Old newspapers: holding history in your hands
December 14, 2006
JOPLIN - Several students at Missouri Southern State University have held history in their hands over the last semester, thanks to a large collection of historic newspapers owned by Joplin history buff Allen Shirley.

Shirley, a pharmaceutical sales executive, has a degree in marketing and economics. But his job is not his only interest. He indulges a not-so-secret passion of compiling an ever-growing collection of newspapers from past centuries.

"I've always had a love of history," he says. "Of course," he adds with a laugh, "the difference between a hobby and insanity is very close."

His collection covers approximately 400 years of history. His oldest is from the year 1566 done by painter, engraver and etcher Franz Hogenberg who worked in Germany, England and other European countries in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

"It is what is called a 'broadside,' a paper printed on a single sheet," Shirley explains. "These basically were woodcarvings surrounded by a small amount of text. At the time a majority of the population was illiterate. So, rather than using words, papers told the story through illustrations."

Shirley has sat on the governing Board of the Joplin Museum Complex. Last year, Gov. Matt Blunt appointed him to the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

Dr. Paul Teverow, professor of History at Missouri Southern, has incorporated the newspapers into his most recent French Revolution and Napoleon class. Shirley provided several issues of the British newspaper The Sun, mostly from June 1794, which was the height of the Reign of Terror in France. Each issue includes lists of those facing trial by revolutionary tribunals and of those who had been sentenced to the guillotine.

"For history majors, it's exciting to get this close to the past, to be able to see and handle something actually produced during the time period studied," Teverow says. "Students can get some sense of what some people at the time were making of the events."

"Often," he continues, "they learn more details about events they've studied through textbook or lecture. Sometimes it is something completely new, such as an assassination attempt against Revolutionary leader Robespierre in 1794, or a public statement issued by Marie Antoinette in 1789 a few days after the fall of the Bastille as part of a concerted effort to regain public support for the monarchy."

Melissa Clark, a senior history education major from Galena, KS, says the newspapers provided a refreshing change of pace to the class.

"Being able to look at sources published during the 1790s gave more insight as to what was happening in France," she says. "This assignment was different than others I have done in other history classes."

Harry Leneau, a non-traditional student from Jasper, says he also enjoyed working with the papers.

"They prompted me to learn more," he comments.

Teverow says he kept close track of the newspapers.

"I kept them my office," he says. "Students would visit during my office hours and read the papers in a conference room where they could be easily spread out."

A 1692 newspaper from England is one of the few contemporary references to the Salem witch trials made by the British press.

Several newspapers from the era of the American Constitutional Convention in 1787 allow today's readers to see the events of the Convention in progress. Other papers contain letters written by George Washington, George Mason and Patrick Henry.

"It wasn't all joy and happiness at the time," Shirley says. "There were a lot of people, including Patrick Henry, who thought there was way too much power being given to the federal government."

One newspaper from November of 1863 has the Gettysburg address on one side. On the opposite side of the sheet is an advertisement for a new business called Ford's Theater, the site of Lincoln's assassination two years later.

Both Shirley and Teverow agree that newspapers in previous centuries often were not "no spin zones." They contained as much or more bias as newspapers and television news reports sometimes do today.

"Some newspapers were just adamant in opinions and points of view," Shirley comments. "Newspapers around the time of the Revolutionary War were totally biased between the federalists and the anti-federalists. Later on, abolitionist newspapers such as The Liberator in Boston were part of the media push that led up to the Civil War. Their editors were fanatical in their beliefs."

"Students can see how hard it was to distinguish genuine news stories from advertisements," Teverow comments. "In that respect, maybe, things haven't changed so much!"

Amazingly, the newspapers are not as fragile as one might think. Some of the papers from the early 1700s are as often as bright and white as papers today.

"Old paper has a very particular feel because it has a much higher cotton or lint content than new paper," Shirley comments. "Also, it doesn't turn brittle because of the quality of the paper."

"The two kisses of death are moisture and direct sunlight," he notes. "Those are two things that must be avoided. Papers from 1880 on are more difficult to keep. Many times those papers have to be sprayed with a compound to de-acidify their content."

Shirley has a copy of the St. Louis Post Dispatch the morning after the Titanic went down in the early hours of April 15, 1912. Several passengers on the Titanic were from St. Louis. At the time the paper was printed passengers had been rescued by the Carpathia. But details were sketchy. There were articles about Guggenheim, Astor and other millionaires who had been on the Titanic not knowing if they had survived or not.

He also has a small paperback of the British Review Board containing the Titanic victims listed by first class, second class, and steerage. Shirley made a copy and put it behind plastic at the Joplin Museum Complex for public viewing.

"One visitor to the museum from Michigan had an ancestor who was a photographer who took pictures of the Titanic when it shoved off," Shirley says. "He was supposed to be picked up before the ship made it to New York so he could photograph the arrival. Of course, he never made it."

Shirley has shared Civil War newspapers with local Civil War historians. His collection includes a Ft. Scott newspaper with a front page story on the Battle of Carthage in 1861. He also has a newspaper detailing Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge and other Civil War battles.

The Joplin man buys the newspapers from dealers. Many of the newspapers were originally contained in bound collections in public libraries. In the 1960s, when microfilm came along, libraries simply got rid of the newspapers rather than keep them. The newspapers were purchased by dealers who realized their historic and monetary value.

"It's my passion and I dearly love it," Shirley says. "It's hard to put a price on the collection but I see papers I have bought for 50-60 dollars, I would say are now worth $30,000 to $40,000."

Shirley says he hopes his newspapers will one day have a wider audience.

"My plan is to donate the collection to the Joplin Museum Complex so the public can enjoy and use them, possibly after transferring them to DVD. People can then see these major events didn't happen in a vacuum; they were part of things that were happening in their daily lives. People can see that it took over two months for 19th century readers to learn of Napoleon's defeat in Russia. News traveled slowly. Because of instant-breaking news, that's something that young people of today may have no concept at all."

One of the newspapers was printed the day after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Only when a reader opened that newspaper, might he or she have realized what had happened at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.

"It makes it come alive to you," Shirley says. "It's like holding history in your hands."

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