Before the Internet reduced all correspondence and information to colorless bits and bytes, paper was the medium through which one learned what was happening in the world or back home. Newspapers ran banner headlines shouting yesterday’s news, magazines published important stories about things that had occurred weeks before, and letters from soldiers in far-off lands could take months to arrive. Now we can get these sorts of communications instantly. Who needs paper anymore?
Well, one of the things we’ve lost as we’ve consigned paper to history’s recycling bin is a record of the important events and moments in our lives. By definition, the documentation produced on paper is always incomplete, lacking 21st-century givens such as audio and video, for example. But paper does give us a snapshot of how events were viewed at roughly the time they occurred. And for scholars, historians, and amateur archivists, the omissions missing in the printed record are often more important than what made it onto the page.
Newspapers are probably the bulkiest and most fragile form of paper. Made of thin, inexpensive material, newspapers were meant to be disposed of, or perhaps reused at the bottom of a bird cage, after their contents had been consumed. The ones that have survived remind us that in the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin printed and published the “Pennsylvania Gazette,” and that the “New York Times” has been around long enough to have reported both the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and the death of John Wilkes Booth a few weeks later.
In fact, death is a favorite topic of newspaper collectors, whether the unfortunate subject is Babe Ruth, President Kennedy, or Elvis. Similarly, the beginnings and conclusions of armed conflicts are in demand, as well as catalyzing events like the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But newspaper collectors also like to amass records of achievements, such as when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969 or when Harry Truman defeated Thomas Dewey for the U.S. presidency in 1948, although the most sought-after paper from that election is the November 3 edition of the “Chicago Daily Tribune,” which famously got the story wrong.
Because magazines could never be as timely as newspapers, which themselves were out of date before the ink had dried on their pages, publishers and editors focused on evergreen subjects. Photographs of naked women fit this model perfectly, which is perhaps one reason why “Playboy” is among the most collected magazines around, especially its first issue in December of 1953, which featured a centerfold of Marilyn Monroe. Other magazines deemed historically significant include a late-19th, early-20th century humor magazine called “Puck.”
Beyond these bound examples of paper are the loose pieces, which range from maps to menus, letterheads to stock certificates, used and unused ticket stubs to out-of-date brochures. Of particular interest are calendars, which assured that an advertiser’s message would remain in a home or on the wall of a business for a full year, as well as paper dolls, which had heydays during the Victorian Era and in the decades between World War I and World War II.