to better understand the world in which my ancestors lived and to truly see the town as they saw it when they first arrived.
Over the next several weeks, I used these newspaper clippings and maps produced by the Sanborn Map and Publishing Company to reconstruct the town as it existed at the turn of the century. Many of the pieces preserved in the binder were advertisements and classified ads, and in many ways, these proved to be just as fascinating as the articles they likely surrounded. In 1889, it was possible to go down to the local pharmacy (Walter Price and Co.) and purchase an ‘Elixir of Life’ which would cure you of ‘a disordered state of the stomach.’ Also fascinating were the ads for photographers such as the Schofield Bros., who specialized in cabinet portraits and utilized the ‘Bromide Process.’
One feature which became apparent as my maps drew close to their completion was that nearly all of the local businesses being advertised were within a concentrated area near the center of town. This was likely due to the lack of automobiles, making travel across town a much more difficult process. Using a town directory from 1901, I found that my great-great-grandfather Natale Bonvenuto lived about half a mile from the heart of town. Most likely he purchased meat at Henderson’s at 38 Main Street and deposited his paychecks at the Mechanics’ Savings Bank of Westerly.
The binder also contained a wide range of advertisements and articles published on 31 December 1899, showing how local businesses and citizens prepared themselves for the dawn of the twentieth century. Many stores advertised significant sales and promised new inventory for 1900. Walking down streets where many of the buildings remain from 1899, you can almost imagine the experience of walking through town and welcoming the new century.
Wanting to know more, I turned to Westerly Memories, a compilation published by The Westerly Historical Society containing articles and essays written by members presenting their vivid memories of the town’s past. The recollections of a woman named Sallie Elizabeth Coy entitled “Christmas at the Turn of the Century” piqued my interest. According to Coy, “Christmas window dressings of the big department stores were not hastily removed on Christmas Eve, to be replaced by signs of mark downs on left-overs.” She then reminisces about a walk through town during the week before Christmas. She recalls that “Everyone walked in those days – no one thought of hitching up a horse at night unless it was an emergency.”
Electric lights had yet to replace the gas street lamps, making it a rather dark journey through town to see the holiday sights. The detail with which Coy describes these events, nearly 70 years after they occurred, suggests how memorable and special holidays could be in Westerly at the turn of the twentieth century. While no two lives share the same experiences, using newspaper clippings and first-hand accounts of life at the end of the nineteenth century offered me powerful images of my hometown in the time of my ancestors.
 Westerly, Rhode Island maps, February 1885 and August 1891, Sanborn Map and Publishing Co., http://sanborn.umi.com/ri/8106/dateid-000001.htm?CCSI=4090n.
 “Advertisement,” Westerly Tribune, 16 February 1889.
 Westerly, Rhode Island, 1901, p. 28 in “U.S. City Directories, 1822-1989,” ancestry.com.
 “Advertisement” The Westerly Sun, 31 December 1899.
 Westerly Historical Society, Westerly Memories (Westerly: Sun Graphics, 1989).
 Ibid., p. 31.
 Ibid., p. 33.