How to be a Boss at Research - Part 2

Mar 15, 2017 10 comments
How to be a Boss at Research Part 2:  Where to find those pesky primary sources from (mostly) the comfort of your own home! (For Review: Part 1)

Hey Ya'll! Abby here again!

So after the first post I'm sure a number of you are thinking, "Alright then, so where can I find these “primary” sources Miss Hoity-Toity Smarty Pants?"

It’s a fair question, and it’s a bit of a pain in the bum, I agree with you on this. I have missed my access to databases after leaving Colonial Williamsburg and University, but there are options for those of us who don't have access to the same databases as museum professionals and academics do.

However, with that being said...maybe you do want the same kind of access that college professors and grad students can be done. There are two different ways to go about it. One is going to be more successful than others..

Your Local University Library

Though you usually cannot get remote access from your home to your local Uni’s databases unless you’re an enrolled student, almost all University libraries are open and free to the public when you’re on campus. You can get a free guest login for their computers, and then a whole new world will be opened to you. For eighteenth-century research there are several databases that are extraordinarily helpful: Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), Burney Papers Collection (Historic British Newspapers), America’s Historic Newspapers, Accessible Archives, and more. Most universities that have a moderately successful history department should have at least some of these databases that you can search for free. If you bring a USB stick, you can spend a day saving whole books or parts of documents about your subject to look through later. If you’re worried that your local University library wont let you in, just look up their website on the internet before making the trek over to find out for sure…or if you’re not a millennial who hates talking on the phone…just call them up and ask!

Your Local Library

This will probably be more successful if you are near a larger city (like Boston), but some will also have access to databases like the ones I mentioned above. It’s just a case by case basis. It’s up to you to find out if they have access to these databases or not.

Oh really? Well then, you should come sit next to me on the couch, and I'll tell you all about it....

But what about if you don't want to/can't make it to the University library and your local library is a bust, too?

It's ok! There are databases on the internet. Right now. For you to look through! Below is a quick list that I have come up with. All but one is a free database - which is awesome! Also, if you know of other searchable databases please share them in the comment section below and I will add them to this list!

1. (It's great for 19th century. All of Ackermann’s Repository is on here, Godey's Lady's Books, tons of Victorian and Edwardian Dressmaking and Tailoring manuals…as is the 1990s version of Oregon Trail….)  $Free

2. The Old Bailey Records - This is a database of all the court proceedings from London’s Old Bailey (17th century - 20th). It is really helpful for finding out the cost of some things, what was commonly stolen, and some unique quirks of the different social classes in England. Some court proceedings are a bit brutal to read, just a forewarning. This is a favorite for a lot of reenactors because of its easy to use interface and accessibility.  However, I would caution using it as your sole point of reference, which I have noticed is becoming more and more common with reenactors, and I find this a bit troubling. It is a great resource, yes, but it should not be your only resource.  $Free

3. Larsdatter's List of Runaway Ad Databases - This is someone else’s collection of different runaway slave and servant advertisement databases that range throughout the Colonies in the 18th century. With runaway advertisements…it’s kind of like the Old Bailey, but even more specific. They are an excellent reflection of a certain social class during this time period, and you need to keep this in mind when you are working on your outfit/character development/etc., but they are not the end all be all for all social levels. Nonetheless, these advertisements often include stolen articles, and so they are going to use common language and descriptions to help get their stolen goods back as best as they can. It can be an excellent way to learn terminology. $Free

4. Google Books. Seriously. Try it. When I was doing my hair research, I was able to stumble across a TON of primary source books on the subject matter. There are even a few Lady’s Magazines on here too. Searching can be a bit fussy, but just keep trying different key words, you can find some amazing primary documentation here! $Free

5. Newspaper Archive - Though you can get free access to this database if you’re near the right library, you can also sign up for a private subscription so you can fight with this beast in your own home. I was a member for a while, and I found some great articles in here when I was researching milliners and mantua-makers in the Midwest during the early 1800s. I did find it to be a massive pain in the backside to work with though. $Paid Subscription

6. Bunka Gakuen Library's Digital Archive of Rare Materials  Here is where you can find the entire Gallery of Fashion from 1794 to the early 1800s, as well as other great resources. You can search by century, too, so it’s actually pretty easy to use once you make sure everything is in English. Warning: Like so many other searchable websites, it can be a bit fussy at times. $Free

While there are probably more “Free” Databases on the web that I have missed (Like I said earlier - if you know of any please share in the comments!) this should be a good “starter” game plan for you to go off and start doing your own research! Next, we need to talk about how to use these primary source databases, how to understand them, and some precautions as well.

....Uh huh...sure...


  1. Data base for french, german or austro-hungarian fashion journals from the late 18th c. to the belle epoque (with pattern sheets!): ; La Sylphide mid-victorian era french fashion magazine source: ; The Warsaw university library's online collection of polish fashion magazines in the 19th century and belle epoque (search for Tygodnik Mód, Mody Paryzkie, these are with pattern sheets!): ; And Frank Leslie's ladies book: ; and Peterson's Magazine: sources in digital collections.

    1. I second Hathi Trust, the search engine for keywords within each book is excellent.

  2. Maybe less applicable if you don't speak the language (Dutch), but the website '' has the fashion magazine De Gracieuse online, 1860 through 1910 I believe. Thanks for the other links, I ll definitely look into them!

  3. If you speak German you can find "Der Bazar" (1857-1898) in German here:

    Unlike the Dutch website there aren't that many actual pattern sheets, but the magazine scans are very high quality. "De Gracieuse" took most (if not all?) of it's contents from this German magazine.

  4. Great resources Abby, thanks for sharing these! I work for the company that provides America's Historic Newspapers, as well as several other awesome digital data bases for libraries and universities, and have been able to research a variety of topics on my own time. As much as I enjoy thumbing through old documents it SOOOOO nice to be able to type in a few key phrases and a date range for search results! Primary sources for the win!!

  5. Thanks for sharing! Here's another one. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France. A favorite of mine is the scans of the 1785 and 1786 Cabinet des modes, ou les Modes nouvelles. The website is in french, but easy to navigate. I have included a link to the Cabinet des modes. The scans of this, unfortunately, are in black and white, but still great!


    1. *Some of the scans are in black and white. Oops typo!

  6. The antique pattern library is great for needlework patterns.

  7. One quick tip--if you live in a university town, you *may* have access to a library card to their libraries so you can use databases remotely, too. It's not universal, but most locals don't know that this is an option. This will get you remote access to databases, interlibrary loan, all kinds of goodies usually reserved for students, staff, and faculty. Ask!


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