Atmosphere versus Events – which newspaper-collecting path to tread?

May 28, 2012 by  
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The following is a guest post by blogger Chee Seng:

Newspaper-collecting is something of an oddity in the collectibles and antiques scene. That’s because it’s not the printing house – or the paper/ink – which makes a newspaper valuable to the collector. It is something more ephemeral. It’s the very words that are printed on those yellowing sheets (or not so yellowing for pre-1875 issues), and how they connect to the unfolding story of the times. In other words, it is content, not the vessel, that can elevate one newspaper above all others, in the eye of the collector.

It’s also true to say that, because that collection of news-stories, articles, pictures and adverts are a snapshot of the very essence of an historical epoch – its life-and-times, its mores and outlook – that collectors can be looking at the same newspaper with very different eyes. Some want plenty of local interest, some are fixated on a great news story, some collect certain types of coverage religiously – and some are even looking for specific writers or illustrators.

But while no two-collectors are alike, you can split approaches to newspaper-collecting into two great camps. Those who are chasing after ‘events’, and those who want to steep themselves in the ‘atmosphere’. If you want to understand the sorts of newspapers you should be collecting,
you’d do well to try and understand the different viewpoints of these two camps. It’s not just a philosophical point – chasing ‘atmosphere’ versus ‘event’ can help decide whether a paper is worth one dollar, or a hundred.

It’s fair to say that ‘event’ collectors are hanging their collecting coats, first-and-foremost, from those real big hooks in the historical calendar. Those unforgettable and universal events that are remembered long after they have happened – and often very far from their point of origin. Good examples of these mega-events include the assassination of John F Kennedy or Abraham Lincoln,
the landing on the Moon, or the sinking of the Lusitania.

The reason these big events are so important is that, for many people, who would otherwise not come close to buying a historic newspaper, they resonate a strong chord with them. Having such a bold historical headline, framed and on the wall, is a way of displaying this strong emotional connection. And because so many people are seeking out these original ‘event’ newspapers, the pent-up demand drives up the value.

And of course, much of the interest in collecting newspapers, then, inevitably follows this money. Indeed, many people are drawn into the hobby purely to see if if they can reap big rewards from the ‘events’ held in that stack of newspapers, found stored in the attic. There is nothing wrong with taking such a monetary-influenced path – after all, it sustains many collectible hobbies. But it would
be sad if your newspaper-collecting was restricted to only these mammoth events – which can be counted on fingers and toes for most countries.

This is where the second path of newspaper collecting may be found to be ‘enriching’, on a different level: collecting for ‘atmosphere’. The starting point for the atmosphere collector is usually a personal interest in a particular era. Some people are drawn to the life-or-death drama of the World Wars – where even local news-stories are set against a backdrop of that wider struggle. Others are
find the moral contrasts of Prohibition-era America, for example, with its gangsters and raids and flighty fashions, irresistible.

Following this atmospheric path gives you a lot more scope to learn a little from history’s lessons. However, this is not the history taught in the dry words of the history text books – but in the often vivid and colorful language of the local news-hack. You may also find nuggets of historical interest that other collectors may also find fascinating – and so another route to a higher-than-normal
valuation can open up.

For example, there was a particular buzz, recently, over ‘frontier rags’ – newspapers that rolled out across the frontier, as the West was opened up. Some of these papers had short printing runs, and even shorter lives, as towns boomed and bust. That makes them pretty rare and exotic, and so a lively market grew up around these.

Of course its impossible to predict trends in atmospheric collecting such as these. Far better is to follow your instincts, and build a collection around what interests you. That way a labor of love will provide its own rewards, and any financial boon will come as a pleasant surprise. And that motto makes sense whichever path – event or atmosphere – your choice to take.

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