The early muckrakers – collecting newspapers that dished the dirt…

April 9, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The following is a guest post submitted by Edward Khoo:

People collecting old and rare newspapers will give you many different reasons for their
hobbies. For some it’s about owning a little piece of history, for others it’s a way of connecting
to important date in their life – say a birthday or marriage – to something real. For some it’s
just that wonderful sense of smell and touch you get from handling something that was meant
to be thrown away – fragile, disposable, but now wonderfully evocative.

But once you get past those initial reasons, many of us newspaper-collectors like to build our
collections around favorite themes, to give us a focus. And there’s a lot to choose from – you
can collect papers just from your local area, where a lot of the stories may have some real
relevance to the people still living in your town or county. Or you can collect on a particular
important news story, or historical theme – I know one guy who has collected editions only on
dramatic murder cases. Though maybe you should avoid that sort of collector, because you
don’t know where it’s going to lead!

For me, though, it’s the history of the newspaper journalism that fascinates me. It’s simply
amazing to be able to see how much has changed, in journalistic style, over the last 200
years – and how much has stayed the same! And the wonderful, and surprising, thing about
collecting rare and old newspapers is the fabulous state of preservation many of these copies
are still in.

You may expect that newspapers older than 50 years would just crumble in your hands –
but you’d be wrong. Although the newspapers we find when we lift the carpet are usually
yellowing and fragile – after just 10 or 20 years – back-in-the-day they made them very
differently. Most of the earlier 19th century papers were made from a type of linen, not paper,
which ages very well – so some very ancient newspapers can look almost pristine!

The period that I’m particularly interested in dates back to that century – those great
champions of newspaper journalism, who set the standard for the humbling of the powerful
– the ‘muckrakers’. That term was coined by a certain Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, who
compared those who sought to expose ‘many grave evils’ in the ‘body politic’ to a character
from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress : ‘Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no
way but downward, with the muck-rake in his hand.’

That, for me, is where journalism shines most bright – when its delving deep into the dirty
underbelly, and exposes it for all to see. We wouldn’t have a true democracy at all without
those guys. So where do you start, if you want to collect some of the finest examples of

Well, one of my favorites is a woman who was a pioneer on several fronts – Nellie Bly. Not
only was she a journalist at a time when the fairer sex was frowned upon for doing anything
except being mothers, and supporting ‘their men’ – she also broke the record for going around
the world, beating Phileas Fogg. Her journalistic exploits were groundbreaking, so owning so
me the newspaper she printed in is to hold onto social history in the making.

She really made her name at Pulitzer’s New York World, with her undercover work in an
asylum. She actually managed to get herself committed, so as to show what really went on in
the mental institutions of the time. The paper had a big circulation, so picking up copies is notinsanely hard (excuse the pun). But some of her more interesting work was on the Pittsburgh Dispatch, on which she worked as a foreign correspondent in Mexico. These papers are rarer – so naturally more valuable.

Another principled muckrakers, on the west coast this time, was Fremont Older. He wrote for
first the San Francisco Bulletin, and then for William Hearst’s San Francisco Call, at the turn
of the last century. He had a knack for getting up the noses of local politicians, such as the
corruption machine of Abe Ruef, just after the San Fransisco quake. We could probably do
with more of his ilk on today’s San Francisco Examiner!

That’s the wonderful thing about this hobby. Whatever slice of real life you’re interested in, the
rags and hacks of the past will have covered it in one way or another. By collecting those thin
sheets of typeset from the past, you’re opening a window onto how the world has changed –
and yet is still very much the same.

Edward Khoo is a writer who is proud of his language and based in one of the exotic and
tropical islands of Malaysia.