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Feature Article: Family History Clue Found in Old Bicycle Ad

Did they really give bicycles away for free?


Chicago Herald (Chicago, Illinois), 17 May 1891, page 27.

That's what the Western Pearl Company claimed in this 1891 newspaper advertisement. Even now you see ads saying that a certain company will give you a valuable object or service for free. The company is doing this only for the value of the advertising.

Ads often include testimonials—but are they using real people?

This free bicycle ad claims to show an Arthur Tobin of 4721 Kimbark Avenue in the Kenwood section of Chicago. Was Arthur just an invented character or was he a real boy who really did receive a free bike?

Let's research his name and address and see if we can answer this question.

A quick search of GenealogyBank's historical newspaper archives shows that a Tobin family did live at that address. Here is the obituary of Arthur's grandfather Charles C. Parish. Notice that the funeral was held at their home: 4721 Kimbark Avenue.


Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), 23 February 1888, page 8.

Good information here. The funeral was held "at the residence of his daughter, Mrs. S. C. Tobin." Internment was at Rose Hill Cemetery, so we can follow up by looking for more information there.

And, notice that last line: "Northampton, Mass., and Kenosha [Wisconsin] papers please copy."

More good clues—clearly there were relatives in both of those cities.

A quick check of the 1900 Census (FamilySearch.org see: https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/MS73-M3K) shows that there was a son named Arthur Tobin living in Samuel and Flora Tobin's household.


But is it the Arthur Tobin of the free bicycle ad?


Viewing the original census page gives us the answer: this Arthur Tobin was indeed living at 4721 Kimbark Avenue, just as the ad claimed.

The Arthur Tobin featured in the 1891 free bicycle ad was a real person!

The 1900 Census gives us additional information about the Tobin family:
  • The "S. C. Tobin" mentioned in Charles C. Parish's obituary was Samuel C. Tobin, Arthur's father.

  • The daughter mentioned in the obituary was S. C. Tobin's wife, Flora P. Tobin.

  • Did that "P" in Flora's name stand for her maiden name, Parish? Not too quick—we don't want to jump to conclusions. Notice the last listing in the 1900 Census for S. C. Tobin's mother-in-law: Flora's mother, Rosamond Parish. Her middle initial was also "P." Hmm. They both had the middle initial "P," so we'll want to track down exactly what their middle names were.

The last line of Charles C. Parish's obituary read: "Northampton, Mass., and Kenosha [Wisconsin] papers please copy." Since the 1900 Census tells us that both Flora and Rosamond were born in Massachusetts, perhaps the family was originally from Northampton—and perhaps there are still family members living there. We'll want to see why the newspaper editor called attention to those two cities.

So, as this story illustrates, you never know what part of a newspaper will provide a valuable clue to help you track down part of your family history. In this case, we found Arthur Tobin's "image" in an 1891 free bicycle advertisement that also gave his name and street address. A search on that information turned up his grandfather's obituary that in turn allowed us to confirm that we had the correct "Arthur Tobin" by finding his address in the 1900 Census. From that we learned the family's ages and places of birth, with clues that there are additional relatives that lived/or are currently living in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Arthur Tobin, his free bike, and his home address of 4721 Kimbark Avenue in Chicago—interesting how those simple clues can lead to the rest of the story.

Genealogy Research Tip: Be creative in searching GenealogyBank and look for family history clues everywhere—you never know where one will turn up.

I can't help but wonder: whatever happened to Arthur's free bicycle?

Was this a story passed down in the family?