Why Collect Old Newspapers?

A Collector Information Web Page Provided by
Phil Barber, Cambridge, Mass. 02139 Telephone (617) 492-4653

I doubt whether any contemporary expression of printed opinion and fact, both for local and national history, measures up to the newspaper...even the advertisements have unique value in social and economic study. In the wider fields of history, the whole trend of events is reported at regular intervals, in the printing of documents and letters, in the arguments of partisan communications, and in editorial opinion. If all printed sources of history had to be destroyed save one, that which would be chosen with the greatest certainty of its value to posterity would be a file of an important newspaper. -Clarence Brigham, in History and Bibliography of American Newspapers 1690 to 1820.

Newspapers Are History

Old newspapers are a unique resource in reconstructing the past, for on the pages of each is preserved nothing more or less than the events deemed newsworthy, of one single day of history. Newspapers exercised a profound influence in the United States since their beginning three hundred years ago. With freedom of the press legally guaranteed by 1791, the papers kept the people informed of current events to a degree unprecedented in any other nation. With little official restraint on their content, newspapers form a reasonably faithful record of what actually happened, and how events were perceived by those who experienced them. In time the newspapers of America evolved into crusaders against injustice and the "tocsin of the people," in Jefferson's words, against the charlatans that occasionally occupy public office. Their impact on our history, when they were the only communications medium, cannot be overstated.
It is worthy of note that societies reveal themselves most completely through their popular culture. You will find a world view radically different from that of modern Americans expressed in the popular journalism of the past - a world view in which some attitudes toward war and peace, courage and honor, life and death, emotions and sentiment, and other peoples and nationalities may strike us as odd, parochial, or even, at times, repugnant. Yet if we are to understand other cultures, including the distant land of our own past, we can do no better than to listen to them speaking in their own words, and refrain from assessing them as if they were part of our own society's social and value systems.

Newspapers Are Educational

To read the old papers today is to read history just as it was taking place, uncolored by later perspective or interpretation; there is no finer way to experience the reality of the past. The collector can find eyewitness accounts of our well-known heroes, and what they did to earn the high opinion of their contemporaries. You may get to know the many overlooked heroes -and heroines- and their deeds of courage that still serve as powerful examples of the best in the human spirit and in the American tradition. This can be especially true of the aspects of our history that have been suppressed, for example, the struggle for women's rights, the battle for fair labor practices, the tragic chronicle of the native Americans, and in African American studies. The drama and richness of these neglected struggles now join with the more well-known episodes in the unending quest for freedom that defines the American experience. And nothing brings to life the flavor of life in the past than the newspapers of the past, with all their faithful recording of the smallest details of lives gone by, of attitudes, values, interests, and beliefs.
It can be quote striking to realize that if a familiarity with the realities of our past virtually guarantees nothing else, it is that our own most cherished convictions about who we are, or ought to be, in this brief moment of present time, will surely appear as incomprehensible, or quaint, or simply mistaken, to our descendants as the attitudes of our ancestors can seem to us today.

Newspapers Are Fun

Collecting old newspapers can be an enjoyable family hobby. Many collectors loan their old newspapers to their sons and daughters, for remarkably effective "show and tell" school projects. The reports in the old newspapers make the history of our nation come to life with often stunning immediacy, adding the human dimension so often lacking in history texts. To read, for example, of the horror and grief that swept the nation when Abraham Lincoln was murdered is virtually to be there, experiencing the unfolding drama just as it occurred. An interesting perspective on our own time can be obtained by understanding how people perceived their own times, too. It is an essential part of human nature to view the past as somehow radically different than the present, either so much better, or so much worse, than the moment of history that we are experiencing personally. When you read a few old papers you realize that these men and women were no different than you and I, in their wants, their dreams, their hopes, and their sorrows.

Newspapers Are An Affordable Collectible

Because newspaper collecting is a relatively new hobby, prices of most old newspapers are quite modest. A collector of moderate means can assemble a high quality collection at a relatively small cost, far less than attempting to acquire material of comparable significance in the more established hobbies such as coin and stamp collecting. It is not impossible to acquire a newspaper which is the only surviving specimen of its title and date, and in beautiful condition, for less than $10. Imagine the price tag on a stamp or coin of which there is only a single extant specimen!

What is "History" Anyway?

Historians delight in telling us what our history is and what it means. The documentarian, on the other hand, as often delights in recording and conveying the simple fact that we have had a history at all: that there was once a time when people looked like this, or sounded like that, or felt these ways about such things. -Ken Burns, Introduction to The Civil War
In recent decades a new idea of exactly what "history" is, and what it means, had developed in historical studies. Critical, analytical history is a phenomenon of twentieth century scholarship; before this time some historians accepted at face value the accounts that important men supplied of their motivations and actions, and reported them within their own cultural, religious, and ethnic biases. Today there is a new precision and respect for accuracy in studying the past, and for understanding it in the context of economics, psychology, and the myriad of other social sciences which have become so sophisticated in recent decades.

The leisure and access to instititutions of higher learning that led men into careers in history were formerly available only to members of America's most affluent classes. These men duly reported our past in the context of their class perspectives and prejudices. It is quite startling to read 19th century historians' dismissal of fellow Americans as ignorant rabble, controlled by their emotions. In the post World War II period, FDR's progressive reforms, including the G.I. Bill, made college education a possibility for all Americans, and this influx of historians from working family backgrounds did much to shed new light on formerly ignored or misunderstood aspects of our past. The tradition continues with the challenging "people's history" genre, which interprets the national experience in the context of the tension that invitably arises between great wealth for a few and liberty for all.

With this new approach comes an appreciation of the lives of the everyday men and women who have lived in America, hitherto quite anonymously, and who have contributed by their loyalty and labor to her freedom and prosperity. This narrative of history "from the bottom up", discovering what day to day life was actually like for "average" people, is the exciting new focus of historical study. There is no better place to find this lost heritage than in the columns of old newspapers, which are now being rediscovered by a new generation of Americans.

What was the Past Really Like?

One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over ... The difficulty is, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth. -W.E.B. DuBois, American historian, 1935

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence. -John Adams, Boston, 1770.

It is a truism that much of what we believe to be our history consists of the agenda of the faction which won the political or military contest of its day. Over time the voices of the opposition fall silent, their principles and actions become obscured or ridiculed, and they vanish from our awareness. In the newspapers, of course, these facts survive intact and unchanged. These news and opinion pieces can furnish the modern student of history with some startling new ways of understanding the rich drama that is our heritage, as participants in the world's oldest and arguably the only successful experiment in self-government. You can read of opposition to our break with England, of the widespread southern resistance to the Confederacy, of northerners' misgivings about forcing the South back into the Union by bayonet, the popular opposition to involvement in the Worlkd Wars, and so much more.

This is our real history, warts and all, preserved in the old papers, just as it was experienced by the people of the time. It can be a challenge to rediscover these forgotten facts of our national life, but an honest appraisal of past successes and failures can hardly fail to help us to understand who we are and where we came from. The small details contained in contemporary reports make history come alive, and they can provide a context in which to better understand our own experience.

It is, perhaps, especially important for Americans today to understand our past, as it really happened. There is a clique of influential demagogues engaged in what I think of as American Stalinism, attempting a revisiionist assault on our history to defame our form of government and to forge imaginary connections with their radical ideology and our real heritage. We see bandied about the bizarre theory that the Founders intended a religious government based on religious commandments - ideas that were proposed, debated, and found false long ago, revived in a new age for political advantage. Even the hoary old chestnut of "States' Rights" has been exhumed from its Civil War grave. This effort cannot succeed among an informed populace. I have interspersed throughout the catalogs quotations from notable Americans, as antidotes to false historians, and as starting points, perhaps, for readers to continue this vital study on their own.

Some General Collecting Categories

In keeping with general practice, in our catalogues of historic newspapers and ephemera we place the items within several collecting categories, which are explained below.


The inhabitants of the United States have, then, at present, no national literature. The only authors who I acknowledge as American are the journalists. They are indeed not great writers, but they speak the language of their countrymen, and make themselves heard by them. -Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1831.
The first era of American printing begins in 1639 and ends about 1830. In the latter decade a technological revolution dramatically changed the art of printing, with the introduction of iron frame printing presses and machine made papers. The earlier items are the products of a pre-Industrial Age technology, printed on wooden "Franklin" presses on papers manufactured by a laborious hand process from rags, old clothing, and other newspapers. These wonderfully collectible imprints are charming in their simplicity, survivors of a sturdy era of hard, honest work by skilled crafts people. Interestingly, at this time newspapers and magazines were largely the province of the upper classes, as their high prices put them out of the reach of ordinary people.

All items from this period are now scarce to rare. An experienced printer and his apprentices could "pull" no more than six hundred newspapers a day; a circulation of two thousand copies per issue was considered exceptional throughout most of the period. Other than the few specimens saved by libraries, by the newspaper publishers themselves, and by a handful of individuals, all these early papers and magazines ended up discarded or recycled into new paper.

American newspapers printed before about 1760 are rarely found on the collector market. Very few were printed orginally, and only a tiny percentage are still in existence. The great majority of the early dates that have survived are preserved in public collections, where they are available for inspection by historians and researchers but not to ownership by collectors. Any American imprint dated before 1700 is considered a valuable rarity.


There are published in the United States alone as many periodicals and papers as are produced in the whole of Europe. It is no matter of surprise then that America should be centuries ahead of the Old World in point of intelligence and general diffusion of knowledge. -Walt Whitman, editorial in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 23, 1846
In this category we list newspapers from the time of the "Penny Press" revolution of the 1830's up to about the turn of the century. Papers and magazines from many different states and territories appear in our Nineteenth Century offerings. All shades of opinion are to be found in the editorials of these periodicals, along with full local, national and world news reporting. The differences in the earliest issues and the latest in this period are quite startling. The true modern newspaper slowly takes shape, decade by decade, in response to improvements in reporting techniques, printing and paper making technology, and to changing social values and interests.

In this period America left behind its roots as a small agrarian republic to assume its worldwide role as an imperial power, fueled by an industrial growth unprecedented in history. Physically the nation grew from a small area of the eastern seaboard to dominate the continent. From a policy of maintaining no standing army, a huge military establishment blossomed. From the Jeffersonian idea of a limited government grew a gigantic Federal bureaucracy. From a nation of small farming towns, America became a land of sprawling cities and heavy industry. There were of course conflicting opinions over the course the nation was taking, some of which exploded into violent confrontation and the most bitter political acrimony. To read about them now as they were reported at the time can furnish the modern collector with most interesting insights of how dramatic our history has been, and how rapid, almost overwhelming change has been the norm, rather than the exception, for some two hundred years now.


In the United States every worthy citizen reads a newspaper, and owns the newspaper which he reads. A newspaper is a window through which men look out on all that is going on in the world. In our day, newspapers keep pace with history and record it. A good newspaper will keep a sensible man in sympathy with the world's current history. It is an ever-unfolding encyclopedia; an unbound book forever issuing and never finished. -Henry Ward Beecher, editorial in The Independent, 1864

The war between the states is the climactic moment of American history. Everything that preceded the war led up to it; everything that has happened since is a result of it. The titanic struggle completed the work left unfinished by the Founding Fathers three-quarters of a century earlier, giving a living and enduring substance to the bare framework of government outlined in the Federal Constitution. The war made a loose coalition of competing interest groups into a nation. By redefining the visionary truth of the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal, it transformed an assortment of diverse immigrants into one people. The preservation of the Union proved to a skeptical and hostile world that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" was not a fantasy of radical extremists, and that democracy was not always doomed to self-destruct in the nightmare of fratricidal war that had claimed previous republics. Towering above all, literally and figuratively, is the lanky figure of Abraham Lincoln, our strongest Chief Executive, who held the fragile experiment in democracy together at times only by the iron force of his will and his unshakable faith that a "new birth of freedom" for all Americans would come at the restoration of one democratic government.

The Civil War is still a living presence in the American consciousness due in no small part to the availability of original memorabilia from that time. Photography and printing were well-developed inventions that have left to us a number of original images, books, and papers of the war years; the general literacy of the combatants has left the legacy of many striking eyewitness reports of the war's events. Contemporary newspapers are a unique treasury of all these elements, offering first-person narratives of life in military service, and commentary on the social, political, and economic scenes. They are also rich in detailed reports of the great battles upon which the destiny of two nations would hinge, and, in the pictorial press, fine woodcut images of the war's events and participants. The familiar features of the modern newspaper are however lacking in Civil War newspapers. Such staples of Twentieth Century daily journalism as bold front page headlines, illustrations and cartoons, sports and comics sections, and physical size of more than four or eight pages would come into being as results of technological developments still far in the future in the eighteen sixties. Yet, the newspapers reflect the style and sensibility of their time with unique and often dramatic immediacy, and capture the very best of their era. In the newspapers too, a careful reader can trace the genesis of the myths that have replaced the realities of the war. Later interpretations have obscured many its causes and prime movers, from the common misconception that the war was fought to free the slaves, to the myth of the heroic "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy. You may also read of the strict censorship of the press, arrests of outspoken editors, and imprisonment without charges or trial of those who dared to speak out against the war policies of both regimes - all too frequent occurrences which are rarely mentioned in conventional histories.

As Confederate paper currency is famous for its abundance and low value, southern newspapers of the war years are legendary for their rarity, though they are still quite moderately priced. The South suffered from perpetual scarcity of materials; most Southern papers were printed in very small numbers on antiquated machinery on crude emergency papers that deteriorated rapidly. My best estimate is that a single rebel newspaper survives today in a private collection for every five hundred Union issues.


Our business is to get an audience. Whatever else it is, our newspaper must be excessively interesting, not to the good, wise men and pure in spirit, but to the great mass of sordid, squalid humanity. Humanity is vulgar, so we must be vulgar. -W. Scripps, founder of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain.
Modern newspapers have a unique charm and collector appeal. From the First World War and on they are virtually identical in format to today's newspapers, and they offer the collector a wide range of possibilities. Bold headline stories of notable events, crimes, disasters, or personalities are highly collectible, as are papers with good sports coverage and comic sections. The Sunday papers are especially prized, when complete with colored comic pages and magazines. Unfortunately this is the era of high sulfite woodpulp newsprint, resulting in serious condition problems for many surviving issues. Most are found browned and too brittle to handle safely. These, I should emphasize, have no value as collectors' items. We make a special effort ot obtain only the finest quality of well-preserved modern newspapers. I never purchase or offer to my customers embrittled newspapers unless they are of exceptional importance and have been archivally treated to prevent further deterioration.


Give me but liberty of the press, and . . . I will shake down corruption from its height, and bury it amidst the ruins of the abuses it was meant to shelter. -Richard Sheridan, 1794.
I feature British journalism prominently in my catalogs due to its importance to understanding American history, and because it forms a fascinating study in its own right. Our tradition of the freedom of the press is firmly rooted in English soil. Many courageous Britons risked flogging, imprisonment, and even execution to publish the news in defiance of the Crown monopoly, an example widely imitated in the American colonies, where British periodicals circulated extensively. It is worthy of note that the stirring for freedom and justice that characterized the "Enlightenment" of the eighteenth century were largely spread to America in the newspapers imported from England when our native press was in its infancy. British newspapers are also a treasury of early American news in the years before there was an American press. American news was generally sympathetically reported in all but the most conservative Tory newspapers, as Britons were waging the fight for liberty at home at the same time as the colonies were preparing for war with the motherland. The exaggerated claims of rebel propagandists -and there were many- were soundly corrected, however, in contemporary British journals; reading these articles today offers most interesting perspective on the Colonies' actual relations with Britain and how the ultimate separation was engineered.


A journalist! That means a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns, a tutor of Nations! Four hostile editors are more to be dreaded than a hundred thousand bayonets! -Napoleon Bonaparte, quoted in Journalism in the United States, 1873.
Collecting non-English language items can be a vast field of study, limited only by the collector's interests. Some of the earliest forerunners of the newspaper originated in Europe; indeed some of these ephemeral imprints are thought to antedate the Gutenberg Bible itself. The earliest proto-newspapers flourished in 16th century Germany and Holland, and in 17th century France and Italy. Many issues of the 19th century and later can be obtained quite inexpensively, when they can be found. The contrasts of the generally heavily-censored foreign press with the free products of the Anglo-American world of journalism can be quite striking.


There are also many other sub-categories of collecting interest within these general guidelines. There is no limit to them as they are, essentially, whatever most appeals to the individual collector. To cite just a few examples, there are specialty collectors in the study of Revolutionary War newspapers printed by Loyalists; Unionist newspapers printed in the Confederacy; foreign-language papers printed in the United States; American newspapers printed abroad; periodicals printed during the Third Reich; and so forth. There is no one "right" way to collect newspapers, which is one of the enduring appeals of this hobby.

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