See centuries of ‘time machines on paper’ at journalism exhibition –

When we think of old newspapers, we often picture tiny gray type that begs for a giant magnifying glass.

But 100 years ago, newspapers also printed beautiful artwork that took up full pages. Bright strips of comics wrapped the outside, and special sections celebrated culture.

In 1902, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat’s magazine section announced “The Easter Hat Is Almost Here” with colored drawings of fancy toppers.

Five years later, the same paper had a full-page, color illustration of immigrants laying railroad tracks. The hand-lettered headline says, “St. Louis Newcomers From Italy.”

It alludes to the kind of story that is still written today, describing both the city’s changing population and showing how it attracts new arrivals.

These pages and hundreds more — both gray and in color — are on display at the St. Louis Mercantile Library’s “Headlines of History: Historic Newspapers of St. Louis and the World Through the Centuries.” The exhibit officially opens Monday and will be on display for two years.


Headlines of History Exhibition at the St. Louis Mercantile Library

Dewey Defeats Truman, Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 3, 1948

Billed as the city’s first extensive newspaper exhibit, it includes some 750 items, from original pages (“Dewey Defeats Truman” and “Men Walk on Moon”) to Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of Joseph Pulitzer and the Post-Dispatch’s collection of gold medals for Pulitzer Prizes in public service. Photos, comics, paintings and even some literary magazines round out the show.

Regularly called the “first rough draft of history,” newspapers still record history, but they also are history. The Globe-Democrat has been gone since 1986. A national museum in Washington, now 20 years old, has drawn millions of visitors to witness, in part, the profession’s past and to learn about First Amendment rights.

Echoing the Monty Python character, however, the medium’s “not dead yet.” Washington’s Newseum posts online the front pages of some 900 newspapers every day.

And when it comes to breaking news, such as the tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas, internet rumors and Facebook links are verily trounced by professional reporting published both online and in daily print.

The Mercantile exhibit, though focused on the past, acknowledges the present. “In a banner headline’s authoritative presence one sees history in the making,” library director John N. Hoover writes. An example of recent “history”: “Hail and farewell: Rock legend Chuck Berry dies at 90.”

That Post-Dispatch report from March “now is a part of a centuries-old newspaper collection, joining other very special time machines on paper that had come to the Mercantile,” Hoover writes in the exhibit’s catalog.

Library’s quest

Founded in 1846, the Mercantile Library is the oldest surviving library west of the Mississippi River. Newspapers have always been part of its collection.

“The reading room was filled with them. Newspapers were always considered the bedrock of the information a library would want to get out to its readers,” says Hoover, who has been the library director for more than 30 years.

St. Louis had 18 to 20 daily papers in the mid-19th century, he says. “It was a different kind of internet age.” A curious Mercantile patron would also have access to papers from England, France and Germany, along with other major U.S. cities.

The Mercantile Library, which patrons joined by subscription, was for decades on Locust Street downtown. Now, it is in the Thomas Jefferson Library of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. A subscription is no longer required, although the library of rare and historic material still loves people to become members.

By the 1870s, Hoover says, St. Louis readers would not have waited long for out-of-state reports. It was the height of the industrial age, and with railroad and steamboat travel, newspapers from other cities were often less than a week old.

Some of the historic artifacts in the exhibit are a 1675 issue of the London Gazette, a 1641 “extra” from France, and a 1776 printing of the Declaration of Independence in The Pennsylvania Ledger. The Pennsylvania paper, which had been loyal to England’s king, soon went out of business.


Headlines of History Exhibition at the St. Louis Mercantile Library

Missouri Gazette, July 26, 1808

The oldest known copy of a Missouri newspaper is the Missouri Gazette from July 26, 1808. It was published in English and French by Joseph Charless.

There are newspapers from the frontier (including The Pioneer and The Western Settler), the Latter Day Saints (the Times and Seasons of Nauvoo tells about the death of Joseph Smith) and the Civil War (the Rolla Daily Express reports in 1861 the proclamation of martial law at the federal army’s local headquarters in St. Louis).

The exhibit includes examples of German-language papers here and the predecessors of the Globe-Democrat and Post-Dispatch, the longest lived papers of record in St. Louis.

Digital vs. print

After the Globe-Democrat folded, Hoover jumped at the chance to acquire its photo and story files. He estimates the library holds 500,000 photos and 10 million clips of stories. The resources are among the most-requested items at the Mercantile.

“When the Mercantile acquired the clipping files and morgue in 1987, the phone started ringing and never stopped,” he says.

The library is working on digitizing more of the Globe items; much of the paper was already on microfilm. In 2001, the Mercantile also obtained bound original editions of the Post-Dispatch that had been sitting in the paper’s humid basement.

“Bit by bit, piece by piece,” Hoover says, the Mercantile, State Historical Society of Missouri and other institutions, such as universities and the Missouri Historical Society, are collecting, rescuing, preserving and digitizing “the newspaper heritage of the city.”

“Thankfully a handful of other great historical libraries across the nation continue to rescue newspapers from dusty paper shards and graying microfilm, but the process takes time and continual effort and resolve by many hands,” he says. “Newspapers are our first love.”

These efforts make more newspapers available online in open access settings like the Mercantile.

But — and this is a big “but”: Hoover has no plans to pitch original print editions, and he bemoans libraries that have.

For one thing, the Mercantile is a rare book library, so it “believes in the object and the artifact,” he says. “There is nothing more expressive than to use the paper object and focus on how people originally presented the information.”

For another, microfilm records are in black and white, and some newspaper pages, with their folds and creases, can be hard to read.


Early Post-Dispatch comics page

Early comics page (1906) in the Post-Dispatch.

The technology wasn’t as good as the analog, Hoover says. “Newspapers as artifacts allow one to look more closely at color, sections and comics.” Seeing how a page is presented supplies information beyond an individual story online.

Hoover wants “at least a few libraries to carry the torch and keep the original object, which allows scholars a clearer picture of what was presented in the past.”

The newspaper exhibit is one of four that Hoover has planned that require large space and plenty of exhibition cases.

The library previously showed off its historic maps. It followed with its Audubon book and other natural history artifacts. After the newspaper exhibit, Hoover wants to display Americana, he says.

But in the meantime, there are programs to plan and a lot to see, even if the newspapers on display are only part of the library’s 1.5 million editions.

“It will take people several times to visit us,” Hoover says, “and we hope they will.”


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