What is the value of yesterday's newspaper? In a bygone day it served the thrifty housewife as a cover for the kitchen table, or in company with its fellows of the days before as a lining for the ingrain carpet; and if the good husband was handy, it might on a winter evening be cut into strips and deftly rolled into the long slender tapers that stood in the tumbler on the shelf beside the Seth Thomas clock to be used in carrying the necessary flame from the briskly burning hickory wood fire in the air-tight stove to the wick of the kerosene oil lamp.
But in these ultra-modern days of steam heat, electric light and power, enamel topped tables, and hardwood floors, the newspaper, like the grass, "today is in the field and tomorrow is cast into the oven"; or it may find its way to the baler in the basement and presently it is returned to the paper mills from whence it came in the endless round of pulp and paper and print.
The average subscriber to that "largest circulation", which is the daily boast of every newspaper of any standing, would probably scoff at the suggestion that there is anything of real value from the standpoint of scientific history in the newspaper; and yet we know that the leading historical institutions of the country are piling up literally tons and tons of newspapers. Although their rapid accumulation presents a very real problem, if not a genuine embarrassment to every great historical library, thousands of dollars are spent annually in binding and properly shelving the newspapers of the day -- for the use of the historian of the future.
That there is trouble ahead for the historian we will admit. In his endeavors to retrace the footprints of this present age of black-face type, what is to be the criterion of the relative importance of news? Does the 120 point headline set forth public information that is twice as consequential as the 60 point, and four times the public concern of that of the 30 point? Is he to believe as he turns the yellowing pages of the Iowa newspapers that the news "Ames Defeats Iowa" was, in the public mind of the period, of twice the importance of the news that "Wartime Coal Regime Begins", while the news that "2 3/4 Beer Gets Hearing" and "Mary Pickford Divorced" was of twice the importance of the Ames-Iowa game and of six times the public concern of the war time coal regime?
How will the historian winnow out the pregnant facts that lie buried "under bushel-heaps of worthless assertion" in an age of censored dispatches, "doctored stuff", "prepared dope", private propaganda, camouflaged news, and extravagant advertising? How will he distinguish the work of the competent, independent, investigating reporter in the record of current topics and passing events from the manipulated news of the clever press agent attorney? How will he treat the deliberately scraped and sponged and overlaid palimpsests of this newspaper epoch that they may tell the true story that is there recorded?
With due allowance for the extravagant use of 120 point type, for the insidious press agent and the organized manipulation of public opinion and for all the "fecundity and fallibility which are peculiar to journalism", what is there in these great library files of daily newspapers that justifies their preservation and proper classification? Almost everything that the student of history wants. Almost everything that the student of history wants. for in spite of "slang-whanging" and editorial vituperation, and the sometimes startling results of "the carelessness of the compositors and the absent mindedness of the readers of proof", and spite of its double role of "universal advertiser and universal purveyor of knowledge", the daily newspaper is the best reflector of the times that the student of history can find.
In our own day it has become something of a vogue to speak contemptuously of the "lurid press", the "scandalous gossip" of the "brazen-faced reporter", the "incurable lying habit of the newspapers", "the millionaire-owned press", and of the "A.P." as "the damndest, meanest, monopoly on the face of the earth". Nevertheless, the daily newspaper holds the mirror up to modern society and reflects with unflattering faithfullness the life and psychology of the times. Old records, official reports of events, and the more carefully written and leisurely revised monographic and book literature give us the "cabinet picture" of the times, with head clamped in place "a little more to the right, please, and chin up", with the "pleasant expression" patiently held while the photographer counts off the requisite number of seconds, and with perhaps a final smoothing out of wrinkles in the retouching.
The newspaper, on the other hand, gives us all unconsciously the natural record of the every-day life of a community, and the snapshots of the times in working clothes -- which are always the best pictures. These pictures with all their incongruities, vulgarities, and blemishes may not always be pleasing; but they are, for the most part, "speaking likenesses" of the community, with all of its "roughness, pimples, and warts".
It is the every-day newspaper snapshot that gives us the local color in the description of passing events, the dominant passions and prejudices in the discussion of current topics, the sudden disclosure of popular temper and sentiment in the acceptance or rejection of political issues, and that "preserves imperishably the fashion prevailing for posterity to look upon with reverence or a smile". The testimony of gossipy letters and memoirs no longer goes unchallenged and the critical reviewer of historical monographs now scrutinizes the footnotes to see whether the writer has made use of the newspapers of the period.
For a concrete illustration, let us take the newspapers not of the present day nor of the remote past, but of eighty years ago in our own Commonwealth. The Iowa newspaper of 1840 was a very modest affair -- innocent of the glaring headlines of the "extras", innocent of cartoons, half-tones, the wondrous depiction of "Wilson's Boiled Ham" and "sunshine Biscuits", or the adventures of Mr. Jiggs; but we find abundant material in every four-page issue concerning the three chief phases of the life of the people which constitute their history -- the social life, the political life, and the industrial life.
Eighty years ago Iowa City was the capital of the Territory of Iowa, and the two leading newspapers of the early forties were the Iowa Capitol Reporter, the Democratic "organ", and the Iowa Standard, the Whig journal -- the Reporter being referred to, by the Standard, as the "Locofoco Rag", and the Standard being referred to, by the Reporter, as the "Whiggery Humbug". These old files of the "rag" and the "Humbug" fairly bristle with information concerning the life of the period -- the beginnings of church life, the character of the schools, the amusements, the reading matter, the follies, hopes, ambitions, and ideals of the people of the community.
We read, for example, that on two Sundays, in January, 1841, the Methodists held services with frontier camp meeting fervor in the open air near the post-office on some lumber belonging to John Horner. The Baptists with equal fervor "buried in baptism" two candidates for membership beneath the "limpid waters of the Iowa River".
The opening of a private school is noted: "Tuition per Quarter of 12 weeks $3.50. House rent, fuel, etc. 1.00 additional." There is mention of a school for Young Ladies with special emphasis on instruction in "Reading, Writing, and Mental Arithmetic. History -- Scared, Profane, Ecclesiastical and Natural. Natural, Moral and Intellectual Philosoph."
We note the laying of the corner stone of Mechanics' Academy, which afterwards became the first home of the State University. Both Democratic and Whig papers urge special training for agricultural and mechanical employment. "Agriculture", says the editor of the Reporter, "is the noblest pursuit of man and we deplore the fact that so large a part of our new country has given itself up to visionary projects of speculation."
"A course of lessons in Music" is announced "according to the Pestallozian system of instruction." A Glee Club, it is said, "will bring out a new set of glees for the approaching election." A lecture in the Legislative Council chamber on "Astronomy" is reported. "The lecturer's remarks", we are told, "were within the comprehension of th ehumblest intellect." There are notices of camp meetings, and lyceum and literary association meetings which the ladies of Iowa City and its vicinity are especially requested to attend.
The citizens are requested "to turn out and attend a meeting of the Temperance Society in the school house at early candle light". The cause of temperance wa spopular in the pioneer days of the forties, and there are many notices of meetings of the Washingtonians and the Total Abstinence Society.
Public dinners were given to honor public men, and Fourth of July celebrations held with the ladies four abreast taking their place behind the officer of the day. Cotillion figures are described and balls recorded. One comes upon many newspaper apostrophes "To the Ladies" (who were scarce on the frontier); and there was much writing of poetry.
There are records of marriages and deaths, elopements and house-raisings, and a list of river accidents and steamboat disasters. A citizen announces he will no longer be responsible for his wife Hulda's debts. There are notices of claim sales, of petitions for bankruptcy, and of the forecloseures of mortgages. In short, bits of the sunshine and shadows of the every day life of the period are recorded with an unconsciousness that gives them special value.
The political life of eighty years ago is reflected far more than it is to-day on the editorial page. This page has, as it no doubt will ever have, its problems for the student of history. In these early newspapers of the first capital he finds the Whig editor varously referred to by his esteemed contemporary as "that miserable caricature of his species", "the contemptible slang-whanger of the Standard", and "that biped of the neuter gender whose name stands at the mast head of that servile truckling organ of Whig skullduggery". He finds numerous references in the Standard to the "Bombastes Furioso" and to the "red hair and spectacles of the Loco-foco scribler", to the "hybrid politician who furnishes the wind for the Reporter", and to "the thing which says it edits that filthy and demagogical sluice of Loco-focoism, the Reporter". He finds national as well as local issues treated with uncompromising thoroughness and partisanship. He finds scorching editorials on "The Tottering Fabric of Federalism" on the one hand, and bitter denunciation of "Loco-foco Black-guardism" on the other. "Iowa" is referred to by the Reporter as "the apex of the Noble Pyramid of Democracy"; and the Standard replies, "Whew don't we blow a shrill horn". The Standard declares that Democracy leads logically to a dissoloution of the Union, to which the Reporter replies:
The Legislative Assembly meets,
and the Standard calls attention to the fact
that the "Committee on Public Printing is composed
of only four members and every one of them most bitter
and uncompromising Locos". "Nothing
good,", it adds, "was anticipated from them and
the result has precisely answered the expectations."
To which the Reporter replies that "the
people of Iowa have had enough of the yelps and whines of
the Standard puppy on the subject of
Extravagance in Public Printing."
In addition to the
"Doctors' Trust" there were those who practiced
the "healing art"; and one Botanic Physician
advertises that "the remedial agents employed for
the removal of disease will be innocuous
-Source: The Palimpsest;
Vol I No. 2, August 1920; edited by John C. Parish, published at
Iowa City by
The State Historical Society of Iowa; article by Bertha M.H. Shambaugh, page 33-46
-Transcribed for Iowa Old Press by Sharyl Ferrall, November 2005
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