Beyond the big, historic headline…

June 6, 2013 by  
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Some of the better & more fascinating items found in old newspapers are not the most historic or significant, but rather the casual appearance of seemingly innocuous reports which excite collecting interest beyond the historic headline or dramatic presentation which are the more usual draw.

Much of what intrigues collectors can be lost within the body of reports, yet they tell a story of their own, such as the patriotic fervor of some colonist during the Revolutionary War.  I recall an issue of the Edinburgh Evening Courant of June 17, 1776 reporting on American soldiers: “…Their uniform is a dark grey coarse linen frock, which covers the whole body…with the words, ‘Death or Liberty’ marked in large red letters on the right sleeve; and many of them are so enthusiastic as to have them marked with their own blood…“. This report is almost lost on page 3 yet its message is very telling of the spirit which caused the Americans to win the war against a world power despite insurmountable odds.

Some reports are fascinating by their bias. A Richmond newspaper’s (Daily Examiner for July 13, 1863) reporting on the Battle of Gettysburg notes: “…The Confederates did not gain a victory, neither did the enemy. He succeeded in defending himself & we failed in some portions of an attack…We killed more of the enemy than we lost; we took very many more prisoners than lost. The Confederate army did not leave the enemy until it had tried every link of his armour…” Another newspaper notes: ..Information, certainly authentic, is in the hands of the Government, which leaves no doubt of the safety & triumph of the noble army. General Lee was victorious in all the combats which have taken place. He has been engaged with the whole force of the United States & has broken its backbone…”, Perhaps the most extraordinary example of optimism appeared in the Richmond Examiner of July 25: “…The result was not a defeat, it was not a loss; it was only not a victory…It was little else than a disappointment of extraordinary expectations…”. What a precious statement as an example of Confederate optimism.

Other little gems were very prophetic in their reporting, particularly when read with an historic perspective. A Scottish newspaper from 1775 (EDINBURGH EVENING COURANT, October 7, 1775) sensed a lasting war with America as it reflected on the Battle of Bunker: “…The mischiefs which have already arisen & the greater calamities which are threatened from the unnatural war excited in America…It is impossible we can see, without the utmost alarm, preparations making for the prosecution of an expensive & ruinous war with our own Colonies…”. Some can be very recent, like the New York Times comment on rookie Mickey Mantle in 1951 (NYT, April 5, 1951): “…Mantle, who gives every promise of developing into an outstanding baseball star, was ordered to report to his draft board next Wednesday…” An editorial comment in the Army & Navy Journal of November 28, 1863, just after the Gettysburg Address opined: “…a dedicatory speech by President Lincoln, which we give in full, as decidedly the best feature of the occasion, as well as one of the most felicitous utterances of its author.” How true.

Some were prophetic even when the reports were simply wrong, like the Illustrated American article of 1898 reporting on “A New Flying Machine That Flies”–five years before the Wright brothers–when it said: “…It is impossible to imagine without terror the day when these mechanical birds, these flying apparitions, will be able to rain upon armies, hostile towns and escalating parties most deadly and most destructive explosives…”. How true it would become.

There can be much to be found in newspapers beyond the headline. What a thrill it is to discover such hidden gems; reports that have escaped hundreds of years of history only to rediscovered with new-found relevance today. Such are just some of the joys of collecting early newspapers.

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